Saturday, June 2, 2012

Some thoughts on The Marriage Plot

Billboard via Village Voice
Plots Familiar

The Marriage PlotI recently consumed the audiobook version of The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. I found myself popping my iPod on while doing the dishes or watering the garden, not just during my workday commute, which is always a good sign for my level of engagement with a book.

For the first time in a while, the American Contemporary Social Realist Novel felt like a genre, and I don’t mean that disparagingly: it felt snug and comforting. Here was the entire spectrum of middle class white college kids in the early eighties (so not much of a spectrum, really) talking about Victorian novelists and literary theory and religion (at other times, the narrator quotes long passages from books on these topics).

The Marriage Plot is also a campus novel and, funnily enough, a marriage plot novel – but despite all the familiarity, it is compelling and absorbing and somehow fresh.

Will this be the Eugenides book  people will be talking about in twenty-five years? Hmm, probably not. Unless Sofia Coppola turns into a film (I don’t think it’d work to well in that medium, so even that mightn't work).

The Possibility That Dare Not Speaks Its Name

Via Guardian, photo: Mel Evans/AP
At the end of the audiobook there’s a brief interview with Eugenides, which I think is a great idea and should happen more often. The interviewer asks Eugenides if he could ever see himself returning to these characters as Updike did with his Rabbit books.

Until this point (I’d only just finished the novel, so it’s not like I’d had much time to mull it over) I hadn’t considered the fact the ending was a good set up for a sequel (however icky sequels might be). The ending felt complete and satisfying in its way (partly because it wasn’t satisfying in a predicable, romantic sense – without wanting to give too much away) but it could totally be the first book in a series.

Thankfully, The Marriage Plot doesn’t feel like the start of a franchise – it’s too myopic, too whole, to entertain such thoughts. But, yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if Eugenides returns to these characters in thirty years (at which point the story would be set in 2012, so the characters will probably spend all their time reading blogs and tweeting…)

The Arbitrary Reader

Because I was listening to The Marriage Plot over the same stretch of days that I was reading Emily Perkins’ The Forrests (as a paper book), it’s only natural that I began to draw comparisons between the two books. Add to this the fact that Perkins and Eugenides appeared together at the Auckland Writers Festival for a session on ‘The Future of the Novel’, and it seems irresistible to compare and contrast.

The ForrestsIn a few key ways, you’d be hard pressed to find two more different takes on the contemporary novel. The Forrests covers the Dorothy Forrest’s life from childhood to very old age, ranging from the 1970s to some time in the near future. The Marriage Plot mostly takes place in 1982, moving back and forward a little to tell the main characters' back stories, but it’s range is hyper-limited compared to Perkins’ novel. Also, while time marches relentlessly on in The Forrests, single events are returned to in different The Marriage Plot's chapters to show things from a different character’s perspective. This might be less like how we experience our own lives, but it's something we're used to in books and can't help but make a reader feel a tad empowered.

Romance and depression (specifically manic depression) are brought to the fore in Eugenides’ novel, not just through the action presented and the characters’ dialogue, but also via excerpts from other works. The Forrests features more marriages and just as many unrequited loves as The Marriage Plot, but that all takes place off stage, just as the depression that characters descend in and out of is hinted at through their actions rather than a discussion of their brain chemistry.

And while reviewers have harkened back to Virginia Woolf with reference to The Forrests, The Marriage Plot is just as retro, though its forebears are, unsurprisingly, the marriage novels of Austen, Tolstoy and Henry James. It is no surprise, then, that the novels are so different, and why the question of THE FUTURE OF THE NOVEL is a kinda strange thing for these writers to talk about.

But which did you prefer?

Okay, pushy interlocutor, I’ll bite. I liked The Marriage Plot more, though I think it is the less ambitious book. This is very strange for me, as I tend to be very forgiving of ambitious books. (In my lighter moods I forgive my own terrible prose and cardboard characters because of the ambition that led me down that particular rabbit hole.)

I think it comes down to a couple of basic things: structure and voice.

The Marriage Plot deploys the classic love triange plot and matches it with a tertiary structure where each character gets serious page-time as the perspective character. It’s not perfect structurally. There are a few slips in perspective, when we are not looking over the shoulder of any of our three protagonists, eg the phone call between Leonard and Madeleine’s mothers. And the triangle construction fails to achieve true balance: there’s a lot of Maddy and Leonard in the same scene (from either M or L’s perspective, and some events from both), while Mitchell spends a lot of time alone, and therefore gets less screen time, even if he gets the same amount of pages from his perspective… (actually, we probably get more from his than from Leonard’s).

And then there’s voice. Eugenides’ narrator was just more engaging that Perkins’. He (I think of the narrator as a he, probably because a dude wrote the book and a dude read the audiobook) has done the hard work of figuring out what's important and is there to drag you along through the maze. Perkins' narrator is much more hands off. You have to figure why things are important, where we are, sometimes who we're even following at the time -- clearly this is a more ambitious decision, and it has it's own rewards. But for pure reading pleasure, gimme the Eugenides.

(I was pretty convinced about my position before I tried to put it into words. Now, I suspect my views will get blurrier with time. I might even disown what I've said above. So be it.)

No comments: