Friday, 15 June 2012

The Marriage Plot

I loved Jeffrey Eugenides's Virgin Suicides, for its kooky, gothic feel, and the beautiful pendulous, globular writing.

His next, Middlesex, meh, not so much. It felt to me like a novel-length splurge on a Foucauldian or Judith Butlerian problem. Perhaps a little precious of me, but it seemed dated, although apparently to the rest of the world, a thing of wonder. I also felt there were longueurs.

The Marriage Plot, which we have waited many years for, feels like, literally, more of the same. I found it meandering, for all the wrong reasons. If its title referred ironically to its own lack of plot, this raised little more than a tired lit crit eyebrow in me. I kept waiting for the motor to start, to get under way. I felt as though I kept being fed character synopses. Perhaps this was because he'd chosen to write a perspectival novel in the third person: we move from one of the three main characters' points of view to another, filling in gaps in the (very simple) plot until we have the whole thing straight in our minds.

What was interesting in it, and compelling, was the depiction of manic depression. The terror of revealing a mental illness, the attempt to cope with everyday life, the desire to regain a continuity with what others consider normality by playing with the dosage of the medication that is keeping Leonard 'normal', all these things were fascinating, painful to read about, important in a world that continues to stigmatize mental illness.

However, in the end the character capitulates to his own impossibility — he verbally divorces Madeleine, and runs away to the woods. What is going to happen to the brilliant student after the end of the novel? Isn't his the more important story? Does he end up proving that it is in fact impossible to live a normal life with a mental illness, that he is, as he most fears when his depression has its fiercest hold on his mind, broken, defective?

Eugenides seems to sanction this view of manic depression — or he, like his character, runs away from the really long-term consequences of it. Leonard's experiment with lowering his lithium dose until his energy and brilliance return goes wrong: he takes too little medication, and mania overwhelms him, until he is completely out of his mind. But we never see a time where his medication is stable. We are just left with the destruction his illness has caused. Madeleine's parents appear to be right: don't marry the nutter.

That Eugenides should think it compelling to write about the marriage plot spliced with the campus novel, in which the upshot is that no one ends up married or living happily ever after, and everyone apart from the loony just goes back to university, seems to me crass, and ultimately lightweight. Hooray! — it looks as though Madeleine will go to late '80s grad school as a single girl, and study more nineteenth-century marriage plots, and try to get over the madness of her abortive marriage to a manic-depressive. What, and emerge a strident '90s feminist? And it looks as though Mitchell will also go to grad school, and remain exercised about the meaning of life. And perhaps write a novel like The Marriage Plot later on? What does any of it matter? If that's the point of the novel, a sort of fin-de-twentieth-century nihilism, give me Dostoevsky any day.

The novel seemed to be more attentive to post-structuralist theory than to storytelling, and was the poorer for it. Not that I mind reading a depiction of what was, after all, almost exactly my own experience, only slightly earlier. Narcissistically, I'll happily indulge in a clever-clever book that features Roland Barthes's Fragments d’un discours amoureux, a book I loved myself. I'm quite prepared to believe that the first year after college is an immensely delicate, vital year which lays down ideas, patterns and vectors that operate for years to come — it's exactly what I experienced myself, and I feel that Eugenides had struck a rich seam in looking at this time of life. I even managed to have the delightful experience of reading most of the book on the Eurostar on the way to a delicious overnight stay in Paris, city of my intellectually star-struck youth. I wasn't sure whether I was inside or outside the novel at moments. But that isn't enough to make a novel good. One Day, with its superficial clicking through the years, was actually a better fist of a 'Days of our lives' novel than is The Marriage Plot.

I am more and more bewildered by the American craze for extraordinarily longwinded novels, reliant on a deliberately flat, understated style. Has no one noticed that novels, whose unit of rhetorical currency is the distended, multi-clausal paragraph, often seemingly downloaded undigested from the internet, are DULL?

The best thing I've read in years was Andrea Levy's The Long Song. And what gave that novel its coruscating brilliance was precisely what was left out. The American male-authored novel of the last couple of decades, Jonathan Franzen in Freedom, Don de Lillo, Philip Roth, seems to have gone down a path of blockbuster-length hyperrealist platitude. Does no one dare to edit them? Have they forgotten that novels are a craft, rather than a shopping list, or stream of consciousness depressive monologue? Perhaps they would all do well to revisit Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway: the point is that streams of consciousness are literary devices, performances written by authors who go back over their work, nip and tuck, select. Realism isn't actually reality. The traffic between external reality and internal reality isn't unimpeded, it's endlessly refracted: we're never quite sure what we're seeing, because what we make of reality is an interpretation.

Female writers spend years and years trying to give themselves permission to write, terrified of judgement because having endured it in their own minds and at the hands of others for so long. At the moment, however, there's a goodly crop of male writers out there who seem to have forgotten how to pass judgement on their own work, seem to feel that pedantic explanation is the same thing as storytelling, seem unable to remember the particular in the midst of their rambling generalizations. I want to scream at them: go and read Dickens, Flaubert, Proust, Sterne, Woolf, Wharton, Grenville, Mantel. Remember to plot!

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