Monday, February 24, 2020

the last book I read

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Madeleine Hanna is a student at Brown University in the early 1980s, studying English literature and with a particular interest in the "marriage plot" of the book's title: basically the way many 19th century classics are structured to bring the female heroine and her true love together at the end of the novel after subjecting them to various tribulations and challenges that nearly (but, in the end, not quite) thwart their evident destiny to be together.

It just so happens that Madeleine is involved in a love triangle of sorts (I know, what are the chances): between tall, intimidatingly intense and intelligent biology student Leonard Bankhead (who I pictured as looking a bit like Adam Driver, although one theory has it that he was based at least partly on David Foster Wallace), and theology student Mitchell Grammaticus. It's really only a sort of love triangle, though, because Madeleine and Leonard enter into a relationship that lasts beyond graduation and into the early stages of their respective post-graduate activities: Leonard does a stint at a lab in Cape Cod as a post-graduate placement and Madeleine accompanies him while applying for her own placements to further her English studies. Meanwhile Mitchell embarks on a lengthy period of travelling in order (presumably) to both Find Himself and forget about Madeleine; this takes him through Europe and on to India, where he finds himself working in Mother Teresa's Calcutta hospice, where he experiences some conflict between his religious inclinations and the grinding day-to-day realities of caring for the elderly and terminally sick, in particular the sheer amount of arse-wiping involved.

Back in New England Madeleine and Leonard are still together, but experiencing some difficulties, principally because of Leonard's increasingly crippling bipolar disorder (this being the 1980s it was still known as "manic depression" at the time). During manic episodes he is voluble, given to extravagant gestures of generosity and irrepressibly horny, while during depressive episodes he can barely leave his chair, puts on weight, neglects basic personal hygiene and expresses no interest in Madeleine whatsoever. Needless to say this makes his pursuing a career difficult, Madeleine's pursuing her studies difficult (since she is reluctant to leave him at home alone) and causes tensions with Madeleine's parents, with whom they end up staying for an extended period while looking for somewhere to live in New York.

Eventually things come to ahead after a trip into Manhattan to view a flat - Madeleine and Leonard and Madeleine's friend Kelly (who works for the real estate firm letting the flat) drift on to a party afterwards where they unexpectedly run into Mitchell, recently returned from India. Shortly after Leonard decides it's time to stop being a burden on Madeleine, hops on a train and disappears from her life (though it transpires he has gone to live in a remote cabin somewhere near his own parents' place in Oregon). Mitchell, after sofa-surfing with various friends in New York. ends up staying in Madeleine's parents house for an extended period. Here, surely, is his chance to make his move on Madeleine and round off the plot on a satisfying Austen-esque way. But is it what either of them really wants?

If you read a lot of fiction you'll end up reading quite a lot of books that specifically have A Point that they want to make and arrange the actions of their central characters to illustrate that point. Then there are novels like this, which just introduce you to some characters, fill in some detail to make them come alive for you and make you care about them a bit, and then tell a story about them. Getting all agitated about this sort of novel and saying: yes, but what's it for? is probably to miss the point of what novels are meant to be. That's not to say that there is literally nothing to take away from this beyond the story: it's very good on the relentlessness of mental illness and the reality of it not, in general, being a thing that people magically "get better" from, regardless of how much better and more convenient that would be narratively. Oddly, the only other novel I can remember reading that realised this quite so vividly was Kingsley Amis' Stanley And The Women, which was very good (and surprisingly sympathetic) about Stanley's son's schizophrenia, while being corrosively uncharitable about just about everything else.

The other thing that The Marriage Plot is is a book about books. So Madeleine's studies involve her reading a lot of books (something she does recreationally anyway, naturally) and a lot of books about books, and books about how to read books (Derrida and Barthes feature highly here). So there is a light veneer of metafiction here, something that becomes a little more archly explicit in the brief epilogue where Madeleine and Mitchell subvert the obvious romantic conclusion to the novel by talking about it in theoretical terms instead. It's not exactly a breaking of the fourth wall, as neither of them actually addresses the reader explicitly, but it feels a bit like it.

This is Eugenides' third and most recent novel; at three in 27 years he's not exactly prolific (The Marriage Plot was published in 2011 and remains his most recent novel). I read its immediate predecessor Middlesex, which was garlanded with multiple awards including the 2003 Pulitzer Prize, and enjoyed it very much, probably more than this one to be honest. Not that there's anything wrong with The Marriage Plot, and I enjoyed it very much, just that Middlesex had a - if you will - plot that had a bit more heft and significance to it. I suppose The Marriage Plot felt, like Middle England, a bit white and middle-class in comparison.

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