Thursday, December 15, 2011

Finding Joy in Post-College, Agonized Love: The Marriage Plot

I’m not exactly sure how Jeffrey Eugenides got onto my podcast roster, but I listened to an interview with him on Fresh Air and came away satisfied that I’d heard an author discuss a worthy piece of modern literature--just not anything that I would actually read. The revelation that the marriage plot is a device of Victorian romance novels was only slightly assuaged by the author’s mention that one character’s journey to Mother Theresa’s clinic in Calcutta reflected his own life experience. Literary analysis and East Coast academic romance in the distant 1980’s--would any young person open Eugenides without an essay assignment or pretentiousness as  motivators? I might have heard a second interview or just bitten the bullet when I saw The Marriage Plot on my library’s audiobook home page. Regardless of how it happened, I wound up with the book on my iPod, taking up 13 hours of valuable space, without having ever decided that I wanted to read it.

Eventually, I flicked down to Eugenides’ work rather than face The Jungle or another prescription for humanity by Joseph Stiglitz. Now, I can’t fully capture how grateful I am to have done so. Novels usually entertain, and sometimes even illuminate, but Eugenides pulled me through the anxieties, imperfect dreams, and unsatisfied realities of life in and after college in a way that wove richer stories into the same confusion that I’d felt at that time and enlarged the net from which I could survey and understand the contexts that framed the last six years of my life.

Madeleine, an upper-middle class undergrad at Brown leads the cast without a clear sense of her own present or future. She’s joined by the brilliant but mentally wounded Leonard, who pulls her away from a would-be normal graduation, and a wise fool of a would-be lover named Mitchell who explores India and his own emotions before finding a way to connect with Madeleine as an adult.

Lacking a diagnosis of manic depression to call my own, I nonetheless related to the highs and lows that rumble through Leonard’s life, juicing his mental and emotional performance before he careens  into a void to be caught by lithium pills in a dry-mouthed recovery that strangles his vivacity. Eugenides gave me licence to relate my moments of despair and rushes of passion to the riotous good times and shattering failures that Leonard rides on his meandering journey between confidence and surrender.

Just as completely, if not more so, I joined Mitchell on the outskirts of the life of the woman he longs for, pining and plotting to prove himself worthy in a world that he feels outclassed in, despite his intelligence and sensitivity of self. His brave and haphazard spring into the unknowns of Europe, North Africa, and India, felt like a more vibrant chord playing beside my own turtle-like road in Germany where the full faith and credit of the United States Government stands behind me.

Madeleine’s thoughts provided the narration most removed from my own experience. Her sex, self-perception, and situation could have alienated me in less-skillful hands. Instead, I had the most fun when I could stand by her side, whether in literatary theory lectures or the bipolar bedroom of her young marriage. This novel thoroughly violated the normal definitiveness that I find in fiction, but its half-victories, fought wholeheartedly, rang truer than the starker highs and lows that one so often reads to escape from the murky, mundane struggles of life as it’s lived.

Perhaps I found sweetness and light in The Marriage Plot because I share the anxieties and ambitions prodding Eugenides’ characters--never secure even when declared successful. But I think that Eugenides has grasped the chords of common college experiences dating back to the sexual revolution and rendered them in print for any generation.

The settings of Brown University, Cape Cod, and a well-heeled honeymoon excited a curiosity and hunger in me as the unrequited striver who longs to talk shop and find love at the same soiree. The reader’s peek into uncommon realms hearkens back to Jane Austen and her pen pals and, more familiarly to millennials, the enchanting halls of Hogwarts. Eugenides doesn’t leave his readers with bland enameled palaces or people. He reminds us that not even the bright, attractive girl from an upper-class background tends to make it through adolescence and her undergraduate degree without a few rollicking crises.

I don’t read much modern, realistic fiction. I think I prefer Fantasy and Sci-Fi because they open vibrant worlds with few immediate implications for my self-perception and social scene. It’s awkward thinking about college and youth as the determined party abstainer who cooks, bikes, and reads while others get down to the business of intramural experimentation.

I tend to think of novels that play by the rules of physics as somewhat less spectacular than those with a dragon or two to spice up the narrative. In The Marriage Plot, I not only found a world of startling life and wonder set at an early 80’s Ivy, but also a brighter reflection of my own experiences that kept beckoning me to come “further up and further in.”

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