KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

Books

Review: A plot thickened? Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot

by Estelle Tang , December 21, 20111 Comment

It has been a long wait between books for fans of Jeffrey Eugenides: his door-stopper of a novel Middlesex won the Pulitzer Prize back in 2002. However, readers hoping for a similar multi-generational epic will be surprised by The Marriage Plot. Middlesex was a clever queering of the familial saga/generational epic, while this novel is a self-consciously conventional,  ‘straight’ narrative.

It’s the eighties, and a cast of bright, go-getting young Ivy Leaguers are on the verge of graduation. The three central characters are each getting to grips with Derrida’s theories of deconstruction while also attempting the even more complex business of deconstructing their desires. Madeleine, the novel’s archetypal ingenue, is an English major from a prosperous family in New Jersey. Mitchell and Leonard (essentially her suitors) study religion and science respectively and hail from humbler backgrounds. So far, so standard. But, this being the 1980s, and the height of the trend for post-structural and postmodern philosophy, Eugenides has Madeleine write her senior thesis on the ‘marriage plot’: the narrative principle of so many nineteenth-century novels, in which the author’s objective is to marry off the characters.

Regrettably, the reader never learn much about how or why Madeleine values the classic Victorian romances, although the title for her final essay is a killer: ‘I Thought You’d Never Ask: Some Thoughts on the Marriage Plot’. What is made clear by Madeleine’s interest in the nineteenth-century novelists is that she feels unprepared for adult life in the hard-edged, deconstructionist 1980s.

No matter how is might differ from his other works, The Marriage Plot is about what Eugenides’ books are always about: the drama of coming of age.

The love triangle that develops between Madeleine and the two men is utterly predictable, deliberately so. The adoring Mitchell is, as Madeleine recognises, the ‘smart, sane, parent-pleasing boy’ she should choose, but it’s the charismatic and complex Leonard to whom she is drawn. To Eugenides’ credit, he takes these stereotypes in some interesting directions. Mitchell, for instance, is not only sensitive and devoted but also arrogant and egotistical. Leonard, who veers from manic highs to desperate lows, is also the novel’s most honest and therefore most vulnerable character.  The novel plays with the concept of convention, both social and novelistic, and Eugenides works hard to imbue his central characters with the vitality and sensitivity of early adulthood – the struggle to understand the expectations we have of ourselves and that others have of us.  At his best when it comes to young love, Eugenides – as was the case with his first novel, The Virgin Suicides – captures the sexuality of his characters vividly and convincingly.

Yet The Marriage Plot is a less striking novel than the author’s previous work, and fails to leave the same lasting impression.

In part, I suspect, this comes from the impression given by the title – that the novel’s principal theme, marriage, will also be the subject to which the author can apply the best of his literary talents. However, it is not marriage but religion and manic depression that prove to be the most prominent (and interesting) of the novel’s concerns. After graduation Mitchell decides to go to India on a spiritual pilgrimage. He joins the volunteers working with Mother Teresa only to find himself unable to fully relinquish his ego. Leonard also struggles with his inner demons: a crippling manic-depression that leaves him delusional. For both young men the possibility of outrunning the self is a much desired but impossible outcome.

The book has generated some interesting speculation on the inspiration for the two male leads. Eugenides has spoken of his own experiences volunteering in India in the eighties, and any reader familiar with the late novelist David Foster Wallace will find plenty to recognise in the character of Leonard. Like Wallace – both brilliant and depressed – Leonard also loves philosophy, chews tobacco and (against the better judgment of all) wears a bandanna.

Eugenides has said that this last feature was simply an attempt to tap into the spirit of the eighties: a reference to Axl Rose, in particular. As an explanation, it fails to ring true, particularly because Eugenides is not the sort of writer to opt for cheesy, lazy signposts like these. Eugenides’ subtle strength is his ability to capture the recent past in a gentle but evocative way. The Marriage Plot, for instance, situates the reader in a contemporary American landscape yet untouched by email, mobile phones and social networks, but which doesn’t work hard to make this point. If anything, it is the similarities rather than the differences between now and the 1980s that are striking: insecurity greets college graduates, jobs are hard to come by and moving back home to live with parents is a popular fallback option.

