Monday, January 9, 2012

The Sunday Book: The Marriage Plot - Jeffrey Eugenides

You know how when you look forward to something for aaages it will inevitably be a little bit disappointing? Even if it turns out to be awesome it will rarely be as good as in your head? Well, this wasn't like that. I read Middlesex when I was about 17 so I have been looking forward to his next novel for, say, five years. That is time to build up quite a head of excitement. Still, I was prepared for his new book not to meet my hyperactive expectations and I was prepared for it not to be as good Middlesex; I was not prepared for it to be rubbish. That was a shock.

It was a shock that I had been braced for by a slew of poor reviews but the startling mediocrity of The Marriage Plot still hit me like a cold fish across the face. Preparation vs. expectation is not a fair fight. It wasn't just a bit of disappointment; it was a lot of disappointment. I don't know why he did this to be. I believed in him, I wrote my dissertation on him and then this... Eugh.


Just to clarify, this isn't the worst book I've ever read, nowhere near. Eugenides is still a master of narrative and the story zips along and draws you in. I bombed through it after Christmas and I'm sure plenty of people will  think it is fine. I can't imagine that anyone will think it is great but some/most will, I imagine, find it unobjectionable. Not me though, I object. I'm willing to admit that for all its brilliance Middlesex is flawed, particularly in respect to gender and sexuality. But, for me, its brilliance, its imagination, its ambition and its narrative drive, far outweighed its flaws. The Marriage Plot is all flaw, no brilliance though and so much that was politically dubious about the previous novel seems to have been magnified ten fold by the ten years it took Eugenides to write this book.

Gosh, he comes across as a douchebag. Mitchell, one of the two male components of the central love triangle, is so blatantly and narcissistically a portrait of the artist as a young man that it makes me want to bang my head against a wall until I pass out. He is a nerdy (check), Detroit born (check), Greek-American (check) student at Brown (check) who spends the majority of the book resenting the hell out of the female lead for having the gall not to love him. How dare she?? Women always choose the bad guy, gah, aren't we typical? We want brawn over brain because we are shallow and sex crazed but don't worry because we shall be punished for enjoying sex. And, when the bad guy inevitably reveals his badness (by, say, having a massive mental breakdown - bastard) we won't even see it though, we shall cry and run back to our parents because our love is superficial and we are useless and weak and pathetic!

Yeah, the gender politics got up my nose a bit... Madeline is just such a wet blanket. She barely makes any positive decisions in the book, she is carried along by those around her [SPOILERS]; she writes the thesis her tutor tells her to, she takes the class the cool kids take, she follows Leonard to Cape Cod, she calls her mother when he disappears in Europe, she sits there like a pudding when he leaves and doesn't even try to call him despite the fact that he is clearly unwell. They don't even get a divorce - they get an annulment organised by Madeline's father. This passivity is admired and occasionally criticised but never questioned. It is very frustrating as is the way that Eugenides seems to think that an ability to quote complex feminist theorists entitles him to be as sexist as he likes. He sneers at Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous and their passionate female students. He disdains attempts to re-think the all-male cannon but positions himself as the enlightened man. Feminism is apparently invalidated by its fundamentalists. Eugh eugh eugh.


There is actually some interesting mental illness and religion stuff going on in the novel but I was and am too riled by the gender bidnez to be able to discuss it intelligently and give it the time/space/energy such topics deserve. Please can someone else write about them? Also, because I'm tired from my rant, can someone please call him on the whole marriage plot thing and the epic failure that was his attempt at the genre? If you are going to place yourself alongside Austen you'd better bring it. Eugenides did not bring it - it was not brung. All mouth, no trousers.


Clearly this book left a sour taste in my mouth so I can't recommend that you read it. But... I do want to discuss the book with people. I don't have a seminar group to work this stuff out with any more. So if anyone has read this then please tell me what you think, of the book, of my take, of the theory. We can disagree, it will be awesome. Let's talk.


Chuck x

10 comments:

  1. Ick - sorry it sucked so bad. I won't read it now but I hope you find someone to discuss it with!

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  2. Its interesting to read what you have to say, I heard on The Book Report a couple of days ago a show where they interviewed Jeffrey Eugenides, go to www.bookreportradio.com to have a listen.

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  3. Its interesting to read what you have to say, I heard on The Book Report a couple of days ago a show where they interviewed Jeffrey Eugenides, go to www.bookreportradio.com to have a listen.

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  4. Its interesting to read what you have to say, I heard on The Book Report a couple of days ago a show where they interviewed Jeffrey Eugenides, go to www.bookreportradio.com to have a listen.

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  5. I haven't read it because I saw this scathing Hairpin article first, have you seen it? http://thehairpin.com/2011/11/the-marriage-plot-vs-twilight-vs-the-world

    I must read Middlesex though, can't believe I haven't done that yet.

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  6. Oh this is really disheartening as I was really looking forward to reading it! In fact, I almost bought it for half price in Waterstone's the other day... am a little glad I didn't after reading your review. I think I'll still read it to have my own opinion, but I respect your stance on it and am sure this will have a huge effect on my reading of it. It's such a shame that the book fell short of your expectations (an understatement it appears!) and I'm disappointed by his approach to this topic. Buggering bollocks, where did the magic of The Virgin Suicides go?! xx

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  7. Thanks for letting me know. I will skip it!

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  8. I agree that it has many flaws, one huge one being the gender politics of the book. But I don't know why, it just resonated with me in other areas. It's hard for me to explain what drew me to this book, despite its flaws. I did feel though he could have done so much more with the basic premise of the novel.

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  9. Oh no! I have Middlesex to read as one of my next books, and The Virgin Suicides is one of my faves ever so this is sad news. Think I'll skip it, it will only make me annoyed...

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  10. I so enjoy the intelligence and energy of Eugenides writing. He seems to capture a contemporary spirit with style and originality.

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