Pop quiz: When is a novel of social realism not a novel of social realism? Or, think of it this way: "Ceci n'est pas une pipe."
The author of the suburban magic-realist gem The Virgin Suicides and the exuberant multigenerational gender-bending Pulitzer Prize winner Middlesex has written a third novel that is, on the surface, less ambitious: a pleasing, Ivy League tragicomedy of manners. It's the dawn of graduation day on the Brown University campus in Providence, R.I., in the early 1980s and Madeleine Hanna, Mitchell Grammaticus and Leonard Bankhead face down the first day of the rest of their lives.
Religious studies major Mitchell loves Madeleine, Victorian-novel-loving Madeleine has lost her heart to Leonard, and Leonard – science prodigy, fledgling polymath and charismatic – grapples with manic depression.
It all started, at least for Madeleine, with Semiotics 211, a fashionable upper-level seminar in which the students say things like, "I'm finding it hard to introduce myself, actually, because the whole idea of social introductions is so problematized," and the professor doesn't so much run the class "as observe it from behind the one-way mirror of his opaque personality."
Madeleine enrolls after hearing unfamiliar names like Derrida, Foucault, Barthes and Deleuze tossed about like confetti by middle-class anarchists and serious contemporary-lit types alike. Madeleine, who became "an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read." Madeleine, who is writing her senior thesis on the marriage plot in Austen, and in the darker Victorians, books with suitors, proposals and misunderstandings, that end, or don't end, with weddings. Her epigraph is from Trollope: "The way of true love never works out, except at the end of an English novel." But she doesn't really believe this. She is, in a nutshell, a romantic.
Semiotics 211 brings both love and the deconstruction of love into her life. Love comes in the form of the big, shaggy, brilliant Leonard, who, dear reader, it must be said, does love her back. But sometimes love is not enough.
This knowledge is hard-won as well by the studious Mitchell, who, still pining for Madeleine, goes backpacking after graduation, landing in Calcutta to volunteer at Mother Teresa's Home for Dying Destitutes, where he hopes goodness will rub off on him. Religion and faith, as well as the religious, including fundamentalists, are treated with respect by Eugenides, which is rare in contemporary North American fiction, and refreshing.
The novel's prose is a nice meld of melancholy, almost Fitzgeraldesque at times, and wit. Mitchell's Republican dad, discovering that his son may go to divinity school and become a professor, says, "[T]nure's a good deal. It's un-American. But it's nice work if you can get it." And in the semiotics class: "Everyone in the room was so spectral-looking that Madeleine's natural healthiness seemed suspect, like a vote for Reagan."
The Marriage Plot appears to be an attempt to explore whether an old-fashioned novel can be written in newfangled times; and whether true romance and traditional spirituality can thrive in a postmodern environment (it does help that cellphones and e-mail were nowhere in 1982). And for all his playing up the early-eighties ethos, it's clear where Eugenides's heart lies. Or is it?
The novel contains a shocker that has nothing to do with the plot. I made a note on Page 50: "I keep thinking Leonard is DFW." I couldn't shake the feeling that Leonard Bankhead was an incarnation of the lamented literary genius David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide just over three years ago. In physical detail, Leonard closely resembles DFW; and there's also the bandana, the chaw, the erudition, the brutal mental illness (although Wallace was depressive, not bipolar). Though Leonard isn't a writer or wanna-be writer, I just couldn't shake the feeling that there was something weird, even creepy, going on.
After finishing the novel, a quick check online confirmed my suspicions: Those familiar with DFW's writings, interviews and life have found plenty of evidence, even locating direct quotes from Wallace that have been put into Leonard's mouth.
Leonard, with his Arvo Pärt records and his Nietzsche, his genuine passion for philosophy and biology, who jokes that his "goal in life is to become an adjective," is a compelling character. It's hard to write a charismatic, and Eugenides pulls it off. He captures the mania from Leonard's point of view, "thoughts stacked up in his head like air traffic over Logan Airport to the northwest," as well as the brutality of the disease, how depression is physically painful, how it hurts.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Eugenides rather disingenuously denied the character was inspired by or even bore a resemblance to Wallace. If it's a homage, why deny it? And if not, what is he playing at here? Is he making a meta-fictional point while pretending not to by writing a main character who so eerily resembles in almost every way one of the leading postmodernist writers of the 20th and 21st century? I find this disturbing.
If I held with Roland Barthes that that Author was truly Dead, I wouldn't be indulging in this kind of interpretive tyranny. But The Marriage Plot can be read innocently enough as a modern romance about books and love and goodness, or as something tricksier, depending on what you bring to the text from outside.
Contributing reviewer Zsuzsi Gartner's Better Living with Plastic Explosives is a finalist for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize.