Thoughts on the first 100 pages of Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot

1) I would have stopped reading The Marriage Plot if it weren’t also related to some of my academic work. It captures the feel of slogging through a 19th Century novel. As you might imagine, this isn’t a compliment.

2) Until about 100 pages in, no characters have real problems. They have fake, rich-college-student problems. I’m not opposed to such problems for the people experiencing them—I remember having similar ones and thinking they were significant at the time, too—but the real problem in the form of Leonard’s psychotic breakdown should arrive closer to page 40 or 50. Madeleine’s minor undergraduate affairs are much less interesting and hilarious than Karen Owen’s “An education beyond the classroom: excelling in the realm of horizontal academics” (which is a PowerPoint document). Owen’s work feels more honest.

3) If you want a better but less hyped novel about the undergraduate experience in an Ivy-League setting, try Tom Perrotta’s Joe College. Notice that you can also get the hardback for $4, shipped, from Amazon. Notice too how Danny in that novel has real problems: he’s a fish-out-of-water, his father’s business might be falling apart, and his actions have real consequences for him and others around him. He has to master a skill (being a lunch-truck driver) and understand that skill. Failure may result in his ejection from Edenic Yale. So far no one in The Marriage Plot has a real job; they’re like characters in Jane Austen. There may be consequences coming in the latter sections, but based on the dust jacket (a trip to India to find one’s self, a possible stint in grad school), I’m not optimistic.

4) Eugenides’ earlier novels both have major conflicts and problems from the beginning: Middlesex asks how to survive and adapt as a transexual (who as a group still have major problems in contemporary society, compared to average heterosexuals) and how to flee dictator-encumbered countries, while The Virgin Suicides (probably my favorite of Eugenides’ work) asks about what really happened to the Lisbon sisters—and, because of the very clever narrative structure, we can never really find out. It’s teasing yet effective, melancholy and happy, a meditation on how we understand the past, deal with love, grow up, don’t grow up, and much more. That last bit sounds grandiose and stupid, but in the context of the novel it’s not.

5) Given the timeline in the section I’ve read so far—late 1970s, early 1980s—I keep thinking about the most consequential thing happening in the world at that time: the personal computer revolution in Silicon Valley. Jobs, Wozniack, Gates, and millions of other, less famous names were building the future. This is an insanely unfair criticism of a novel, but it’s stuck in my mind anyway, like a background process that occasionally pops an alert into my consciousness: some people are doing real things. I dismiss the alert, but it’s set to go off occasionally anyway, and I don’t have the heart to sudo kill -9.

EDIT: I was reading Hacker News this morning and found this:

The offices of Zelnick Media were packed on a recent evening for #DigitalWes, an alumni gathering for the graduates of Wesleyan University who had made their way from jam bands and cultural theory to the warp-speed world of Silicon Alley. Guests nibbled shrimp and steak skewers while taking in a sumptuous view of midtown Manhattan from the roof deck. The hosts were Strauss Zelnick and his partner, Jim Freidlich, both class of ’79, whose Take Two Interactive has produced some of the best-selling and most controversial video games of the past decade.

Same demographic, same timeline, note the mention of “cultural theory.”

6) Reading The Game has spoiled me on excessive beta-male behavior. Watching Mitchell around the beautiful and distant Madeleine mostly makes me want to tell him what he’s doing wrong. The Game was published in 2005, so saying this about a novel set before The Game’s publication isn’t fair, but the book still crystalized for me a) what not to do, b) how to eliminate certain kinds of obviously unsuccessful mating behavior, and c) how to think systematically about useful principles in men dealing with women. Being a whiny hanger-on to a person with relatively high dating market value is not good for Mitchell or for Madeleine, the object of his desire. Note that this is not limited to men: I also have low tolerance for women who spend long periods of time throwing themselves on distant alpha males who at best hook up with and then dump them. Don’t want to be hooked up with and dumped? Don’t chase alpha males whose primary attraction appears to be their unattainability. I don’t love novels whose characters’ primary problems can be solved with a simple, one-line piece of advice that, if followed, will result in the solution to said problem.

