4 October 2011

Stuck in the Stacks

  • Jeffrey Eugenides. The Marriage Plot. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 2011.

“Books aren’t about ‘real life,’” a minor character says knowingly early on in Jeffrey Eugenides’s new novel, The Marriage Plot. “Books are about other books.” He then proceeds to declare suicide “a trope.” Thurston, a student in Semiotics 211, wants to distinguish between life as it happens to us and life as we describe it in literature. Being a young, male undergraduate in a theory class, he also naturally wants to show off. Fellow classmate Madeleine Hanna, the novel’s protagonist, finds his argument “both true and horribly wrong.” Madeleine wants and needs books to be about real life—otherwise why read them?—but five weeks of semiotics have taught her that she is suspiciously naïve. Fleeing the offending class for the library stacks, she sinks with relief and “exquisite guilt” into the kind of 19th-century novel that makes her feel “safe.” It hardly matters which one she picks, whether she gets her narrative fix from Eliot or James; what matters is that, as she bathes in the delicious illusion of realism, “one sentence followed logically from the sentence before.”

In a clever literalization of Thurston’s pronouncement, The Marriage Plot is very much about other books. Eugenides announces this on the first page, in an inventory of Madeleine’s bookshelf, and as the novel progresses and the books mentioned or quoted or substantially discussed pile up, the book’s bookishness is only confirmed. A handful are described in detail. Others receive a line or two. The rest, identified only by their titles or authors, and appearing because they are assigned in class or read on a trip or talked about over breakfast, hang in a kind of haze above the narrative, adding an ambience of textuality more than anything else. In the first twenty-five pages we encounter Edith Wharton, Henry James, Dickens, Trollope, Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontes, H.D., Denise Levertov, Colette, John Updike, Theodore Dreiser, Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault, Deleuze, and Baudrillard. Later we run into Saussure, Pynchon, Peter Handke, Kleist, Woolf, Sontag, Betty Friedan, Umberto Eco, Jonathan Culler, Flaubert, William Gaddis, Joyce, Shakespeare, Faulkner, Thomas Mann, Kafka, Bellow, Nabokov, Chekhov, Tolstoy, and others.

If Eugenides’s previous two novels do not rehearse “ideas” as explicitly as The Marriage Plot does, they nonetheless share with it the sheen of coherence that comes from having an easily described conceit. Sifting through saved trinkets and souvenirs, the choral narrator of The Virgin Suicides attempts to understand why the Lisbon sisters, five mysterious neighborhood girls, each killed themselves. Middlesex follows, through three generations, the path of the recessive gene that led to the narrator’s hermaphroditism. The Marriage Plot, unsurprisingly, sets up a marriage plot, with Madeleine at its fulcrum. This type of conceit peddles easy expectations, mysteries whose conclusions will be satisfying without being revelatory, like the cadence of an advertising jingle whose harmony we can anticipate without knowing quite how it will sound. Madeleine has at her disposal two young men: Leonard, the conspicuously attractive and charismatic biology and philosophy double major and self-described basket case whom Madeleine falls for in Semiotics, and Mitchell, a moderately attractive, introspective religious studies student whom it appears she will never fall for. But we know to expect reversals in such a set-up. Which suitor, the book asks, and we obediently wonder, will she actually marry? Once she marries, how will it go? The argument Madeleine advances in her undergraduate English thesis is that the marriage plot “reached its greatest artistic expression” in those novels (like Daniel Deronda or The Portrait of a Lady) that don’t end with proposals but which follow the married woman into an unhappy marriage, and Eugenides, seeing Madeleine into and past her own wedding, stoutly adopts a similar model.

Ordinarily, the main way we think of other books informing a novel is in terms of generic convention—that which a crime novel, say, inherits from previous crime novels. We also think of influence, especially the borrowing that occurs in a large and deep sense (Ulysses’s debt to the Odyssey; Wide Sargasso Sea’s to Jane Eyre). Least importantly, we think of the epigraph, framing the story with an aphoristic nugget. The Marriage Plot has its global models, including every book with its own marriage plot, and two epigraphs: Rouchefoucauld (“People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about”) and some lines from the Talking Heads. But it is neither generic convention nor influence nor frame that Madeleine’s classmate is thinking about. Instead, Thurston is foundering in poststructuralism, in thrall to the linguistic turn, describing a world in which language doesn’t and can’t refer to any reality that exists outside of or beyond language. Even suicide is a trope. For Eugenides, that his book is so literally about other books is not only a good-natured joke at the expense of theory, but also a hopeful realist gambit. If The Marriage Plot is explicitly about other books and obvious in its engagement of tropes, can it then be more about “real life” than it would be otherwise? Real life after all includes the lives of people who put “real life” in quotes. Writing about the era when literary theory flowered into plain “theory” (and changed the shape not only of literature but of most humanistic disciplines) could let Eugenides ask some serious questions about the consequences of the cultural shift. How, say, did theory change our experience of our lives? What does the literary self-consciousness exacted by theory do—what should it do—to the approach and practices of the novelist nursed on it? 

Eugenides’s answer to the first question is wrapped, again, in a literalization. Theory changes Madeleine’s life by changing what happens to her. Sem 211 introduces her to Leonard Bankhead, the man she will ultimately marry, while one of the texts in the class, Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, both codifies the sensations of falling in love and—after she makes a tremulous declaration of her feelings—gives Leonard the exact words of rejection he needs: “Once the first avowal has been made, ‘I love you’ has no meaning whatever . . .” What Eugenides wants to do is turn philosophic ideas into narrative ideas. The idea will act as little machine, motoring the story, while the story demonstrates (or embodies or tests) the theory as the abstraction itself can’t. In response to Leonard’s gesture (he has pointed at the words on the page, not quoted them aloud), Madeleine throws the book at his head and breaks up with him. Leonard has understood Barthes’s point—that the discourse of love produces the experience of love, rather than the other way around—while totally missing hers, which is that she loves him anyway.

The effect of the idea-as-motor technique is both deeply lifelike and markedly artificial. We too experience books as things that change us and affect how we act. We too feel that books help keep us company, comfort us, distract us, and ultimately delineate if not determine our lives. By treating philosophers and novelists like so many varieties of wallpaper or tree, Eugenides extends the range of permissible fictional backdrops. And by treating theory as grist for plot he takes a stab at formal innovation. But thanks to theory we know that any opposition between ideology and experience breaks down upon scrutiny. We know that ideas can’t be so easily detached from life that they can neatly frame or handily propel it. On the other hand, we know too that all formal approaches are artificial, no single one more natural than any other, so any charge of “artificiality” should invite suspicion. And yet the aim of realist fiction is to create something that feels like reality, not something that feels like the formulas of a reference code. 

Theorists shook things up in part because their ideas implied that we needed a new kind of literature to take into account what they had found. And indeed the avant-garde writers of the sixties and seventies took the poststructuralist mood to heart, as provocations for all manner of formal and stylistic invention. What the bastardized version of the theories taught everyone else—what we were left with after the class was over, the book closed, college finished—was that nothing, frustratingly, ever meant what it said (it was too busy deconstructing itself), and that narratives weren’t to be trusted. These are unintuitive and bothersome propositions, and our protagonist won’t accept them. She knows that things must, in a basic way, mean what they say: “Since Derrida claimed that language, by its very nature, undermined any meaning it attempted to promote, Madeleine wondered how Derrida expected her to get his meaning.” She knows, too, that even attempts to deconstruct narrative can confirm it. When heartbroken over Leonard’s early brush-off she finds in A Lover’s Discourse anything but “the perfect cure for lovesickness” that a deconstruction of love seemed to promise. She understands what is supposed to happen: “If you used your head, if you became aware of how love was culturally constructed and began to see your symptoms as purely mental, if you recognized that being ‘in love’ was only an idea, then you could liberate yourself from its tyranny.” But what is supposed to happen doesn’t. Instead of liberation from love she finds only its perpetual validation. 

