Disclaimer: light spoilers throughout!
There comes a time in your life — like, sometime between learning how to walk in heels and realizing you’ve been pronouncing the word “dilettante” wrong for years — when you’re the only person who hates a book that’s (almost) entirely celebrated, or vice-versa. It's embarrassing and makes you think you’re missing something, and every time you talk about it you feel like the literary equivalent of John Mayer boasting about having a "hood pass," but you keep getting into these loud, drunken debates about said book at parties like a total jerk until your friends get sick of inviting you to parties and finally you to Take To The Internet.
Guys, today I’m going yell about The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, because I couldn’t stand it. There. I said it. Just to recap, Eugenides’ credentials versus mine:
Jeffrey Eugenides has:
An ostentatious billboard
Basic health insurance
Friends with glasses
An incorrectly signed copy of Blue Nights by Joan Didion (who’s Ann?)
Indigestion from previous McRib
So basically, if you’d allow a Fed Ex guy to perform a surgical procedure on a loved one, read on.
1. I Hope This Book Ends Mary Sue-n
Forget for a second that I know this because in middle school I was a nerd. There’s a term in literary criticism (mostly fanfiction) that describes “a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader.” Twilight’s Bella Swan, for instance, is a Mary Sue. And so is The Marriage Plot’s Madeleine Hanna.
Though we spend the majority of the novel inside her head, Madeleine’s character is almost wholly defined by the men who fight over her: brilliant, manic-depressive scientist Leonard and the loyal and dorkier Mitchell. As for her relationships with her female roommates, mother, and sister ... consider the Bechdel Test failed. I get that the book is a modern take on the subject of Madeline’s thesis — the classic marriage plot, meta-whatever — but dealing with this on a character level, the fact remains that Austen’s 200-year-old heroines are more progressive than this one, and that’s sad.
Another classic Mary-Sue trait is going light on character description to allow the reader to effortlessly project themselves onto her. With Madeleine, we get only a vague description of her Katharine Hepburn cheekbones and sentences like “Looking the way she and he did, it was inevitable that they would be cast as the romantic leads in the scenes in workshop” sprinkled throughout.
2. A Case for NaYoWeWriOffGenMiAgeMo (National Young Women Write Offensive Generalities About Middle-Aged Men Month)
“In the character of Madeleine, you got the intrinsic melodrama of college girls just right,” goes a throwaway lead-in to a question asked of Eugenides in an interview on Slate. So ... perpetuating a condescending stereotype like that is okay, because these girls are assumedly white and/or privileged? Or because it’s being perpetuated by the educated? Or what? (BRB, I g2g flail away crying.)
One particular scene, featuring a drunk and rebounding Madeleine going down on a classmate and feeling weird about it, has been heavily praised. I’m not saying a writer’s subject matter is “earned” through personal experience — in the past I’ve felt really strongly to the contrary — but I will say that my resolve against that concept weakens daily, thanks to the phenom of older literary guys’ takes on The Bright College Girl’s Empty Sexual Encounter. A very similar scene in Tom Wolfe’s (rightly) critically-panned I Am Charlotte Simmons (also rightly) was given a Worst Sex In Literature award. Just saying.
Eugenides’ previous novels peered in on issues of femininity with a voyeuristic, detached eye — teen girls through the eyes of teen boys, female identity as experienced by an eventually male-gendered hermaphrodite — and were touching and successful. Compared to The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, this just feels like... two first names? Really? He may as well have named her Dreamwife Sparkleheartstar.
Yes, the dude’s pace is one book every 10 years, and I’m sure there was a lot of post-Pulitzer pressure, but come on. If a female debut novelist wrote The Marriage Plot, it would be marketed as chick lit, the cover would feature one of those caricature ladies with the really long necks and shopping bags, and people like Curtis Sittenfeld would write b*tchy reviews of it.
