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.

Tom Perrotta in Seattle

Tom Perrotta struck me more of an observer more than any of the other writers I’ve seen recently: he had an almost shy demeanor, and I could imagine him as one of the teenage wallflowers who are often his characters. He wasn’t like Richard Russo, whose years in a classroom show familiarity with the stage, or Martin Amis, who, though less bombastic in real life than in interviews or writings, still retained more swagger than other authors. Michael Chabon had the professorial air. I want to see a connection between Perrotta’s demeanor and his writing, as my comparison between him and his characters shows, although I know it’s like trying to read autobiographically. Still, I can say with confidence that Perrotta’s writing is the least writerly in the sense of being self-conscious and wordy, and of the above writers his is the closest to the spareness of Elmore Leonard, almost as though Perrotta operates within the societal constraints his characters beat against and try to break out of.

My question to Perrotta last night was about those constraints, since he writes so often about people trapped in one way or another, especially in high schools—a librarian is described on page five of The Abstinence Teacher “a cultured gay man, an opera-loving dandy with a fetish for Italian designer eyewear, trapped all day in a suburban public high school.” The characters in Election are also stuck in high school without having read Paul Graham’s thoughts on the system, while the protagonist in Joe College is trapped by his lower-middle class upbringing and the need to pay for an Ivy League education while his classmates coast on their parents’ money, and in Little Children the characters are in unhappy marriages with the burden of their offspring.

He responded by saying that the trapped feeling is part of the “American dilemma” because he says most of us aren’t really free, and that we don’t realize how unfree we are. Most people feel constrained, although they won’t admit it. We’re all trapped, which he admits might be a “grim” thing to say, but we are, whether by work, or school, or whatever.

I see the issue as one more of trade-offs, and if Perrotta were to expand on what he said, I don’t think he would argue that we are utterly without political freedom, or the ability to go where we want if we want to, but rather that we don’t feel free. We mentally corral ourselves, in part due to past choices, but also in part due to society. I’m stuck by the idea that as often as not we’re trapped as a result of previous choices—an idea that will arise again in my post about Richard Russo, who made a not dissimilar point when he was in Seattle recently.

A few other people asked good questions; one led to him saying that he wanted to write a culture war novel, and that sex education was nearer to his heart than subjects like evolution or abortion, and that he was interested in people on both (or all) sides of the issue. “Nobody quite lives up to their own standards—unless you’re better people than me,” he said, and the wry joke at the end was typical of his responses and of his writing.

(Another thought of my own: does anyone outside of newspapers and magazines and confrontational idiot cable TV even fight culture wars? And if so, are they over?)

He fired back nice answers to the silly question flood that came as soon as someone asked about advice for young writers. Then came “did you put Real People™ in your novel?”, and then a less mundane but no less inane question when another person asked if he felt pressure because his books had been made into movies. I suppose I’m too hard on the questioners, since most probably don’t read the writers’ later criticism in essays, but the questions still annoy. I would’ve liked to assign this. Maybe the other questioners, like me, have not yet finished The Abstinence Teacher; I’m still chewing through Bridge of Sighs and read the first 70 or so pages of Perrotta.

A movie question did lead to a point about the way movies are created. Perrotta said he wrote the Little Children script with director Todd Field and that the ending originally conformed more with the book, but that it didn’t seem sufficiently cinematic or resolute. Field called one day with the different—and, in my view, awful—ending that the movie now has. Likewise, in Election, the movie first used an ending similar to the book, but it apparently didn’t “test” well. No wonder Elmore Leonard said, “I don’t like screenplays at all. You’re not writing for yourself; you’re writing for a committee. They’re throwing ideas in, then the producer gets involved, saying you need to add this character or that character.”

I know what Perrotta means about movies and changes—endings are a pain.

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