Saturday, October 22, 2011

Lovers' Discourse

This appeared in today's The Indian Express.

THE MARRIAGE PLOT Jeffrey Eugenides

One doesn’t expect the conventional from a writer whose debut novel was a first-person plural account of teenage boys’ fascination with the suicides of five virgin sisters, and whose second was a coming-of-age chronicle of a hermaphrodite of Greek descent. Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, however, turns out to be a tender love story that draws inspiration from the novelists of the 19th century.  Earlier evidence that matters of the heart were on his mind came in 2008, with his anthology, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead: Great love stories from Chekhov to Munro.

There’s no denying that Victorian sagas of men and women heading towards marriage -- with concomitant courtship rituals -- have had far-reaching influence. (Where, for example, would the Bollywood movie be without it?) Here, Eugenides seems to be making the point that most contemporary fiction that aims at modernity misses a trick or two when it comes to fulfilling the pleasures of reading. As one of the character’s professors asserts, “the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance”.

The Marriage Plot concerns itself with the lives of three individuals: the caring, bibliophilic Madeleine; the charismatic, bipolar Leonard; and the sensitive, confused Mitchell. It is the early Eighties, and, to begin with, all of them are students at Brown University. The first part of the book is virtually a campus novel, charting Madeleine’s interest in Victorian romance plots, Leonard’s firecracker brilliance and Mitchell’s obsession with theological questions, as well as their interactions with each other. An infatuated Madeleine begins an affair with Leonard while Mitchell, who’s in a “long, aspirational, sporadically promising, yet frustrating relationship” with her, decides to remove himself from the scene by travelling to India.

A love triangle, then. How quaint. It must be said, though, that much of The Marriage Plot is gratifying to read, given its immersion in the lives of its characters, notably the heroine. She’s a modern-day combination of Isabel Archer and Dorothea Brooke, whose ambivalence towards those close to her is metaphorically represented by the scratched, ill-fitting glasses she periodically dons.

Eugenides brings alive the dilemmas of Madeleine as she careens between a committed relationship and independence, as well as the travails of Mitchell as he journeys to Calcutta to volunteer at Mother Teresa’s home for the destitute and dying in Kalighat. (This being a time without text or e-mail, both also write letters to each other: a reminder of the importance of such epistles in 19th century novels.)

As for Leonard, his tobacco-chewing and bandanna-wearing habits, not to mention depressive tendencies, are pointers that, in part at least, he’s drawn from David Foster Wallace. A trifle cheeky, given that Wallace’s own fiction relentlessly veered towards the hyper-modern.

The novel can also be said to be about another sort of love affair, that with books and reading. More specifically, it involves itself with the influence of books upon malleable minds. Almost from the start, there’s a spate of titles mentioned, from Madeleine’s beloved Eliot and Austen, to Mitchell’s search for succour in texts such as James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. Elsewhere, Eugenides is droll about American academe’s initial obsession with structuralism, when you weren't cool if you weren't carrying around a copy of Derrida's On Grammatology. Later on, Madeleine also finds unexpected comfort in the pages of Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse.

There are many well-done passages, such as the accounts of Leonard’s bouts of mania and depression, “his laziness, his over-achieving, his tendency to isolate, his tendency to seduce, his hypochondria, his sense of invulnerability, his self-loathing, his narcissism”.  Such interiority is matched by attention to detail, for example during Leonard’s lab work with paired and unpaired yeast chromosomes, or Mitchell’s stint at the Calcutta hospice. (One wishes, though, that the tendency to “explain” India had been toned down: at one point, the “real” India is described as “the ancient country of Rajputs, nawabs and Mughals”. Fancy that.)

At a time when the novel is in search of new models and forms, making a point of returning to its traditional verities signals a disappointing retreat from this necessary quest. Despite its many virtues, that’s the niggling thought The Marriage Plot leaves one with.

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