These scenes are funny—Eugenides’s tone throughout is appealingly dry—but the insights are hardly shattering. The Marriage Plot suffers from low-grade phoniness mainly because it doesn’t end up articulating anything very unsettling or new either about the ideas it is “testing” or the characters it is testing them on. Soon after the thrown book scene we learn that Leonard was withdrawing only because he comes from a dysfunctional family and is afraid to be vulnerable to someone as pretty and smart and all-around great as Madeleine, and that he disappears after their fight not because he doesn’t want to be with her but because he’s had a mental breakdown and hospitalized himself. Penitently convalescing, Leonard points out that Barthes thinks that at least the first declaration of love means something, and with that settled the two of them plunge into their relationship as if semiotics had never existed. Because their romance, and romance in general, behaves much like we expect it to, in the end it is only superficially that A Lover’s Discourse functions as a “motor.” Madeleine, we begin to feel, could have met Leonard in any class. He could have quoted any negative-sounding phrase about love. She could have thrown any book. 


The books-are-about-other-books conversation comes about in response to Peter Handke’s fractured 1972 account of his mother’s suicide, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. It’s satisfying, for most of the discussion, to see Thurston’s pompousness mocked. But in the middle of his speechifying he makes an important point that gets mildly obscured by Eugenides’s satire. Handke wrote as he did, Thurston argues, not in response to some empty mandate of innovation for innovation’s sake, but because he was trying to solve the problem of writing something meaningful when all available modes of expression have been ruined by repetition. Even Thurston—self-satisfied, black-shirted, oddly eyebrowless, and in love with Derrida—knows that reality is literature’s grail. He may “aspire to be a person who would react to his own mother’s suicide with high-literary remorselessness,” as Eugenides sardonically describes him, but he is not so dazzled by the formal inventiveness of high literature that he doesn’t see the truth-quest motivating it. Eugenides’s own intention is not so clear—and the question of whether he believes in the adequacy of conventional narrative approaches, the question of how seriously, if seriously at all, he takes his own character’s claim, ends up dogging his novel.

After all, it seems that the problem of writing after—of belatedness—must make Eugenides anxious, or he wouldn’t bring it up. And A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is clearly close to his heart; he wrote the introduction for the New York Review of Books reissue in 2002, and some of Thurston’s ideas can be spotted there in nonfictional form. “The most striking thing about the book is Handke’s disciplined detachment from his subject,” Eugenides remarks. “[Handke] begins with the particulars of his mother’s life story. Next he puts these into abstract form, what he calls ‘formulations.’ . . . The labor is almost forensic or paleontological, a process of gathering and comparing, of weeding out, of categorizing and grouping.” The capitalization of certain words both “calls attention to and casts doubt on” their meaning. Eugenides doesn’t mention it, but Handke’s categorizing and grouping resembles Barthes’s in A Lover’s Discourse or S/Z, and the systematizing impulse of semiotics generally. In Handke, such attempts at classification, or rather their ultimate failure, culminate in what Eugenides calls “a rigorous demonstration of the failure of language to express the horror of existence.” If Handke isn’t directly responding to (post)structuralism, he is at least writing in the spirit of its concerns.

It is not the horror of existence that Eugenides wants to communicate in the determinedly entertaining Marriage Plot, of course. Nor has he written a book that resembles Handke’s in any obvious way, though Eugenides’s schematic approach to his story displays a certain faint symmetry to Handke’s “formulations.” From the NYRB introduction it is clear that he admires the other writer, but the admiration is undercut in The Marriage Plot by putting it in the mouth of the posturing Thurston. It would seem that A Sorrow Beyond Dreams becomes an anti-example of how to proceed, if anything. And it is true that the geniality and readability of Eugenides’s novels put him in a vastly different literary camp. Sorrow is austere, autobiographical, unbearably tragic, The Marriage Plot capacious, fictional, amusing. Handke is a patently avant-garde writer, Eugenides an arguably middlebrow one. Perhaps Eugenides has less faith in his own narrative techniques than his resolute deployment of them suggests. And perhaps Handke’s presence in Eugenides’s novel communicates more than anything a discomfort about Eugenides’s presence in the world of novel-writing. 


