Obscure Objects of Desire: On Jeffrey Eugenides
I have trouble believing this, in part because both the notion of Mitchell’s miracle cure and the prose in which it’s described could have come straight out of the kind of pamphlet Father Marucci might press into the clammy palms of boys who need help sublimating their urges. Then again, I have trouble believing much of what Eugenides has to say about his characters. It’s not that he doesn’t say enough. The Marriage Plot is stuffed with motivations, revelations, convenient historical tidbits and childhood back stories: Madeleine’s parents with their WASPy affect, Leonard’s with their alcoholism and divorce, Mitchell’s with their cozy middle-class Republicanism. If these easy glosses oversimplify human relations, they also amount to an oversimplification of form. All this accounting for why everyone turned out the way they did, why they think and talk and act the way they do, is the kind of thing that never fails to get a novel like The Marriage Plot hailed as “realist,” as if reality could ever be reduced to a spreadsheet of cause and effect.
“If any single moment defined Madeleine’s generation of girls,” the narrator says of the televised 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, “it was those two hours and fifteen minutes when the country watched a man in white shorts get thrashed by a woman, pummeled repeatedly until all he could do, after match point, was to jump feebly over the net.” I have trouble believing this because I can’t accept that Madeleine, or any other English major of moderate intelligence, would confuse a metaphor as glib as a tennis match billed as The Battle of the Sexes for a shrewd commentary on her own life. And I really have trouble believing that right smack in the middle of sex, after Leonard “pulled off Madeleine’s tights and underwear and plunged into her as far as he could go,” he reflects that he “was giving Madeleine what Phyllida could never give her, and thereby exercising his advantage.” (This might be the moment to issue a general warning about the sex in The Marriage Plot. Like digitized cartoon pornography or enlarged plastic models of the reproductive system, it manages to be at once graphic and utterly sanitized.) Phyllida is Madeleine’s mother. Leonard fears that she does not approve of him as a match for Madeleine. Leonard has concerns about his masculinity. Yet that Leonard would, in a rush of cockiness, decide that he has an insurmountable advantage over Phyllida because he can satisfy Madeleine sexually is ludicrous. It’s also lazy. Why should Eugenides bother with the shadings of actual jealousy and desire when he can slap another prefab complex on Leonard and call it a day?
In this long novel, Eugenides is a glutton for shortcuts. Here is Mitchell in Paris, after getting scolded by a friend’s girlfriend for ogling women on the street:
Suddenly, in the castigating light of Claire’s gaze, Mitchell was ashamed of himself. He wanted women to love him, all women, beginning with his mother and going on from there. Therefore, whenever any woman got mad at him, he felt maternal disapproval crashing down upon his shoulders, as if he’d been a naughty boy.
Here is a flashback to Leonard as a high school student, thinking about his parents, Frank and Rita, after their separation:
As though he was already a mature adult, Leonard suddenly understood the dynamic between himself and Rita. He understood that she had been naturally fonder of Janet [Leonard’s sister], felt guilty about this, and found fault with him to justify this prejudice. He understood that, as a male, Leonard reminded Rita of Frank, and that she either consciously or unconsciously held him at a slight distance as a result. He understood that he had unwittingly assumed Frank’s attitudes, belittling Rita in his private thoughts the way Frank had done out loud. In short, Leonard understood that his entire relationship with his mother had been determined by a person who was no longer around.
Here is Madeleine, reflecting on her semiotics professor:
Listening to him talk about the paper he’d given at the New School, Madeleine suddenly understood. Semiotics was the form Zipperstein’s midlife crisis had taken. Becoming a semiotician allowed Zipperstein to wear a leather jacket, to fly off to Douglas Sirk retrospectives in Vancouver, and to get all the sexy waifs in his classes. Instead of leaving his wife, Zipperstein had left the English department. Instead of buying a sports car, he’d bought deconstruction.
Suddenly, suddenly, suddenly; therefore and in short, everybody understood everything about themselves and other people, too: cases—of girls, family, critical theory—closed. Never mind that they don’t quite make sense, these flashes of revelation, that they’re too pat to illuminate much of anything, that in attempting to inflate character with a jumble of predetermined neuroses they suck out of life everything about it that’s slippery and irreducible. For all the thinking that the members of this well-educated, well-read trio do about their lives, very little of it bears the strain or shading of actual thought. For all the love and desire and anguish they’re credited with feeling, even their strongest emotions appear bleached out.
Leonard’s analysis of his relationship with his mother comes to him “as though he was already a mature adult.” What mature adult would trust such a rapidly packaged summation of any family dynamic, particularly one as unhappy as Leonard’s? Though Eugenides construes his insight as grown-up, Leonard sounds exactly like what he is in that moment: a clever adolescent who just wants to be told in a couple of declarative sentences what all this mess means. Eugenides seems to think that his readers expect the same, and this calls to mind Virginia Woolf’s characterization of Middlemarch as “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” That judgment captures everything that was right with Eliot, who shows above all what an intricate, perplexing, thrilling process change can be, and what was wrong with the mass of average Victorian novels, the ones whose heroines we don’t remember. In giving their audience exactly what it liked according to the formula it knew and anticipated, the writers of those books treated their readers like children. “She wanted a book to take her places she couldn’t get to herself,” Eugenides says of Madeleine. Fair enough. But the places that The Marriage Plot takes its readers while insisting on how, and on what terms, they should consider everything along the way don’t turn out to be worth the trip.
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