Even at his most conventional, Eugenides is a moving and affecting writer. The Marriage Plot turns out to be a sort of modern-day variation on those old-fashioned narratives by Henry James and Jane Austen, the twist being that the love story doesn’t wind up confirming the value of a heterosexual union but rather the enduring value of the novelistic form.

Dr Caroline Hamilton is a researcher with the Publishing and Communications program at the University of Melbourne. She has a special interest in contemporary American fiction and has written a book about the American author and publisher, Dave Eggers, entitled One Man Zeitgeist.

 




  • Pirjo Heinonen

    I’m about half way through the book and can totally relate to the above review. A minor point, but can anyone spot the editing error in the first third of the book? (Clue: to do with the balloons released during graduation).

West Bank

David Donaldson

Whitewashing occupation? Bill Shorten and the Israel Lobby

Racism and military occupation have no place in the modern world, and are certainly not something looked upon favourably by a majority of Australians. Yet while apartheid, for example, has become a byword for shame and racism, the Labor Opposition leader feels comfortable asserting that some Israeli West Bank settlements are legal. Read more »

Tony Abbott

David Donaldson

Abbott and Brandis’ culture war backfires

What is supposed to happen in a culture war is that conservatives use a controversial issue to drive a ‘wedge’ through the left, forcing a split between factions. In Australia, this usually means pitting Catholic unionists against their socially liberal colleagues in the Labor party. Read more »

climate change

David Donaldson

Australia is going backwards on climate policy

During the Howard years, it was usual for Australia to be awarded ‘Fossil of the Day’ by climate advocacy groups whenever it attended a climate negotiation conference. The award signifies the country that had done the most to hinder climate change negotiations, and Australia has won a pile of them. Read more »

Zoe Pilger

Carody Culver

Girls, eat your hearts out

Middle class hipsters, conceptual artists and third-wave feminists have long been easy targets for mockery, so I admit that I wasn’t expecting anything too groundbreaking when I picked up Zoe Pilger’s Eat My Heart Out, a satirical romp through contemporary London that reads like a surreal mash-up of Broad City, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Less Than Zero. Read more »

Laika, Astronaut Dog

Carody Culver

Houston, we have a fabrication

As someone who doesn’t have children, I’m no less resistant than any of my book-loving friends-with-kids to the charm of a beautiful picture book. So when I spotted Laika: Astronaut Dog by writer and illustrator Owen Davey, with its charming retro-style artwork Read more »

& Sons

Carody Culver

WASPiration: David Gilbert’s & Sons

As someone who’s always secretly aspired to being a WASP (before you mercilessly judge me for this, I should clarify that my desire has less to do with attaining elevated social and financial status than with being able to dress like a character in The Great Gatsby Read more »

American Pickers

Julia Tulloh

Eccentric junk collectors held high on American Pickers

The History Channel’s American Pickers, currently in its sixth season, is one of the most relaxing and enjoyable reality series on TV. It’s not a competition show, it doesn’t exist to objectify people and it isn’t particularly dramatic. So what’s the appeal? Read more »

Justin Timberlake

Julia Tulloh

Pleasantly forgettable: Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience

On 7 March this year, tickets went on sale for the Australian leg of Justin Timberlake’s latest tour, ‘The 20/20 Experience’. All five shows sold out in a few hours. The same day, five new shows were released, with most tickets for these rapidly selling out too. Read more »

BuzzFeed

Julia Tulloh

BuzzFeed quizzes understand me

If you use social media regularly – Facebook, in particular – you’ll have completed a BuzzFeed quiz during the past month. Don’t deny it. Even if you didn’t share your results online, deep down you’re still feeling smug because the ‘What Should You Actually Eat For Lunch?’ quiz confirmed that eating ice cream was, in fact, an appropriate meal for your personality type. Read more »

The Lego Movie

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Nostalgia and today’s family-friendly films