The books cited in The Marriage Plot fall roughly into three sets, which roughly correspond to the three main characters: 19th-century novels, the classics of critical theory, and those of theology (plus a minor helping of science). Madeleine loves well-plotted romances describing an orderly world and tries to compose one with herself as main character; the manic depressive scientist Leonard upsets her own orderly world just as, we might say, semiotics upset New Criticism and theory compromised our ability to take univocal meaning for granted; while that kind of meaning is exactly what Mitchell is looking for, as he turns to religion to salve his romantic and existential confusion. If the first third of the book uses semiotics to briefly unsettle the characters’ notions of literature and love (and set the plot in motion), the rest summarily shrugs it off for an alternatingly scientific and hermeneutic orientation toward the world. Leonard, working as an assistant at a research facility, tries to cure himself of his lethargy and depression (and fix his faltering relationship with Madeleine) by going off his meds. Mitchell, traveling through Europe and then India and volunteering at Mother Teresa’s Home for Dying Destitutes, tries to cure himself of his lovesickness with spiritual renunciation. The books we hear of now are theirs. While Mitchell reads Thomas Merton, Tolstoy, The Confessions of Saint Augustine, and Interior Castle by Saint Teresa of Avila, Leonard believes he can emulate Stephen Jay Gould by making himself into a scientific experiment. 

It’s a commonplace complaint about especially intellectualized fiction that it denies the messiness and thus the reality of life—but excessive neatness just as often afflicts middlebrow representations of reality. (Everyone—the sophisticates and the naifs, the theorists and the story-tellers—wants to put themselves on reality’s side, to claim it’s the other guys who don’t capture it.) Eugenides gestures at intellectualism from the solid ground of the traditionally realist armchair, with the regrettable result of courting each mode’s neatness problem. At the novel’s close Mitchell has abandoned his frenetic pilgrimage for a comfortably neutral Quakerism, while Leonard, inspired by a mental break that feels to him like a religious vision, has left Madeleine for a cabin in the woods. Madeleine herself is on her way to graduate school to become a Victorianist, and one of her fall classes will examine triple-deckers (19th-century British novels published in three volumes) from a poststructuralist perspective. With characteristic fastidiousness, Eugenides collapses the oppositions he’s previously assembled. The scientist has a sense of something divine, the believer loses his fanaticism, and the naïve reader finds it’s possible to reconcile the literature she loves with the sexy theory that seemed to undermine its claims.  


Formally, The Marriage Plot hopes for a similar reconciliation. But its means—the invocation of books, and their attempted use as narrative propellers—are too weak. Instead of serving as the novel’s greatest virtue, The Marriage Plot’s explicit engagement with intellectual life ends up contributing to its sense of airless tidiness. And while in many ways this is a masterly book—the prose is transparent, the characters “round,” the plot expertly rendered—what should be praise can’t be offered as such, somehow. The language registers as merely practiced, the characters as too well-comprehended, the plot as dutiful. There is a troubling insubstantiality to the whole eminently plausible construction, an inability to leave a stamp or residue of the actual just where you might expect and hope to find one. At one point, as a metaphor for watching Leonard emerge from his depression, Madeleine describes the experience of reading difficult passages in books: “It was like plowing through late James, or the pages about agrarian reform in Anna Karenina, until you suddenly got to a good part again, which kept on getting better and better until you were so enthralled that you were almost grateful for the previous dull stretch because it increased your eventual pleasure.” How strange that The Marriage Plot, which might very well have benefited from its own passages of agrarian reform, remains so formally untroubled by the reflections of its characters. It is as if Eugenides hopes that merely taking theory as one of his subjects, no matter how shallowly, will inoculate the book from any charges made on theory’s behalf. This, in a world where everyone has agreed without too much dissent that poststructuralism is tiresome and avant-garde novels un-fun. The traditionally realist novel needs no defending. Why belabor the point, except out of some nagging anxiety that one is wrong? 

Image: John D. Rockefeller Library, Brown University. From David Hilowitz.

Subscribe!

It’s the right thing to do.

Sign up now to start receiving the magazine that believes history isn't over just yet.

Subscribe now »