In college, I’d often spend my post-brunch Sunday mornings poring over the marriages section of the Sunday New York Times. I came to Princeton as a näive teenager from Los Angeles, relatively unaware of structures of power, class, and privilege on the East Coast, and reading the marriage sections (true, from the brunch table of a Princeton eating club) was a fascinating way to learn something more about this world.
Several things jumped out to me. I was struck by how much the marriage announcements sometimes resembled corporate mergers. You’d read all about the educational and professional background of the parents, and then, sometimes only in the third or fourth paragraph would you learn how the couple met in the first place, or who they even were. Other times the main focus seemed to be on the credentialing path that caused these two souls to intercept. She was now a clerk at this District Court in New York, and he a lawyer at this white shoe law firm, and, true, they had both gone to Princeton – but it wasn’t until much later, when he was a 3L and she a 1L at Harvard Law School, that they met. Keeping track of it all was tough.
I remember the days of looking at the New York Times weddings announcements now for several reasons. On the most direct level, in past weeks several media outlets have published semi-rigorous analyses of what it takes to get your name in the wedding section; it turns out that going to Ivy League schools helps, but the strongest factor in one’s favor is working at one of the most prestigious New York City law firms.
Other writers, like those at the most excellent Grantland, have proposed drinking games, or competitive wedding-watching games: you get extra points if you can find a bride who went to a fancy New York City prep school, is marrying a banker, and (on top of that all) is teaching first through third grade at a school with the word “Academy,” “Gifted,” or an English county in its name. Articles like these highlight how, even though you’d think a wedding announcement should be the capstone to a wonderful story, how much East Coast marriages often reflect elaborate power plays, class negotiations, and some less-than-talented people finding – or being handed – jobs to maintain social respectability.
Still, there are other reasons why marriage is on the mind these days. Increasingly, or so my Facebook NewsFeed tells me, more and more friends are tying the knot. Some have already been married for some time, and I know both people in the couple quite well; others are distant acquaintances from high school about whose lives I know little. Still, it’s always interesting to see how people frame their lives up to that point of marriage, and the little changes they make to that narrative after the moment of marriage.
Most times, the couples seem happy, and, I hope, will go on to lead fulfilling married lives together; other times, however, one worries that marriage is something they’ve rushed into, often in their earlier twenties. One worries that marriage – that is, imposing a “marriage plot” onto the novel of their lives – is a structure, an institution that they’ve foisted onto an otherwise-anxious life to try to give their fluid, amorphous, twenty-something years some more structure. It’s not always that way – and it certainly shouldn’t be. Still, there’s the question of whether your tweny-something years in American life today are best spend exploring different options, finding out who you are, all while working hard, studying, and moving on up in the world. What if there’s just something about the nature of young Americans’ lives today that makes the marriage plot untenable, at least for most young lives?
These are some of the questions that bubbled up to my mind as I spent part of the holidays reading The Marriage Plot, the latest novel by the Greek-American novelist Jeffrey Eugenides. I was a big fan and reader of Eugenides before picking up The Marriage Plot, having read his earlier works The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex.
What stood out most for me in these previous two works, more than their eclectic themes – the mass suicide of girls in suburban Ohio and a Great American novel about a Greek-American hermaphrodite from Detroit growing up in the 1960s – was how attentive, interested, and engaged they were with a distinctively American suburban landscape. It’s true that writers like Jonathan Franzen, or David Foster Wallace, received a lot of critical attention for their work centered around late 20th century American suburbia as a site for their novels, but you often get the feeling, reading the talent that’s promoted by élite MFA programs and reading The New Yorker that the real action is among writers living in Brooklyn but writing about “exotic” places (read: not in the United States and preferably in Eastern Europe or the Middle East). This reader finds writers like Orhan Pamuk and Mohsin Hamid exceptional, but, at least for me, he frankly cannot understand much of the praise that went to work like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated (Ukraine), Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan (Turkmenistan), or Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife (Yugoslavia).
