09 April 2012

The Marriage Plotz

I just couldn’t finish it. The Marriage Plot, that is. The newest book by Jeffrey Eugenides.
The premise, I suppose was interesting, though I must acknowledge that because I didn’t finish the book my general assessment of the plot, or even what the premise might have been is severely compromised. The book concerns  . . . well, having finished better than half of the book I guess I can’t really say what the book concerned. Perhaps it was an attempt to comment on the marriage plot: how so many 18th and 19th century novels end in marriageand how during the 20th century the rise of social movements, feminism and divorce led to the decline of the marriage plot even as its remnants (as in John Updike’s novel Couples) provided some insight into the persistence of misogyny in society. Or maybe it was an attempt to write a book based in the marriage plot but given a 21st century perspective. But I thought that Eugenides’ book lacked all of the subtlety and irony of Jane Austen, or the intelligence of George Eliot, or even the social portrait of Trollope or Thackeray.
I know who the characters were: Madeleine Hanna, Leonard Bankhead, and Mitchell Grammaticus, each a Brown University graduate (though I believe Leonard took a series of incompletes as a result of having been institutionalized in a psychiatric ward at the end of his final semester and didn’t formally graduate. He does get an internship at a biology laboratory on Cape Cod, however, and I’m not quite sure how that event occurred.) Madeleine took a major in English and wrote her senior thesis on the marriage plot that eventually receives publication in an academic journal. And Mitchell (Grammaticus?) a religion major searches the world for some mystical understanding but really wants only to marry Madeleine who will not have him. I think that at the end Mitchell forgoes Madeleine, the ministry and marriage, but really I didn’t care, and Madeleine divorces Leonard.
What was explicitly wrong with the novel is that Eugenides’ characters served merely as his mouthpieces and had no independence outside of his need for them to speak for him. They did not speak; they mimicked. When the characters spoke it was in the voice of Jeffrey Eugenides informing me how wise and smart he is: he who also went to Brown University. And the choice of an omniscient narrator permitted the author to know everythingand for this author in particular to tell everything. For example, during Leonard’s decline into severe depression, Auerbach, one of Leonard’s friends asks “Where’s Leonard?” And then the omniscient narrator continues in Auerbach’s voice, “Where was the guy who could write a twenty-age paper on Spinoza with his left hand while playing chess with his right? Where was the professorial Leonard, purveying of obscure information on the history of type in Flanders versus Wallonia, deliverer of disquisitions on the literary merits of sixteen Ghanaian, Kenyan, and Ivory Coast novelists, all of who had been published in a sixties-era paperback series called “Out of Africa” that Leonard had once found at the Strand and purchased for fifty cents apiece and read every volume of? “Where’s Leonard?” Leonard asked. Leonard didn’t know.” Certainly, I never believed that this Leonard had ever existed: how could he ever be found?  Interestingly enough, the Leonard for which Auerbach searches is a biology major! But it is finally Eugenides who is being described, and the reader is meant to be impressed.
I never believed that Madeleine or Mitchell or Leonard were ever as smart as their conversation might suggest: there was never any indication that they had learned anything of which they were made to speak: of Derrida, of Barthes, of semiotics. Nobody I have ever met has ever talked with the articulateness of these college students. Not even their professors.
This novel received glowing reviews by even those reviewers for whom I have respect. I must have missed something. No, I think I missed everything.


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