Thursday, December 29, 2011

Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot: Comedy of Manners, Meet Postmodern Literary Theory

I've just finished Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).  I have to say, it doesn't strike me as quite the equal of Middlesex.  To be specific: it lacks the sweeping scope and mythopoeic quality of its Pulitzer-winning predecessor.  It's more comedy of manners gone wild and standing on its head (a jumble of an image that makes perfect sense to me, even if I'll grant it might be mystifying to many readers).  It does ring some refreshing changes on the traditional trope, using postmodern literary theory as its foil while it simultaneously defends and deconstructs the venerable plot devices of comedies of manners à la Austen.

But no matter what he writes--whether a Pulitzer-worthy novel or one somewhat less stellar--Jeffrey Eugenides can flat write.  Hardly a page of The Marriage Plot failed to have me laughing out loud, whether I was reading the book on the airplane as we flew west or sitting in a coffee shop amidst throngs of Christmas shoppers.

I loved the determination of one of the novel's protagonists, Madeleine, to "be all text" (p. 194) when her WASP mother Phyllida, who was doggedly determined to be subtext, tried subtly to wiggle doubt into Maddy's hard head as she chose to marry manic-depressive (and socially not quite one of us Leonard).  The passage in which "Madeleine was determined . . . to be all text" occurs is a gem that's a little too complicated to explain to anyone who hasn't read the book and doesn't know its characters.  It involves Phyllida the WASP mother simultaneously trying to 1) spar with her elder daughter Alwyn the hippie gone yuppie, who's intent on flagellating her mother's sensibilities (and delivering a daughter-repaying-mother lesson) by breast-feeding in public, and whom Phyllida is resolutely set to ignore and to use Maddy against; 2) guilt-trip textual Maddy with subtextual criticism of Leonard; 3) and play daughter against daughter, since this scene is taking place as Phyllida has Maddy talk sense into Alwyn, who has left her husband, but also spurs Alwyn to deliver acerbic ministration to Maddy, since Alwyn knows Leonard is manic-depressive and gains her edge in the mother-daughter, sister-sister politics by using that knowledge adroitly.

Family: being what it is, how can it not be both hilarious and horrifying?  And with a masterful prose stylist like Eugenides poking away at its foibles and the zingy subtextual rhetoric family members use to jockey for position in family politics, all the more hilarious-horrifying . . . . 

And then there's the section of the book where Leonard's competitor Mitchell, who's wont to pray the Jesus prayer and hie himself off to India to work with Mother Teresa, is flirting with Catholicism while bussing tables at a Greek restaurant, where he spends his free time reading the catechism.  Which has lines like, 

Q: Who says that prayer is always possible even while cooking? 
A: It is Saint John Chrysostom (around 400 AD) who says that prayer is always possible even while cooking.

And when Mitchell's not digesting such profound catechetical nuggets of wisdom, he's talking to the wife of the restaurant's owner, "a large disordered woman, like a child's drawing that didn't stay within the lines" (p. 149).

And there's this marvelous passage skewing the ridiculous (but oh so necessary) self-consciousness that all the -ism movements (feminism, anti-racism, anti-classism, etc.) have drummed into the head of postmodern readers, so that it's no longer possible to take our plots straight: we now have to take them with large shots of political analysis that implicates us uncomfortably as readers:

She rolled her eyes and went back to her book.  And Mitchell went back to his.  Or tried.  Except that now all he could do was stare at the page. 
He was perfectly aware that certain once-canonical writers (always male, always white) had fallen into disrepute.  Hemingway was a misogynist, a homophobe, a repressed homosexual, a murderer of wild animals.  Mitchell thought this was an instance of tarring with too wide a brush.  If he was to argue this with Claire, however, he ran the risk of being labeled a misogynist himself.  More worryingly, Mitchell had to ask himself if he wasn't being just as knee-jerk in resisting the charge of misogyny as college feminists were in leveling it, and if his resistance didn't mean that he was, somewhere deep down, prone to misogyny himself.  Why, after all, had he bought A Moveable Feast in the first place?  Why, knowing what he did about Claire, had he decided to whip it out of his backpack at this particular moment?  Why, in fact, had the phrase whip it out just occurred to him? (p. 141).

And so it goes: another wise, hilarious, extremely well-written novel by one of the current masters of American prose, which I heartily recommend to anyone looking for a good read as the old year turns new.

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