While I’m not a die-hard American nationalist when it comes to literature, it worries me a bit if the arbiters of taste are relentless in promoting mediocre fiction about “exotic” locales while ignoring the excellent work that gives voice and expression to an American suburban landscape equally worthy of a muse. Eugenides’ previous works did just that, simultaneously capturing the hideously morbid, depressive, but also melancholically beautiful and funereally engaging qualities of Rust Belt suburbs emerging into the 1980s and 1990s: the same kind of vibe you get from the popular photo catalogues of a falling-apart Detroit, or the cinematic photography setups of the captivating Gregory Crewdson.
So, when I heard that Eugenides was publishing a new novel, this time centered around a love triangle and twenty-somethings, all taking place in the 1980s. I had certainly been involved in love triangles before, and I was a twenty-something; but more than that, The Marriage Plot was also hyped as a meta-reflection on the decline of stable marriage plots in fiction in the 20th century, and the impact of deconstruction and theory, as they emerged in the American academy in the early 1980s, on American letters. I was interested in that, too, so it sounded great.
What did I find? To provide a brief recap without giving too much away, The Marriage Plot focuses on something of a love triangle between three graduating seniors from Brown University (Eugenides’ alma mater), over the course of summer 1982, when they graduate, to the next summer. Madeleine, the protagonist of the story, is a conflicted lover of men and literature. She arrived to Brown with the intention of majoring in English, in Literature, for the simple reason that she liked to read. She finds herself captivated with the – in a sense – simplicity and structure of late 18th and early 19th century novels, like Pride and Prejudice, in which marriage serves as a resolution to most of the problems in the world of the novel: find your Mr. Darcy, and most of your problems will go away.
But she’s also aware that these marriage plots declined as a structuring logic to fiction throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century. Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s 1905 The House of Mirth may be eager to marry the dashing Lawrence Selden, for example, but her situation collapses beyond all repair as she is vomited from high society and ends up killing herself. Newland Archer rushes to save her, maybe, but now estrangement and suicide, not a tidy marriage is the fate of female protagonists.
What’s more, as Madeleine takes more literature courses at Brown, she’s increasingly aware of the rise of “theory” and semiotics in the literature departments. Professors and graduate students, under the spell of French theorists like Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes, are arguing that literature, rather than a nice story, is nothing more than a way to promote a regime of power in society. Literature isn’t about nice lives or our dreams; it’s a way to impose an optic of domination and power on society by controlling how people think about romantic relations. Or maybe it’s asking too much to find meaning in literature or writing, anyway. What if, some of the deconstructionists ask, the notion of a stable “reader” or “author” is entirely arbitrary, and the text on a page just sort of exists there, capable of carrying only subjective meaning depending on how a subjective reader is there to interpret it?
As any notion of stability in literature is crumbling, Madeleine finds herself the apple of the eye of two other Brown students, Mitchell and Leonard. Mitchell has long had his eye on Madeleine, and since he’s a budding intellectual (religious studies) himself, they’d seem like a good fit. There’s only one problem: Madeleine likes Leonard, a gloomy, depressive, artistic-genius type whom Madeleine eventually goes in for. She puts all of her plans on hold to spend the summer with Leonard (who’s recovering from manic depression) in Providence, before following the man to a biology research institute on the Cape.
Mitchell, depressed and dejected, turns down his professors’ exhortations to allow them to write last-minute letters of recommendation for élite theological seminaries, instead works at home over the summer in a Detroit greasy spoon before embarking on a spiritual journey to France, Greece, and India, the latter to assist a professor of his “do research,” all in an effort to maintain respectability without making any real choices about employment, graduate school, romance, or life. As the novel unfolds, these three main characters embark on an intertwined journey that underscores to them how tenable or untenable “the marriage plot” is as a way to structure your life, all when dealing with the uncertainty, depression, impulsiveness, and romanticism that are a part of one’s twenty-something years.
I thought The Marriage Plot was pretty good. Much of the initial criticism I’ve read of the novel has criticized it as a let-down from Eugenides’ earlier two works, and that might be true. The parts of the novel that treat Mitchell’s journey to Europe and India feel a little bit rushed, and although the sections describing his time working at a shelter for the ill and deformed in Kolkata steer clear of the tired, cliched, Anglo-American literary theme about India being materially poor but spiritually richer than the West; about being struck by the colors and sensory intensity of the Subcontinent, this Titanic misses that iceberg only by a few feet.
What’s more, the handling of Leonard and Madeleine’s relationship at the end of the novel feels a bit rushed. The two end up not making a life together, after all, but Eugenides’ rush through the end of that relationship feels as manic as the poor Leonard he’s writing about. You might think that Mitchell ends up stepping in to save the day – I won’t reveal whether he does or not – but the handling of the Mitchell-Madeleine relationship feels indecisive at the end for me, too.
But maybe that’s the point. Reading reviews of The Marriage Plot, I’ve wondered at times how much those reviewers’ criticisms might be colored or clouded by their age. American baby-boomers are, so the stories tell us, notoriously bad at reading twenty-somethings today; what if Eugenides is actually on to something in writing about twenty-somethings through the lens of his own 1980s experience, and the reviewers just don’t get it, just as they fail to understand the psychological or spiritual life of Millenials today?
More concretely: by the end of the novel, it appears clear that the old-school, 19th century ideal of “the marriage plot” isn’t going to cut it as an ideal for how to structure young American’s love or sex lives. Some people, many of them more religiously or socially conservative than this author, might feel comfortable jumping into the ready-made roles for man and woman that the 21st century marriage plot offers them: get married at 25 straight out of college, or 18 straight out of high school, and feel grounded within what the institution provides you.
But most of the people I know don’t have lives that correspond to that model so easily. Young people are more mobile today, with friends scattered from Phnom Penh to Prague to Newfoundland, and off to a new adventure, university, or home shortly. Attempting to fit a “marriage plot” on to the 25-year-old moment of those lives is often difficult, and while some people make it work, I fear that too often, as for Madeleine and Leonard, it leads to truncated, inauthentic personalities for the sake of the marriage, and worse, broken relationships or marriages.
Indeed, sometimes, we live lives so fractured you might think the deconstructionists were on to something. Maybe, in a world where people are giving concerts in Oxford, carrying out research in China, and working as consultants – but with hectic travel schedules – that “marriage plot” has lost all meaning. Maybe it’s time to give up on imposing any sort of romantic structure to our lives the way Austen’s heroines dreamed of, and accept that our lives – like Barthes interpreted by a college sophomore said – are instable, lacking any inherent structure, and infinitely flexible. Maybe we should try to revel in that infinite legibility and flexibility without attempting to pose much order on it at all. This is how many college students living in a hook-up culture operate: marriage is dead, relationships exist for my own self-gratification not the other person’s, and I’m better served by a never-ending string of relationships corresponding to my own psychological, biological, and sexual needs at the time rather than finding that one person who completes me and lends some overriding coherence to my life.
Fortunately, I think the majority of young people I know are not so slavish to either idea – and this is part of what The Marriage Plot captures. Most of us are aware that this American life has grown too complicated – outsourced jobs, huge student debt, but also huge global opportunities and the imperative to overcome the lack of leadership of the present generation – to expect that a Mr. Darcy can sweep into to rescue us and give us coherence. Sometimes, we think we’ve found him, but our lives end up looking more like that of Rosamond and Lydgate or Dorothea and Casaubon’s from Middlemarch: relationships that are über-stressful, don’t allow us to grow, and where the creeping sense of missed opportunities or unfulfilled individual/professional potential overrides the sense of romantic fulfillment.
Eugenides’ characters in The Marriage Plot end up adopting a perhaps-sensible middle ground between hookups and the Darcy fantasy. Burned after trying to impose a marriage plot on their life too early – and perhaps realizing that even if Madeleine is a babe, they have better things to do than to chase her – they accept that life is going to somehow be more complicated than they expected, but without succumbing to the deconstructionist garbage when it comes to their personal lives.
Maybe that’s why The Marriage Plot feels like a bit of a let-down: there’s no glorious end scene in which Madeleine and Mitchell end up getting together in total, ultimate, romantic and sexual fulfillment. Rather, these are people who, while they have a romantic side, end up making sort-of practical decisions. They don’t go all in for the girl, or the guy; they enroll in PhD programs and start thinking about, maybe, applying to graduate school while they work in a meaningless job. Eugenides seems to be telling the reader is that accepting this attenuated attitude towards romantic structure and life is the best one can do in modern society. Don’t get your hopes up for a Darcy to save you, but don’t bite down too hard on the fractured line, too: moments of surprise, crackle, and shimmer are still possible.