Obscure Objects of Desire: On Jeffrey Eugenides
Eugenides’s reflex to assign strict meaning poses a particular problem with Leonard. It’s difficult to get very far into The Marriage Plot without asking, as commentators on the Internet did when part of the first section of the book appeared in The New Yorker, why Eugenides’s manic-depressive character is dressed up as David Foster Wallace. The long ponytail; the trademark bandana; the chewing tobacco; the preoccupations with philosophical questions about modality and the passage of time; the words, some of them taken directly from Wallace’s lips (“Do you have my saliva?” Wallace asked in a 1996 New York Times profile by Frank Bruni. “Who took my saliva?” asks Leonard, mouth dry from lithium). Most critically, there’s Leonard’s decision to go against his doctor’s orders and change his lithium dose. As was revealed almost immediately after his death, David Foster Wallace had tried to reduce his dependency on the antidepressant phenelzine, and then stopped taking it altogether on his doctor’s advice, triggering the depression that led to his suicide. Leonard’s dosage doctoring is not without consequences, but they pale in comparison with what happened to Wallace—the leader of his generation of American writers and its most dramatic loss—who was two years younger than Eugenides.
Whether Eugenides conjured up Leonard as homage to Wallace or imported Wallace’s distinctive tics onto a character he had already begun to shape, his choice to enter a mental universe with key similarities to Wallace’s suggests a way of revising the terms of that tragedy. Such curiosity is an act of deep sympathy, not least for its turning up in a book that sets out stylistically to accomplish the opposite of Wallace’s ebullient fiction, yet it remains essentially cosmetic. Leonard hurtles into mania, first on Cape Cod and then on his honeymoon in Monte Carlo, giving Madeleine the slip while he casino-hops with strangers. We see what he’s up to and know it can’t turn out well, and there are moving moments of loneliness, fear and unsettling exuberance.
Still, manic-depression as Eugenides colors it tends to be straightforward in its ups and downs. The physical effects of the illness, images like that of Leonard “lying in bed, putting on weight like a calf in a veal crate,” are carefully conveyed, but the disorder’s essence, the texture of Leonard’s terrible despair, doesn’t register. “That was when Leonard realized something crucial about depression. The smarter you were, the worse it was. The sharper your brain, the more it cut you up.” How much does this really tell us, even if it should somehow be true? Rather than coming into focus through his struggle with the fierce opposing poles of his disease, Leonard is reduced to a catalog of their effects.
It should be said that Eugenides’s compassion for his characters is genuine and profound, even rare. In his fatherly way, he truly wants the best for them. The Brown pastiche, by far the best section of The Marriage Plot, is clever and funny precisely because it’s imbued with affection. The hesitation to enter more fully into Leonard’s illness seems an avoidance of the true ugliness of the thing, a failure of daring rather than of imagination. But there are richer possibilities between the contempt that a Jonathan Franzen, say, tends to show for the middle-class people and preoccupations he pummels in his writing and the coddling that goes on here. Eugenides hesitates to push or prod. He shies away from the writer’s imperative, as Saul Bellow put it, to bring feelings of tenderness and tolerance “into the hottest fire,” to “expose them to the most destructive opposites he can find and, if he wishes to be tender, confront the murderer’s face.”
Mitchell’s stint volunteering for Mother Teresa, to take one example, should lead to exactly such a reckoning. Instead, Calcutta amounts to a bland set piece, with the predictable hostel weirdos, Western do-gooders and Indian poor, the predictable observations of beggars and rickshaws and passive American guilt about beggars and rickshaws. Mitchell’s spiritual quest is bland in its nonprogress and bland in its resolution, which, of course, happens as such things do: in a perfect burst of understanding. “But suddenly, swooping in from his peripheral vision, a rickshaw stopped beside him…. He understood the Jesus Prayer now. Understood mercy. Understood sinner, for sure.” But what has he understood? What does it look like, the murderer’s face? Suddenly, the scene fades to black.
* * *
Early in The Marriage Plot, Eugenides talks form, putting the questions at the heart of his own novel in the mouth of K. McCall Saunders, Madeleine’s thesis adviser. “As far as Saunders was concerned, marriage didn’t mean much anymore, and neither did the novel. Where could you find the marriage plot nowadays? You couldn’t…. You had to read non-Western novels involving traditional societies. Afghani novels, Indian novels. You had to go, literally speaking, back in time.” Set aside, if you can, the noble savage dig directed at “traditional societies,” one that Eugenides has been blithely trotting out in interviews. It’s as if Saunders never picked up a piece of American fiction. The marriage plot never faded from the American novel, because it never faded from American life, as any of the Real Housewives shows cycling around television suggest. Like everything else, it’s still complicated, just in new ways.
