The Marriage Plot
Fourth Estate, 406pp, £20
Nobody is going to accuse Jeffrey Eugenides's new novel, his first since Middlesex (2002), of being insufficiently clever. It is a big book of tricks but, for all its dazzling dexterity, flat.
The year is 1982, and the theme is the two-way traffic between learning and love. Madeleine Hanna, the heroine (for once, the term suits), has just completed a degree at Brown University and is stuck for what to do next. She has a passion, the 19th-century novel, and an on-off boyfriend, Leonard Bankhead, some of whose traits (intellect, depression, bandanna-wearing) invite a comparison with David Foster Wallace which other traits (an indifference to literature, aversion to tennis) work hard to deny.
Madeleine also has an admirer, Mitchell Grammaticus, a Greek American from Detroit who spends the immediate post-graduation period travelling around Europe and India, where he does voluntary work at Mother Teresa's Home for Dying Destitutes. Eugenides dots about a fair bit, excavating family history as necessary background research, but once he settles on a time frame, the forward movement is relentless in manner and storybook in mode, often to the point of precis.
The novel's stance on, its period, initially hard to make out, soon becomes its most intriguing feature. Certainly the narrator doesn't appear to be looking back, or down, on the characters from a 21st-century perspective, but the detailing suggests antiquarian fetishism as well as anthropological distance and curiosity. The cultural markers appear more frequently than in most present-day novels, but they are also slightly less intrusive.
One of the potential advantages of the historical novel is its ability to sift and stress - using hindsight to see not what matters to us now (Reaganomics, say), but what mattered most to people then (Costello, Calvino). This Eugenides manages. The common complaint that novelists ignore the workplace - that all the plumbing happens off the page - is even more applicable in describing intellectual pursuits, but even though not all of the details fit, what The Marriage Plot gratifyingly does is to put you among a group of drunken readers during
a boozy period of cultural history.
Unfortunately, it also elevates - or reduces - this element to the role of gimmick. Madeleine's interest in marriage plots ("Updike's wife-swapping" being the modern descendant) is co-opted by the novel's structure, with Leonard and Mitchell, neither of them exactly husband material, eager for her hand. The motif of intellectual ideas informing or altering conduct, and being tested or wielded in experience, becomes a kind of organising principle for all of the details concerning the character's main choices, such as Leonard following his hero Stephen Jay Gould into the field of self-medication and determining his own lithium doses. If one of the characters' favourite writers told them to jump off a cliff, there's no question they would do it. But this is not what we mean by a rich inner life.
Where other writers might be wrong to ignore their characters' hobbies or intellectual pursuits, the emphasis here distorts the novel's priorities and has a none-too-beneficial effect on its prose. In the first of the book's five sections, which includes a backward glimpse to Brown days, Madeleine takes a class with a lecturer who had "inculcated the habits of close reading and biography-free interpretation [ie, New Criticism] into three generations of students before taking a Road to Damascus sabbatical, in Paris, in 1975, where he'd met Roland Barthes at a dinner party and been converted, over cassoulet, to the new faith". A piece of knowing essayism gives us the background:
Going to college in the moneymaking Eighties lacked a certain radicalism. Semiotics was the first thing that smacked of revolution. It drew a line; it created an elect; it was sophisticated and Continental; it dealt with provocative subjects, with torture, sadism, hermaphroditism - with sex and power.
Barthes's book A Lover's Discourse displaces Madeleine's 19th-century reading as her preferred guide to affairs of the heart. The novel even develops a Barthesian side, with the Brown class directory getting the semiotic treatment. But to what end?
Eugenides, it appears, is out to charm. Whether he succeeds will depend on the reader's susceptibility to his brand of pith, which is everywhere in evidence: "English was what people who didn't know what to major in majored in"; "In the real world people dropped names based on their renown. In college, people dropped names based on their obscurity"; "Lithium was very good at inducing a mental state in which lithium seemed like a good idea". The novel's language does not pretend to find things elusive or impregnable. Again and again, Eugenides picks up a subject (Mitchell working as a cab driver) or a process (Mitchell taking in India) and sprints with it for an immaculate paragraph, flicking off a lively list of impressions. It's amazing to behold - off he goes again! - but it delivers, at best, the thrill of the glib. The same goes for his taste, which he shares with Terry Eagleton, for analogies that come in twos: Mitchell attends weekly meetings with a priest "as secretly as if he were buying drugs
or visiting a massage parlour"; in Madeleine's experience, "erections were occult occurrences happening elsewhere, like the bulging of a bullfrog's throat in a distant swamp, or a puffer fish inflating in a coral reef".
It wouldn't be too strong to say that, at a certain level, The Marriage Plot is about metaphor - the ways in which disparate pieces of knowledge are brought together in efforts at comprehension and self-instruction. It isn't just Madeleine's Barthes-tinged reading of her relationship with Leonard, or Mitchell's reading of his relationship to Madeleine in terms of theology, or his reading of Hemingway in terms of an encounter with a feminist. Experiences are routinely processed in borrowed terminology: "After his second gin and tonic Mitchell was inspired to draw comparisons" (he proceeds to discuss Madeleine's situation with her parents on a par with the Arab-Israeli conflict); Madeleine compares Yale's rejection of her Master's application with "that of a boyfriend she wasn't sure she liked that much"; watching Leonard recover from depression feels to her "like ploughing through late James". The characters struggle to get their head around what they see or feel, and use anything near at hand to help themselves to do so.
But if the novel is candidly concerned with metaphorical thinking, it is ironically distanced from almost everything else. Even Mitchell's earnest voyage of discovery is ribbed by juxtapositions: "he took the AmEx serial numbers out of his money pouch and wrote them down in the back of Something Beautiful for God"; "Exploring below decks, Mitchell and Larry gained entry to a vacant officers' lounge, with a Jacuzzi and beds, and amid this unwarranted luxury, Mitchell read about the soul's progress toward mystical union with God". The novel's marriage-plot structure culminates in a gesture of completion that is in fact one of self-combustion, like the closing move of a Coen brothers film - the novel confirming its identity as divertissement, game or ruse.
Eugenides is a virtuoso, no doubt about it, and everything in this ill-conceived novel has worked out just as he intended.
Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer.