Every novel by Jeffrey Eugenides reads as if it were repudiating the one that came before. His second book, Middlesex, published nine years after his first, was a sprawling, intergenerational tale told in the capable and likable voice of a hermaphrodite named Cal; whereas The Virgin Suicides, his 1993 debut, was a dark, compact novel narrated in a highly stylized, formal register by a chorus of neighborhood boys turned middle-aged men. A sample size of two is hardly enough to indicate a pattern (or the lack of one), but with the publication of The Marriage Plot (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 416 pages, $28.00), one notices immediately how much it differs from those earlier novels, both of which suggest the story and the tone up front, on the first page, in the first sentence. Behold the beginning of The Virgin Suicides:
On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.
Middlesex, by comparison, starts off rather colloquially, the phrasing less serpentine, more direct:
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.
The opening of The Marriage Plot is just as telling, though it might not seem so at first:
To start with, look at all the books.
And that’s it. Eight words, one syllable each. A first sentence that is very short and very plain. Instead of suicide or sex-change we get … books. The rest of the novel follows from this premise, from this line forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer—you get the idea. Because this novel is as much about books as it is a return to “the marriage plot” in so many of them, which makes this the most meta-fictional of Mr. Eugenides’s work, yet also the most conventional.
The story revolves around three college friends: Madeleine Hanna, a pretty, privileged young woman who must decide between Leonard Bankhead, wearer of David-Foster-Wallace-style bandannas and sufferer of manic depression, and Mitchell Grammaticus, whose old-man attire, relative mental stability and obvious interest in Madeleine makes him less alluring than his brooding rival. Both men woo her and mistreat her by turns. She follows Leonard from Providence to Pilgrim Lake (where he has a fellowship to study, appropriately, the mating habits of yeast), but she can’t get Mitchell out of her mind. Whom does she love? Whom will she marry?
So far, so ordinary. But wait: The Marriage Plot takes place in the early 1980s, when Derrida was the rage. Sure enough, Madeleine met Leonard in her last year at college (an institution clearly based on Brown, Mr. Eugenides’s alma mater), in a semiotics seminar that Madeleine, student of the Victorian novel, took despite herself, feeling the need for a “critical methodology.” She had already taken an honors class on “The Marriage Plot: Selected Novels of Austen, Eliot, and James,” in which she learned that “the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot.” Such novels, according to her professor, could be written only “in an age when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money,” and therefore the marriage plot can no longer exist. But clearly The Marriage Plot has a marriage plot. Let the meta-fictional games begin!
Mr. Eugenides, however, seems to have little interest in playing along, with all of the experimental gamesmanship that would entail. Instead he takes up the challenge in earnest: to write a sincere novel about love and marriage at a time when such a creature is supposed to be impossible. The students talk about Eco and Derrida in the semiotics seminar, Madeleine reads A Lover’s Discourse by Barthes, but The Marriage Plot makes no formal concessions that would divert it from its decidedly realist path. The meta-fictional elements seem to serve mainly as proof that Mr. Eugenides is in full consciousness and control of what he’s doing, to be tossed aside once his post-structuralist bona fides have been established. Madeleine’s distrust of all that phenomenology/intertextuality stuff appears to reflect something of the author’s own:
After getting out of Semiotics 211, Madeleine fled to the Rockefeller Library, down to B Level, where the stacks exuded a vivifying smell of mold, and grabbed something—anything, The House of Mirth, Daniel Deronda—to restore herself to sanity. How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative! Madeleine felt safe with a nineteenth-century novel.
Much of what we learn about Madeleine is captured here, in this paragraph, in which her love of narrative makes for reading habits so furtive she might as well have hidden her Daniel Deronda in a brown paper bag. Mr. Eugenides could have pushed against Madeleine’s innocence—if not upending it, then at least complicating it, showing how such a sweet trust in logic and narrative can make for darkness as well as light. But the rest of the novel suggests that Madeleine is right to seek refuge in old-fashioned storytelling, for deconstruction is presented only as a destructive force: even Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, the one book on her semiotics reading list she actually enjoys, becomes a source of unpleasantness and heartache, when Leonard points to the text to show how her declaration of love “‘has no meaning whatever … ’” Despondent, Madeleine later debases herself by joylessly servicing a pretentious, condescending classmate named Thurston Meems from Semiotics 211: “The wrongness of it was immediate. It went beyond the moral, straight to the biological. Her mouth just wasn’t the organ nature had designed for this function.” In The Marriage Plot, post-structuralism is an affront to nature that brings nothing but bad blow jobs and broken hearts.