7) Nineteenth-century novels are not good guides to behavior in the 21st century. Hell, they’re not even good guides to behavior in Brown in the 1979 – 1983 period. This is as true for Madeline and for others. Literary theory is also a pretty crappy guide to real life, which may be part of the reason theory’s hold on English departments has loosened in the last 30 years. Still, perhaps the most hilarious and best scene involves Madeleine throwing Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, which alleges that there is no such thing as love, only the speaking of love, at the boy she loves.

8) I can follow the inside-baseball parts of literary theory (Barthes, Derrida, and other English-department heroes appear, mostly as signals of what various characters believe), but I doubt such things would be of great interest to anyone not in English departments. This relates to #5: it turns out that the really important stuff happening in this time period is happening among tech people, not among grad students in the humanities. A novel about someone who jumps from the one to the other might be interesting, and it could dramatize events with real consequences that don’t automatically revolve around sex and death. Intellectual curiosity is an underutilized motivation in fiction.

9) Another book to read if you want campus-war stuff: Richard Russo’s Straight Man, which is also much funnier.

EDIT: 10) See my full review here.

6 responses

  1. Ha! I have the same exact feeling when I am watching one of those movies staring a regular old nerd desperately in love with the beautiful girl, although in those movies I mostly scream that what’s happening is unrealistic and why.

    Oh and just a head’s up, your links are broken.

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    • Thanks for the heads up on the links—they should be fixed. For some reason Amazon and/or Firefox decided not to start with http:// .

      Ha! I have the same exact feeling when I am watching one of those movies staring a regular old nerd desperately in love with the beautiful girl, although in those movies I mostly scream that what’s happening is unrealistic and why.

      It’s somewhat okay to start that way—as long as the characters develop somewhat in the process. Mitchell has a clear problem and a solution that, if he had friends he could describe his dilemma to, would also have a clear and fairly obvious solution.

      Earlier today I was reading What Jeffrey Eugenides Doesn’t Get About Women, and while I’m skeptical of the claim that all women have close, personal friends with whom they can discuss romantic and other problems, I do find interesting the apparent dearth of friendship in the novel more generally. I guess everyone is too busy with literary theory to step back and realize that books are a complement to life, not a substitute for it, and that other people may have dealt with the exact problems the characters are experiencing.

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  2. I’m curious: Is there any particular reason he sets the book in the late ’70s and early ’80s? Is it so the novel can conclude in the present? I’m far more inclined to enjoy a 19th-century novel than you are, but I think you make a good point when you mention the personal-computer revolution, because it seems to me that litfic types often miss big things going on in the culture (to an extent that 19th-century novelists did not).

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    • I think he’s tying the literary theory wave of that era into the emotional and real lives of the characters, which is funny because a lot of theorists of the era denied things like “real lives.” That’s my impression so far (at about 150 pages in now).

      I will say that the novel improves in the 100 – 150-page range.

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    • Eugenides himself attended Brown during this time period, so he is speaking from experience. Furthermore, he studied literary theory and went on to become a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, which I would consider as something of value not linked to Silicon Valley to come out of that time period. I’m not sure why Siegler thinks the late 70’s and early 80’s would be a good setting for Silicon Valley since the present time period would be the ideal setting for a story about Silicon Valley. For example, The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman. Groupon just went public, making a ton of people millionaires and billionaires. Linkedin, Facebook, Google. I mean, Google didn’t even exist back then and it is a staple of Silicon Valley.

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  3. Good interesting thoughts.

    I just wanted to say that although I pretty much reject the ethical stances of Game and the Mystery Method, it really does alter your way of analyzing social relationships. Consequently it also affects how I describe romance and relationships in the stories I write.

    With regard to “beta behavior,” I understand your point and basically agree with it, but part of being an Alpha (to use the lingo) is to not give a shit whether others regard your behavior as Beta. I wonder if the Mystery Method were around in Werther’s time, would he have risen to become something more than a suicidial AFC. My guess is no.

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