Friday, February 21, 2014

The Marriage Plot

I have some friends who are into books and teaching English and who have been members of past book clubs and the like who are into Jeffrey Eugenides. I’ve never read a novel of his before, but when I came across The Marriage Plot at one of those temporary bookshops that appears in vacant spots in shopping centres, going cheap, I bought it, then started reading it at the airport.

The heroine is studying literature and doing a thesis on George Eliot and Jane Austen, then on the very first page it said this about her book collection, so you could say I was a little hooked:
There was, in short, the mid-size but still portable library representing pretty much everything Madeleine had read in college, a collection of texts, seemingly chosen at random, whose focus slowly narrowed, like a personality test, a sophisticated one you couldn’t trick by anticipating the implications of its questions and finally got so lost in that your only recourse was to answer the simple truth. And then you waited for the result, hoping for “Artistic,” or “Passionate,” thinking you could live with “Sensitive,” secretly fearing “Narcissistic” and “Domestic,” but finally being presented with an outcome that cut both ways and made you feel different depending on the day, the hour, or the guy you happened to be dating: “Incurably Romantic.”

It’s a novel about college relationships, so it’s a little “modern” if you know what I mean. And I don’t know that that’s altogether helpful for someone like me, who has accepted that I will probably never get married (because men never ask me anywhere, or respond with any very convincing appreciation or enthusiasm when I make any kind of “overture”, which I wouldn’t be making in the first place if the man was interested enough to do it himself) or engage in what people who manage to get themselves into relationships engage in. But one mustn’t live in a bubble, and I am enjoying this book a good deal more than similar others I have tried. (I didn’t finish The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen, because I just plain didn’t like it, and I didn’t finish Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami either, because I wasn’t that enthralled.) And perhaps I can console myself with this, written after Madeleine enters a relationship:
In Madeleine’s face was a stupidity Mitchell has never seen before. It was the stupidity of all normal people. It was the stupidity of the fortunate and beautiful, of everybody who got what they wanted in life and so remained unremarkable.
So perhaps having never gotten what I wanted, in terms of relationship, I can at least be vaguely remarkable? Somehow I don’t know. Only if reading books makes you more interesting than actually interacting closely with people does.

This book is perhaps sounding very much like “chick lit”, but Eugenides is more dense, and it comes with college students waxing lyrical about Derrida and Heidegger and what not (though there is perhaps a gentle poke at the pretentiousness involved) and interesting comments on one student’s (one of two potential heroes so far) grappling with theology.

But for now, here is a less heavy spiel on what has become of “the novel”, in explanation of the title of this particular novel, which I thought was curious, though the feminists might scream:
In Saunders’s [a college professor] opinion, the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance. In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later? How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? As far as Saunders was concerned, marriage didn’t mean much anymore, and neither did the novel. Where could you find the marriage plot nowadays? You couldn’t. You had to read historical fiction. You had to read non-Western novels involving traditional societies ... You had to go, literarily speaking, back in time.
Is this why I like and read mostly the old books? I need to ponder (though I suspect not entirely). 

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