It is the 1980s, and semiotic theory has infiltrated the hallowed halls of America’s ivy league universities, bringing with it its anarchic reconstructions, critical symbolism, and its anaemic, black-clad supporters. Drawn by the promise of greener grass and the potential to be part of a “lit-crit elite”, English major Madeleine Hanna has done the unthinkable, the parliamentary equivalent of crossing the floor that is the literal crossing of the campus. She has left the familiar, fusty nest of her English literature lecture theatres to seek out this business of signs and signifiers and embedded modality.
This rebellious academic act, one of few available to those going to uni in the moneymaking eighties, something that rather “lacked a certain radicalism”, is an epiphany of sorts for Madeleine. She is, after all, “positive, privileged, sheltered, exemplary person”, one whose background means that her future is one that is languid and non-urgent. The worst that might happen if her vaguely desired career in Austen studies does not eventuate is that she might move back home, to the bedroom that her mother, heaven forbid, might have redecorated (indeed, by wallpapering over the current Ludwig Bemelman Madeline, of “I may be very small, but inside I’m tall” fame, theme. Prescient.).
But Madeleine’s semiotics class is not enlightening and vista-stretching in the way that she might have imagined. (Or at least not for her. The eyebrowless Thurston Meems, a boy who introduces himself with “Um, let’s see. I’m finding it hard to introduce myself, actually, because the whole idea of social introductions is so problematised” surely has an exciting semester in front of him: “I read Of Grammatology last summer, and it blew my mind,” he says.) The hatred unleashed upon her beloved literature by semiotic theorists engenders in her a feeling that these individuals had likely been unpopular or even bullied as a child, and sends her sneakily back to her nineteenth-century literature closet. “How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative! There were going to be people in [the book]. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world.”
However, though Madeleine’s literature classes set at her feet all manner of Austen-era irresistible and gloomy fictional bedfellows, whom she adores despite her socialised habit to avoiding “unstable people”, it’s her semiotics class in which she meets the brilliant and troubled Leonard Bankhead (a bandanna-wearing character who has been widely likened to David Foster Wallace. Eugenides, at least at the talk I attended, denies this). A manic depressive, Leonard cycles through times of exuberant brilliance and crippling despair, the sheer weight of his personality dragging Madeleine along with him throughout the process.
Madeleine’s love troubles, it turns out, “had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.” No matter how much she attempts to liberate herself from its “tyranny” by viewing it merely as the cultural construction semiotic theory purports it to be, it’s Madeleine’s English major heart that guides her: “The magnolia trees hadn’t read Roland Barthes. They didn’t think love was a mental state.”
This, of course, isn’t the only literary question with which Madeleine is wrestling. Her honours thesis is on the topic of the marriage plot, something that her lecturer argues has become redundant in modern times. “Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later?…Marriage didn’t mean much any more, and neither did the novel.”
Where, we are asked, can the marriage plot be found in a world that has moved beyond it? Can it, perchance, be found in a book entitled The Marriage Plot?
This question is raised in the novel’s first act, told from Madeleine’s point of view, and lingers throughout the looping, wayward set of narrative leaps the novel circumspectly follows; it’s finally returned to with force once more at the book’s conclusion. The middle of the novel, however, that by which this thesis is bookended, is given over not to Madeleine, but to her boyfriend Leonard (who promptly becomes Madeleine’s “madwoman in the attic”) and his fascinating experiments with, of all things, yeast; and to her man-in-the-wings Mitchell Grammaticus, a man whose name says it all, really, and who jet-sets about the world on a pseudo-religious pilgrimage that involves discussing religion with an austere exchange student (“it’s teleological and bogus”) and even involves a brief stay with Mother Theresa. Until his sense of hygiene overwhelms him.
While Leonard ponders the mysteries of the human condition through his examinations of yeast (“even in the emotion-free broth of the agar broth, the haploid cells seemed to take their solitary condition as undesirable,” he muses, enthralled), Madeleine lurks in the background, attempting to reconcile her feminist leanings with her love of Austenite literature, and proudly enduring their relationship:
“The experience of watching Leonard get better was like reading certain difficult books. It was like plowing through late James, or the pages about agrarian reform in Anna Karenina, until you suddenly got to a good part again, which kept on getting better and better until you were so enthralled that you were almost grateful for the previous dull stretch because it increased your eventual pleasure.”
Though we do see a marriage, and a separation, and some other bits and pieces besides, it seems that The Marriage Plot is less a novel of marriage, or of which of the two men will (or won’t) end up with our Madeleine: it’s more one of growing up. When the relevance of the marriage plot is debated within the novel, one imagines that it’s less to do with the ability to get divorced, or to live by one’s own means, but more to do with the fact that marriage is not longer equated with becoming an adult in one’s own life. The marriage that we do see seems to change nothing: those involved are merely ageing children scarcely able to deal with finding a place to live or to go about finding a job. It’s not that feminism has changed the context of marriage (although surely it has), but it’s that the context in which marriage occurs has changed so drastically. Childhood now endures well beyond the use-by date of those Ludwig Bemelman illustrations, and well past, if Madeleine’s sister is any indication, the having of children. There’s a sense of temporariness about heading out there into the big bad world: a sense that, unlike in times of old, one can turn back home if the grass isn’t as green as it seems–just like Madeleine and her foray into semiotics.
It’s telling when Mitchell delights over his final university essay, a religious studies examination, in which he “keeps bending his answers towards their practical application [because] he wanted to know why he was here, and how to live”. This is appended, tongue-in-cheek, with: “It was the perfect way to end your college career.”
The Marriage Plot has received mixed reviews, and in a way, this doesn’t surprise me. It’s a novel about vain, terribly dull and entitled middle-class Americans, a novel filled with verbosely rendered descriptions of incomprehensible figures of academia (“College wasn’t like the real world. In the real world people dropped names based on their renown. In college, people dropped names based on their obscurity.”), a novel that feels rehearsed and over-polished, and which is very often over the top (see scene involving Leonard’s running about a casino in a cape). But there’s so much wryness here, so much self-aware piss-taking and hermeneutic delight, that you know that Eugenides is having a grand old time of it all. “The whole thing was beginning to look fairly comical and Shakespearean: Larry loved Mitchell, who loved Madeleine, who loved Leonard Bankhead,” our narrator says at one point; at another, Leonard, a man who dreams of “becoming an adjective”, argues that one’s mother killing herself is not a literary trope. It’s a novel that exists beyond itself and within itself, and it’s superb.
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