Obscure Objects of Desire: On Jeffrey Eugenides
In The Marriage Plot, Eugenides has abandoned his literary fathers once and for all in favor of the mother of modern fiction. This time around, he pays his respects to the themes and form of the nineteenth-century novel, tracing the murky mating rituals of a group of young adults at the end of the twentieth century. The book’s title refers not simply to the narratives beloved by Eugenides’s heroine but also to his own Yenta-ish machinations on her behalf. In addition to Thurston Meems, the semiotics seminar introduces Madeleine to Leonard Bankhead, a philosophy and biology double major with campuswide heartthrob status. Despite swearing off sex to focus on important things like school and career, Madeleine succumbs to the dictates of the genre and falls for Leonard, who obliges her with the college male’s usual approach to romance; his pursuit of Madeleine is so casual that a person unversed in the relevant signs might take them for indifference. Fortunately, there is one work of semiotics that Madeleine respects, Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, which she consults as a kind of I Ching of romantic behavior, parsing her anxieties with the help of the mystical text. Being “too needy” or “like a little girl” sounds more dignified when cast as Barthesian utterances: “the lover is intolerable (by his heaviness) to the beloved.” A series of awkward encounters of the second-semester-senior kind soon leads to a feast of sex and pizza in Leonard’s apartment, and then to plans to move together to the prestigious research lab on Cape Cod where Leonard has been offered a postgraduate fellowship.
From her thesis research, Madeleine must have learned that in Victorian novels a union that occurs well before the final pages doesn’t tend to spell happiness for the heroine. Confusing romantic love with a chance to apprentice herself to a great mind, Dorothea Brooke let herself be married off early in Middlemarch, only to grow fed up with caring for her solipsistic scholar of a husband, whose great opus was obsolete well before it could be finished. In The Marriage Plot, Leonard admits to himself that he’s “characterized by excessive introspection or worry. Gloomy, depressive. See basket case.” This hits close enough to Casaubon to give pause, but Leonard’s gloom is caused by a mental disorder rather than mental ambitions. That he suffers from crippling manic-depression is a twist revealed only in the aftermath of the couple’s temporary break-up, thrusting Madeleine into helpmeet mode. She finds herself on Cape Cod without a job, friends or pursuits of her own, committed to nursing a near-catatonic Leonard as he toils, under the weight of depression, to test an obscure hypothesis on yeast cell reproduction that has little chance of producing anything useful to anyone.
If the grandstanding Thurston Meems (or Paul Auster, an author he surely would have admired) were at the keyboard, Madeleine would come across a book called The Marriage Plot in some hidden corner of the Brown stacks and use a discussion of her own romantic dilemmas to top off her thesis before Leonard so much as crosses her path. But Eugenides has the classic form on the brain and wants to do the thing right. “Begin at the beginning,” instructs the King of Hearts in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, that supreme pastiche of all things Victorian, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” Eugenides dutifully tracks Madeleine and Leonard from flirtation to fornication to cohabitation, as well as the exploits of a third soul wandering the earth in a post-college daze. With his Detroit upbringing and Greek ancestry, Madeleine’s friend Mitchell Grammaticus bears more than a passing resemblance to his author. Only vaguely aware of Madeleine’s developments since graduation but jealous of them anyway, the lovelorn Mitchell sets off on a spiritual journey that leads from Paris and Athens to Mother Teresa’s Home for Dying Destitutes in Calcutta. He’s been smitten with Madeleine ever since he witnessed an in-dorm nip slip and was then treated to a vodka-soaked Thanksgiving at her family’s New Jersey manor during freshman year, and has never stopped fantasizing that they will get married once she gets around to returning his affection.
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Yes, married. Mitchell wants to be, Madeleine wants to be. Leonard doesn’t seem to care one way or the other, but what with the mental, not to mention sexual, incapacitation brought on by his depression and lithium meds, he is desperate not to be left by Madeleine. Leonard starts fiddling with his medication to get himself into working order, and is soon shooting out of his stupor and toward mania on the mental equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Great Glass Elevator. One might expect that Madeleine would grow concerned, rather than overjoyed, at Leonard’s near-instantaneous transition from agony to ecstasy, or that someone so studious might have done the research it takes to suspect that a person in that state cannot be declared, as she “slyly, happily” declares Leonard to be, “better.” One would be underestimating the powers of love. The single article about depression that Madeleine glances at speaks optimistically of the possibility of cures; when she receives a second article, from her mother, written by a woman whose husband suffers from the illness, she crumples it up. “All of this might have bothered Madeleine more if Leonard’s neediness hadn’t appealed to her so much,” Eugenides tells us. On with the wedding!
So Eugenides is a romantic, but we knew that already. The feelings of the neighborhood boys for the Lisbon sisters in The Virgin Suicides are so flooded with admiration and wonder that even sex is a matter of starry-eyed love rather than lust. Cal, the narrator of Middlesex, almost ruins his chances with the first woman he has cared about since he was an adolescent girl before Eugenides lets him wind up with his crush in bed in the book’s final pages. The novel’s equivalent of a slow fade-out to swelling violins hints that this is a forever-after deal: “‘I might be your last stop, too,’ I said, clinging to her. ‘Did you ever think of that?’” (The violins return in The Marriage Plot, sawing away louder than ever after the mention of Barthes’s assertion that saying “I love you” only means something the first time around: “Light came into Madeleine’s eyes. ‘I’m done then, I guess,’ she said. ‘Not me,’ Leonard said, holding her hand. ‘Not me.’” Chapter break.) Cal uses the name of a Buñuel film, That Obscure Object of Desire, as an alias for a former beloved. It could also be the subtitle to each of Eugenides’s wildly different novels.
Still, a bunch of 22-year-olds scrambling to get married? Mental illness and religious quests are natural foibles for the class of 1982, but taking Madeleine and Leonard off the market before they’re more than a few months out of college and into their relationship seems a forced, if not altogether deluded, move. Victorian novelistic conventions or no, what is this generation doing fantasizing in only the vaguest, most bourgeois terms about the comforts of mating for life like pre-pubescents who haven’t heard of the sexual revolution, much less grown up in its wake? Here’s Mitchell: “How long had he been secretly hoping to marry Madeleine Hanna? And how much of his desire to marry Madeleine came from really and truly liking her as a person, and how much from the wish to possess her and, in so doing, gratify his ego?”
Mitchell is reflective enough to grasp that he may want Madeleine more as a trophy than a life partner, yet he doesn’t question why marrying her is the only way to make that happen. He has, we learn, been called out in the past “for sexist behavior” like gazing at women in the street. That’s a bluff. Desire isn’t sexist, no matter the crude comparisons between sleeping with women and evaluating the ripeness of watermelons made by Father Marucci, the Catholic priest Mitchell consults for advice on celibacy. Mitchell has the romantic’s, not the chauvinist’s, unexamined infatuation with marriage, and Eugenides is satisfied to let it remain so: unexamined by either character or writer, a vague notion of yearning and devotion presented at face value and never, even after Mitchell’s hope of possessing Madeleine body and soul finally pops with less splutter than a soap bubble, as something more emotionally or intellectually complicated. During a Quaker service when he accepts at long last that Madeleine will never love him, Mitchell cries “for the last ten minutes, as quietly as he could.” He then picks himself up and gets on with his life, going straight to Madeleine to report the good news. “She wasn’t so special, maybe. She was his ideal, but an early conception of it, and he would get over it in time. Mitchell gave her a slightly goofy smile. He was feeling a lot better about himself, as if he might do some good in the world.” No scene made, no harm done. The dream is politely deferred without so much as a whimper.
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