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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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