Jonathan Franzen. David Foster Wallace. Jeffrey Eugenides. Giant, slow-moving, serious writers, notching up about a novel per decade, all with their sights set on The Big One, The Beast, The Great American Novel. Wallace pulled it off, undoubtedly, with Infinite Jest in 1996, before ending it all by suicide in 2008 — a tragic loss. Franzen laid claim to fame — and earned himself the cover of Time magazine — with The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010). And now Eugenides, after The Virgin Suicides (1993) and Middlesex (2002), makes another attempt at literary immortality with The Marriage Plot.
And fair play to him, he throws absolutely everything at it. In comparison, The Virgin Suicides was merely audacious: a debut novel narrated in the first person plural, about the suicides of five sisters? Pah! Sensationalism. As for Middlesex — a best-selling epic hermaphrodite memoir, drawing richly on Greek myth and the nature of race, history, identity, with an incest sub-plot? Peanuts. A trifle. A set of contrivances.
The Marriage Plot appears at first both simpler and more straightforward: it’s a coming-of-age novel, an Ivy League soap opera, a campus romp. But it’s also an attempt to do nothing less than update the 19th-century romantic novel. ‘What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later?’ a character conveniently asks. ‘How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? ... Where could you find the marriage plot nowadays?’
Right here, answers Eugenides. His star-crossed lovers are three students about to graduate from Brown University in the early Eighties. Madeleine Hanna, 22, is from Prettybrook, New Jersey, which if it doesn’t exist, most certainly should. She’s Emma. Or Elizabeth Bennet. Her parents are rich, well-meaning, and worried about Madeleine’s future. She applies for grad school, and eventually decides to marry Leonard Bankhead, a brilliant polymath with a job lined up at a lab on Cape Cod.
Leonard is a hulking, tormented figure who suffers from bi-polar disorder. He’s Mr Darcy, with a touch of Heathcliff. The couple descend into the inevitable torment. Competing for Madeleine’s love and attention is Mitchell Grammaticus, a religious, sensitive type from Detroit. Mitchell goes to find himself in Europe, and then in India. He’s half-Mr Knightley and half-Philip from The Mill on the Floss.
As we all know, books are often, in a way, about books, but The Marriage Plot is actually about books. As well as the allusive plot and protagonists there are long discussions of Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, and Derrida’s Of Grammatology, and Hemingway, and Tolstoy; and Eugenides seems also to be sneaking in portraits of his fellow writers. Leonard, with his bandana, and his chewing tobacco, and his ‘long hair gathered in a masculine ponytail like a Scottish warrior’ bears more than a passing resemblance to David Foster Wallace. Mitchell — Greek-American, serious, smart — could easily be Eugenides’ surrogate. One character, Professor Michael Zipperstein, who teaches Semiotics 211, seems like a close relative of David Lodge’s Maurice Zapp.
The whole book, then, is rich and dense in colour and in tone — like a vast woven tapestry. If you look closely enough, everything is here. Europe, Asia, America. No detail too small. No incident un-noticed. ‘At a table against the wall, a girl with stiff pink hair was smoking a clove cigarette and reading Invisible Cities.’ Irony is everywhere. A minor character, Billy, is skewered in just a few sentences:
Killing the father was what, in Billy’s opinion, college was all about. ‘Who’s your father?’ he asked Madeleine. ‘Is it Virginia Woolf? Is it Sontag?’ ‘In my case,’ Madeleine said, ‘my father really is my father.’ ‘Then you have to kill him.’
Understandably, Madeleine often flees to the college library to find a good novel to read:
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 19th-century novel. There were going to be people in it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world.
An innocent pleasure.