3. A Supposedly Derp Thing I Derp Derp Hurr-Durr Derp
“The great dread of college creative writing professors — the campus love story. ‘Their eyes met over the keg...’” –David Foster Wallace
Eugenides staunchly denies that the Leonard Bankhead character is based on the late DFW, but as far as I’m concerned the denial is so clearly and aggressively bullshit that I’m ignoring it. That big spread in New York magazine about young DFW, Jonathan Franzen, Mary Karr et. al. came out just weeks before the release of the book, which is unfortunate timing for Eugenides because it could almost read as an epilogue to The Marriage Plot if the Madeleine character were ten percent as awesome as Karr is (let me put it another way: she makes Elizabeth Wurtzel look like Mary Karr).
Anybody who’s aware of modern literature has probably been touched by the ripple effect DFW had on his readers and peers. This is obviously due to his body of work, but it's also due to the young-bandanna'ed-handsome-troubled-genius-“women want him, men want to be him” conundrum that’s explained best in Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. A conundrum because the more Wallace hated that myth, the more people were fascinated by it, and it was probably at least part of what killed him.
Like that myth, Leonard’s character is sort of the flip side of the oft-criticized manic pixie dream girl trope: the A Beautiful Mind-esque “tortured genius dream boy.” His freshman year is summed up “coming up from an act of cunnilingus long enough to take a bong hit and give a correct answer in class,” and if that’s not the myth of 1990s DFW as seen through the (green) eyes of his (male) contemporaries, I don’t know what is.
Despite the various literary accolades these men have achieved, all of them seem to have some long-held, fraught Salieri complex about DFW — even Franzen — and the way Eugenides’ comes into play as hate/reverence for the Leonard character here is really revealing. It’s like freaky bodice-ripper David Foster Wallace fanfiction. And it gets even weirder from a feminist perspective when you realize it's eerily comparable to another conventional marriage plot (bear with me) ...
The Marriage Plot or Twilight? *
1. “You’re such a-” she tried to think of the worst thing to say — “you’re such a jerk!” She was hoping to remain imperious, but her chest was stinging, and, to her dismay, she burst into tears.
2. She asked herself why everyone was being so mean to her.
3. It had to do with him. With how she felt about him and how she couldn’t tell anyone. How much she liked him and how little she knew about him. With how desperately she wanted to see him and how hard it was to do so.
4. If she was being honest with herself, she knew she was eager to get to school because she would see him again. And that was very, very stupid.
5. She married him in the throes of something like mania.
6. He had the most beautiful soul, more beautiful than his brilliant mind or his incomparable face or his glorious body.
7. They never made it to the park. They picnicked on each other.
8. He unleashed the full, devastating power of his eyes on her, as if trying to communicate something crucial.
9. His [penis] was highly particular to her, like a third presence in the bed.
10. His arms wrapped around her, holding her against him, every nerve ending in her body like a live wire.
11. His girth filled her up in a way that was not only satisfying, but breathtaking.
12. She never got over the shock of how perfect his body was ... she ran her hand down his chest, just marveling.
13. Every millimeter of movement, in or out, was perceptible along her inner sheath.
1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, 11, 13: The Marriage Plot
4, 6, 8, 10, 12: Twilight
Anyway, despite Leonard’s brilliance and magnificent penis — oh, and his big penis — for all intents and purposes it’s the “nice guy” who closes the novel with Madeleine and makes the wise decision to set her free as a single woman. The less handsome, less brilliant, perhaps more genitally negotiable Greek Orthodox spirituality student, which is clearly not self-insertion on Eugenides’ part. No, not at all.
To that end, if Madeleine’s Mary-Sueness is for the wish fulfillment of the reader, it’s clear to me whose wishes the novel’s conclusion fulfills. Eugenides’ point, “slow and steady wins the race,” is — yeah, at face value, the message of many a marriage plot, but underneath could certainly be placed in a literary context. And given the DFW-inspired circumstances, that’s so bittersweet/douchey, like giving a revenge wedgie to a former bully who’s now in a wheelchair.
On the bright side, the novel I’m writing about me and Tea Obreht fighting over a dude who works at Ground Round is going really well.
*I’ve changed Twilight’s first-person to third for the purpose of this exercise.
Anna Breslaw could be called "the life of the party" if you change the entire meaning of the English language.