Obscure Objects of Desire: On Jeffrey Eugenides
“It is painful to be told that anything is very fine and not be able to feel that it is fine—something like being blind, while people talk of the sky.” This is Dorothea Brooke admitting in Middlemarch that she doesn’t understand all the fuss about the frescoes and oil paintings everyone around her is mooning over in Rome. Dorothea acknowledges her ignorance with the pitiful grace of the outsider who wants to step past the velvet rope. “I should be quite willing to enjoy the art here, but there is so much that I don’t know the reason of—so much that seems to me a consecration of ugliness rather than beauty,” she tells a friend, whose sketches she disparaged on their first meeting as being detached from nature, part of a “language I do not understand”: “The painting and sculpture may be wonderful, but the feeling is often low and brutal, and sometimes even ridiculous.”
Low, brutal and ridiculous is a good description of what Madeleine Hanna, the heroine of Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel The Marriage Plot, thinks of the literary theory that has infected the English department at Brown University, where she is a senior in 1982. Madeleine is something of a goddaughter to Dorothea Brooke among fiction’s dwindling ranks of principled ingénues, so I stand by “heroine” rather than “protagonist” or even “main character.” Those terms are usually elided—or are under erasure, as Madeleine’s theoretically inclined peers might contend. But in this case the distinction matters because Madeleine is a lover of nineteenth-century fiction, of fat, lushly detailed novels, the British-er the better, where the reader is liable to encounter heaths and wills and waistcoats, and heroines descending from hansom cabs to grapple with fate at the ball.
While Madeleine is writing her senior thesis on the evolution of “the marriage plot” in the novels of Jane Austen, George Eliot and Henry James, the courtship-to-nuptial cycle that, she argues, has been rendered all but obsolete by modernity, the rest of the English majors are swooning over Derrida and deconstruction. The bookworms who chose, as Madeleine has, to study English “for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read” are replaced by creatures of the analytical order like Thurston Meems, whose belief in the solidity of words has been depilated, along with his eyebrows, by the time Madeleine meets him in Introduction to Semiotic Theory:
“Um, let’s see. I’m finding it hard to introduce myself, actually, because the whole idea of social introductions is so problematized. Like, if I tell you that my name is Thurston Meems and that I grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, will you know who I am? O.K. My name’s Thurston and I’m from Stamford, Connecticut. I’m taking this course because I read Of Grammatology last summer and it blew my mind.”
Madeleine is pretty and athletic, and anxious about her future. She is the bearer of a WASP pedigree as well as the proud owner of the Modern Library collection of Henry James. The essence of what sets her apart from her jargon-addled peers is the subject of a conversation she has with Billy Bainbridge, an ex-boyfriend whose extracurriculars—filmmaking and anti-circumcision activism—may have something to do with the desire to liberate himself from a family of newspaper tycoons.
On the wall of his living room Billy had painted the words Kill the Father. Killing the father was what, in Billy’s opinion, college was all about.
“Who’s your father?” he asked Madeleine. “Is it Virginia Woolf? Is it Sontag?”
“In my case,” Madeleine said, “my father really is my father.”
“Then you have to kill him.”
“Who’s your father?”
“Godard,” he said.
I’m reminded of a phenomenon friends of mine witnessed a few years ago at the University of Chicago. A small tribe of young men began showing up to philosophy and lit seminars, sporting conscientiously razed heads, white turtlenecks and large eyeglasses with thin, rectangular frames. The goal, incredibly, was to look as much as possible like the French theorist Michel Foucault, but such is the convert’s prerogative. You’re apt to take yourself too seriously if you want to depart radically from whatever you were before you saw the light. The callow freshman given to earnest close readings can only be repudiated, along with the novel’s fallen trinity of character, chronology and verisimilitude, by his grown-up self in the form of the second-semester junior preaching the “need to stop thinking of books as being about things,” as an acquaintance of Madeleine’s insists. In college as in Wordsworth, the child is the father of the man; anyone who listens to Billy Bainbridge or has heard of psychoanalysis knows what fathers have got coming to them.
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In 1982 Eugenides was himself a junior in the English department at Brown, where he had gone in large part to study with the experimental novelist John Hawkes. If it has taken Eugenides almost thirty years to bring his undergraduate experience into his work, it’s telling that he has staged his return to Brown in the kind of fiction one can hardly imagine being written by Hawkes, who traded in uncertainty and made the most quotidian actions and things seem strange. Eugenides singles out semiotics as a fad for skewering, but the credentials at stake in his parody of the self-important college kids bent on demolishing literature’s traditional forms and functions are his own. The instability of meaning and the writer’s burden to root within it for new forms have been the premises of fiction-making since the advent of Modernism, well before Derrida and his undergraduate fan club; they were the premises of Eugenides’s literary education under postmodernist masters like Hawkes at Brown and Gilbert Sorrentino during his graduate years at Stanford. When the only assumption left for literature is the absence of assumptions, regressing toward stable form and content starts to look rebellious again. Reactionaries have fathers to kill too.
So it has gone with Eugenides. His 1993 debut, The Virgin Suicides, revolves around the inquiries into desire, obsession and death voiced by a first-person chorus of boys, their “we” a supple modernist touch. Eugenides followed up nine years later with Middlesex, narrated by a hermaphrodite named Cal. It was hailed as one of the era’s great novels but felt like a retreat, a big, self-conscious book puffed up with the importance of all the things it couldn’t stop reminding its readers it was about: the intersex experience, the urban-to-suburban experience, the immigrant experience, the Greek experience and, thrown in with solemn awkwardness, the black-nationalist experience, all of it left to stand, without the merciful shadow of nuance, for the American experience. Eugenides pounded compulsively on his themes as if, having set the water to boil, he couldn’t stop checking to see if he had lit the gas.
“Reading a novel after reading semiotic theory was like jogging empty-handed after jogging with hand weights,” Madeleine admits. “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 it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world.” In all the praise for Middlesex, I heard just this sigh of relief. The Virgin Suicides is, crucially, beautifully, a novel formed of questions. The suicides of the five Lisbon sisters constitute a narrative, but one that defies logic or resolution. Middlesex dispensed with ambiguity to trade exclusively in answers. The narrator as detective and pilgrim, inviting the reader to join in the uncertain search for meaning, was usurped by the narrator as lecturer, the pedant who can’t tell the reader what happens to the people in his world without throwing in every last why.
Had Eugenides forgotten his own lesson, sneaked so cannily into a scene at the start of The Virgin Suicides? Cecilia, the youngest of the Lisbon sisters, is recovering in the hospital from her first suicide attempt. Asked why she slit her wrists, she replies, “Obviously, Doctor…you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.” Duh—but the line is more than a comeback. A koan wrapped in adolescent sarcasm, it warns against presuming to understand the entirety of someone else’s experience, let alone explicating it with the kind of didactic asides on history and hormones that in Middlesex leave little room for the reader’s imagination to do its own work.
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