Of all the modern novels that might confound Saunders, I think in particular of Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, and not just because of the fantastic Humboldt, an effigy of Bellow’s own great fallen artist, Delmore Schwartz. Humboldt, whose manic-depression is both divine comedy and tragedy, life’s essence and its nemesis, is a high and low force missing from Eugenides’s take on the disease. Eugenides knows Humboldt’s Gift well. He wrote a nice introduction for the latest Penguin edition, standing up to the critics who sounded more than a bit like his Professor Saunders in their complaints that with his great picaresque—the memorial to the poet, the meditation on art, the Chicago mob caper, the spiritual meditations and explorations, the hoofing around France and Spain and Texas—Bellow tried to squeeze too many things, in too many registers, into a single book. No, Eugenides protested, though not for all the right reasons. He saw anthroposophy—the spiritual pursuit of Bellow’s narrator Charlie Citrine—as the book’s centering force, the pillar that gave it shape. He should have seen, too, that the novel, unconcerned with fitting all it had to talk about into a single structure, made a shape for itself, that in playing fast and loose with form it found its own.
And Eugenides must know that, as in nearly every Bellow novel, much of Humboldt turns on the marriage plot: not just one, because this is America we’re talking about, but two. While Citrine’s ex-wife is flaying him in court, his babe of a younger girlfriend is nagging him for a ring. “Americans! with their stupid ideas about love, and their domestic tragedies,” Humboldt used to rant, mimicking the grumbling, self-righteous peanut gallery. “What did the personal troubles of Americans amount to? Did they really suffer?” Citrine is tangled in the practical and material considerations that have always been central to the marriage plot, and yet in the midst of all his personal troubles, he is buoyed by the purest romanticism—by stupid ideas about love: “On business errands on La Salle Street, zooming or plunging in swift elevators, every time I felt a check in the electrical speed and the door was about to open, my heart spoke up. Entirely on its own. It exclaimed, ‘My Fate!’ It seems I expected some woman to be standing there. ‘At last! You!’”
As Citrine is the first to acknowledge, his elevator fantasy is bonkers, and its nuttiness, its hopefulness, its intimation that a life can change in a second, and then change again and again, betray him, despite his intellectual schemes and mixed marital record, as a romantic. Romanticism like this isn’t a tool for sketching character or structuring plot, a way to bring characters into relationships and deliver them, battered or elated or something in between, to the end of the story. It’s the story’s very fabric, a vision of the way the world isn’t, but of what it might be. Humboldt’s Gift is a quintessential American marriage plot: the legal colliding with the emotional, the practical colliding with the imagined, life’s ideal confronted with life’s realities and foiled, again and again, but resilient anyway. Humboldt wanted to know if the suffering is real. It is, but so too is the joy.
The point of a marriage plot like this, its sheer vitality, is lost on Saunders, whose grasp of the genre may not be quite as firm as he, or Eugenides, thinks. “What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later?” Saunders wonders, forgetting that the independently wealthy Emma is an obvious exception to his rule that “marriage had depended on money” and could have lived—and married—as she liked. “How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup?” he asks, presumably because in the alternate text of The Portrait of a Lady that only he knows, Isabel Archer stays with Gilbert Osmond out of fear of losing her fortune, rather than the sense of honor that she alone, in that fallen society of parasites and opportunists, insists on preserving. And what of another model of marriage in that novel, that of Daniel and Lydia Touchett, who have lived amicably separated for nearly their entire lives without coming to financial or emotional ruin? Isabel Archer rejects the same in her own life as too easy a way out, but the choice is hers.
What would it matter, in other words, if Madeleine were to marry if she could file for separation later? If she had a prenup? It would matter quite a bit, I’d have thought. Like Emma Woodhouse, like Isabel Archer, Madeleine marries out of sentimental, not practical, motives. When the vision of the rest of your life is swept away, when the terms of your love are revised or scrapped altogether, the stakes are pretty high, especially if you’re just out of college and don’t have much besides idealism to bank on. Eugenides spends the bulk of his novel insisting upon this, only to stumble straight into his own trap. What would it matter? As it happens, it would hardly matter at all. When the time is right, Madeleine’s union with Leonard is dissolved with a supernatural ease and speed that is strictly fairy tale. “I divorce thee,” says Leonard, a subway car’s closing doors the machina to his deus, and the princess is released, in Madeleine’s case, without so much as a whiff of agency on her part.
Nor in the end does Eugenides resist the temptation of the metafictional. In the book’s final scene, Mitchell, arriving at Madeleine’s to herald the end of his crush, asks if there’s a novel in which “the second suitor realizes that the last thing the woman needs is to get married again, that she’s got more important things to do with her life.” No, replies Madeleine. Does she think there should be one that turns out like that? Yes, replies Madeleine, “smiling gratefully” as Mitchell turns his back and walks away into his own, solitary future. So Eugenides says, but, once again, I admit to having trouble believing this. Could any actual heroine, grasping the hero’s insinuation that in overcoming his own desire, he has magnanimously freed her to live her life as she sees fit, stop from laughing in his face? Then again, as Mitchell notes, this may be a first for the genre. Is there a novel whose heroine cheerily gets shackled to selfish suitor number one only to suffer the preposterous condescension of being forced to express gratitude when solipsistic suitor number two pops in to liberate her from the bonds of an affection she never shared? Now there is, and the form isn’t the better for it. n