Madeleine graduates about a third of the way into the novel, after which post-structuralism is banished and narrative reigns—skillful, elegant narrative that takes the characters from point A to B to C. The sex—red-blooded and American, rather than effete and Continental—gets better for Madeleine, though I began to long for the clinical detail with which her distaste for Thurston was described, especially when Mr. Eugenides whips out overheated words like “girth” and “inner sheath.” But the prose is otherwise so lucid and polished that it would be churlish to find fault with it, except to say that such lucidity and polish is characteristic not only of the sentences but of nearly everything else in this novel, which reads as if lucidity and polish were not just an aesthetic but an ideological point of pride.
To be sure, the men have their moments of tortured self-doubt, as Leonard gets manic after cutting down on his meds and Mitchell has a spiritual awakening that takes him to and from Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying in Calcutta. Madeleine, for her part, becomes “aware of the capacity in herself for a helpless sadness not unlike clinical depression” (the epiphany comes after some boy trouble). But their seeking takes them toward narrative, toward clarity, whereas it’s the devils of mental illness and lofty theorizing that lead them astray. A minor female character is presented as particularly unlikable for being enamored of French feminist theory; this woman (an annoying American in Paris, bien sûr) functions mainly as a cartoonish “critic of patriarchy” who spouts out self-righteous, humorless platitudes that do nothing other than make Mitchell feel bad and make her look worse. Some of Mitchell’s classmates, in thrall to post-colonialism, believe “that Western religion was responsible for everything bad in the world,” and Mitchell valiantly makes an impassioned case for the defense. Although The Marriage Plot is decidedly a love story, the insertion of so many antipolitical sentiments inevitably has some political implications. The overall sense one gets from this novel is that the West, besieged by the fashionable isms that gathered momentum during the ’70s, has gotten a bum rap.
All of which makes The Marriage Plot so conventional a novel that it’s thoroughly bizarre. In his earlier works, Mr. Eugenides has shown a marvelous talent for excavating the darker recesses and ambiguities of American culture: Cal in Middlesex feels confined and confused by gender and family, in all of their fluidity and finality; the sisters in The Virgin Suicides kill themselves for reasons ultimately unknown. The Marriage Plot harbors no such secrets, which renders it more opaque than its predecessors, for guilelessness in a novel can conceal more than it reveals. The Virgin Suicides’s sisters, whose lives are described only through whatever glimpses the neighborhood narrators can discern, are richer, rounder characters than The Marriage Plot’s Madeleine, who is a bland figure of smooth surfaces. With Madeleine Hanna, what we see is what we get.
There are several moments when Mr. Eugenides makes gestures to the larger problems a young woman might face—Madeleine is dismayed by the arrogance with which Bobby Riggs jumped the net as if he hadn’t just lost the match to Billie Jean King; Madeleine’s older sister warns about the old-fashioned gender inequality that can poison even the most modern of marriages—but, like the litcrit theory the young heroine abhors, they are treated more like nuisances to be duly noted than the stubborn impasses of a genuine struggle. Even Madeleine’s own marital problems are sad without ever seeming tragic; the alternative to marriage for this bright, 22-year-old woman with an Ivy League degree and wealthy, supportive parents is just a bit more time spent in her cozy childhood bedroom, with its Madeline-papered walls.
What Mr. Eugenides is clearly striving for here is a reinvention of the marriage plot for a different age, though I suspect a number of female authors writing in the genre known as “chick lit” would lay claim to having done just this already. If the question, then, is one of literary credibility, it would be a bitter irony if, at a time of so many marriage plots conceived by women, the one that ends up getting the most critical accolades is the one written by a man.