So much has already been written about the gossipy back story to The Marriage Plot – is Leonard Bankhead really David Foster Wallace, is Mitchell Grammaticus Eugenides himself, is Madeline Hanna in actual fact Jonathan Franzen? – that it is easy to forget what really matters here. Is the successor to Middlesex actually any good? The answer is almost. Almost very good indeed.
Coming nine years after the Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex, The Marriage Plot, like Freedom – Franzen’s follow up to the The Corrections – has a lot to live up to. Like that book it almost achieves the near-impossible and betters its predecessor; only to fall spectacularly short at the final hurdle. Like Freedom, which turned to Tolstoy for inspiration, The Marriage Plot takes the Franzen-Eugenides brand of hysterical realism further into traditional realism and further and further away from the post-post-modernism of Foster Wallace. While there was a sense in Middlesex and The Corrections of the traditional novel being made anew by the creation of a sort of realist novel written by a post-postmodern mind – the much touted hysterical realism – there is a sense in Freedom and especially so in The Marriage Plot of these being unabashedly realist novels with little or no room for stylistic innovation.
What this means practically for the reader is that the prose is not as well written. That you fall over clichés you just don’t expect to find in contemporary literary fiction. Indeed you are tempted to think at first that there must be some deliberate conceit behind it but by the end of The Marriage Plot you can be left in no doubt that some of the prose on display is simply lazy. What you would expect in return for this sacrifice is a perfectly constructed novel – not least given that strident ‘Plot’ in the title – and this is a bargain the reader is likely to be happy to have made for the first two thirds of the novel which are fast-paced, romantic, insightful and, quite frankly, incredibly enjoyable to read.
Where Eugenides really excels is in psychology. He understands why people do the things that they do but not only this, he understands these things in a very warm-blooded, attached as opposed to detached, sort of way. By way of example if we look at another recent autobiographical novel which harked back to its author’s youth, Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow, we find a set of teenagers and early-twentysomethings behaving and speaking in ways in which teenagers and early-twentysomethings have clearly never behaved or spoken in (at least you would certainly hope not.) The Amis of twenty years ago would probably have got it right but the Amis of now chooses to merely use his characters as ways of illustrating his theories about teenagers and early twentysomethings in the late sixties. Whereas Eugenides writes about university life in the early 1980s (when he, Franzen and Foster Wallace were all students), in a voice which is remarkable for its empathy and lack of condescension.
Indeed it is in the characters of Mitchell, Madeleine, and Leonard that the novels real achievement lays. You can’t really fault Eugenides’ ambition or quality as he attempts and manages to deliver not one, but three psychologically realised, multi-dimensional characters. In Madeline we have, alongside Patty Berglund in Freedom, another one of those rarities in would be-Great American Novels: a fully realised female central character. Madeleine, unlike the wounded, all-too-human Patty, is a character who it is easy to like but not to love; perhaps because she has had so much handed to her on a plate; from good looks and intelligence to wealth and doting (albeit over-doting) parents. Her biggest life-crisis is falling in love with and marrying a man with manic depression – Leonard – that, and having pushy, status-obsessed parents, who it would be fair to say do appear to mirror a milder, decidedly less monstrous version of the typical Franzen family.
But it is only really on this count that Madeleine fulfils the Franzen role. The argument that Leonard stands in for Foster Wallace is much more convincing given his bandanna-wearing, tobacco-chewing, self-evident genius; to say nothing of his battle with manic depression (of which Eugenides gives a deeply engaged account.) Whether the Foster Wallace-connection is merely coincidental as Eugenides claims, Mitchell is clearly – and much more so than Cal in Middlesex – a portrait of the author. Like Eugenides he takes religious studies at Brown, is a Greek-American from Detroit and is a huge admirer of JD Salinger, so much so that he ends up volunteering with Mother Theresa in India partly as a result of his obsession with the ‘Jesus Prayer’ in Franny and Zooey.
It is worth mentioning Salinger because for all the references to other writers in a novel that begins with the sentence:
To start with, look at all the books.
Salinger is, as in The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, the key influence, something which, in his frequent allusions to Franny and Zooey, Eugenides makes clear. Given the novel’s title, and Madeleine’s admiration for Jane Austen, it might have been assumed that Austen would be to The Marriage Plot what Tolstoy was to Freedom but this is really a blind alley in a novel which ultimately seems determined to prove that marriage plots don’t work anymore.
Eugenides simply has a lot of the same characteristics as Salinger. The gift for pared back, deceptively simple poetry. The complete absence of condescension towards his characters. As with Salinger you get the sense that Eugenides is absolutely on his main character’s side; that he has no interest in maintaining a Nabokovian God-like distance from them; that, if anything, he is down there on the page with them, lending a hand.
That Salinger never wrote a book halfway as long as Middlesex or The Marriage Plot is one essential difference. You have to wonder what a long Salinger novel would have been like? So much of his power is surely, in part, as a result of his brevity. Part of the genius of Middlesex was that Eugenides pulled it off and wrote a Salinger-esque bildungsroman. And in The Marriage Plot he very nearly achieves the remarkable feat of writing a Salinger-esque Jane Austen novel. The reason he fails is that he doesn’t have faith in the marriage plot in the same way as he did in the bildungsroman. He feels – perhaps rightly, but certainly somewhat late in the day – that marriage plots aren’t viable in contemporary fiction. Because of this when we reach the final third of the novel we find an author who has lost control of the book he is writing. And who then starts to panic, driving the narrative into a hedge. This is because he has found himself heading at some speed in the direction of something that he can’t, or won’t, allow to happen: a happy-ever-after marriage.
And that is the problem with The Marriage Plot: the fact that it doesn’t do what it says on the tin. You get the sense that if Eugenides had stuck with the structural shape of a traditional marriage plot, and subverted it from within, he would have reaped tremendous dividends. As it he has given us a novel that it seems more likely people will remember for who it might or might not have been about, instead of for its very frequent artistry.