Hollywood has always known the adults are watching alongside the kids, and that to push a film into record profits (as Lego looks set to do with a global box office of $428 million and counting), you need to appeal to ‘kids of all ages’. Read more »

nympho-poster

Rochelle Siemiennowicz

Weirdos on screen: Noah and Nymphomaniac

There are some filmmakers you’ll follow into the dark, no matter how bad the buzz is about their latest work. For me, naughty boy Lars von Trier (The Idiots, Breaking the Waves, Dogville, Antichrist, Melancholia) and strange kid Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan) are two filmmakers who can be loved or detested, but never ignored. Read more »

planes

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Notes from a plane

There’s an art to choosing the right film for every particular occasion, and as I nervously sit in a Qantas jet about to take off on a four-hour flight from Melbourne to Perth, the choice seems very important indeed. Read more »

Samsung fingers

Connor Tomas O'Brien

‘Fooled’ by technology

As I browsed the web last Tuesday, something struck me: tech companies can no longer pull off compelling April Fools’ Day hoaxes because there’s no longer even the thinnest line delineating sincerity from spoof. Read more »

wifi

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Flight 370 and gaps in the internet

On Twitter the other day, sandwiched between a slew of links to articles about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, somebody tweeted a link to the website for Tile, a Bluetooth-enabled device that can be attached to physical objects, enabling them to be located within a 150-foot range. Read more »

IMG_3267

Clipped: What would Susan Sontag say about always-on cameras?

As I write this, a tiny camera clipped to my shirt collar is silently taking a picture every thirty seconds. At the end of the day, I will plug my Narrative Clip into my MacBook, and it will upload half a gigabyte of images to the Cloud. … Read more »

Young Adulthood Books

Danielle Binks

The young adult books of my young adulthood

In March, Penguin Books Australia rereleased Melina Marchetta’s first novel as part of its Australian Children’s Classics series. Looking for Alibrandi was first published in 1992; the first print run sold out in two months, and Marchetta’s debut went on to win the Children’s Book Council of Australia Children’s Book of the Year Award. Read more »

When You Reach Me

Danielle Binks

A children’s lit prize of one’s own

Earlier this year, Readings Bookstore announced the creation of The Readings Children’s Book Prize. The eligibility criteria for the 2014 Prize was specified as ‘a work of published fiction, written for children aged 5–12’. Read more »

The Fault with a Sick-Lit Debate (1)

Danielle Binks

The fault with a sick-lit debate

American author John Green’s young adult (YA) novel The Fault in Our Stars has been a bestselling juggernaut since its release in 2012. Green’s book was somewhat inspired by his friendship with Esther Earl, whose posthumous memoir This Star Won’t Go Out was released in January this … Read more »

music theory

Chad Parkhill

Do music critics need music theory?

Canadian musician Owen Pallett – the man who arranged the strings on Arcade Fire’s albums, co-wrote the soundtrack for Spike Jonze’s Her, and has a bunch of wonderful solo albums – can now add another feather to his cap: that of an engaging music writer. Read more »

Tune Yards

Chad Parkhill

Drips, leaks, and spurts

I’ve spent the last two weeks in a state of perpetual excitement – musically speaking, that is. First came tUnE-yArDs’ new song, ‘Water Fountain’, a joyous, riotous explosion of colour and movement. Then Swans released ‘A Little God in My Hands’, a seven-minute epic of a track … Read more »

Grandma photoshop

Chad Parkhill

Singing out

My maternal grandmother, Merilai Lilburn, recently died in a nursing home in Katikati, New Zealand, of complications arising from pneumonia. She was 82 years old. At the time of her death, I and the other members of our extended family based in Australia Read more »

Community

Stephanie Van Schilt

Diary of a lurker: TV and Twitter

At the end of last month, global information provider Nielsen announced that Australia was to become the third country in the world with the ‘Nielsen TV Twitter Ratings’ service. According to a Nielsen Company press release, the Nielsen Twitter TV Ratings are ‘the first-ever measure of the total activity and reach of TV-related conversation on Twitter’. Read more »

Broad City

Stephanie Van Schilt

Funny Broads

‘All comparisons between Girls and Broad City should be hereto forth banned from the internet.’ I agree with Katherine Brooks. Yet the comparisons continue, ad nauseam, mostly following one of two lines of thought. Read more »

The Carrie Diaries

Stephanie Van Schilt

‘Alive Girl’ TV: The Carrie Diaries

Get ready to feel old: it’s been ten years since the final episode of Sex and the City aired. I’m not talking about the first episode back in 1998, but the final episode – the one before the two questionable movies were released. Read more »