Welcome to the One-Year Anniversary Edition of The Maladjusted Book Club! So glad you could join. (And don’t worry if you haven’t read the book. I tried to include a little something for any wanderer who arrives here dazed and confused.)
The Marriage Plot
Do you think Jeffrey Eugenides watches old reruns of Felicity, that WB show where a girl follows her crush across country so they can attend the same college?
When I first heard of the show, I was a brazenly new feminist, rather horrified by the premise. Oh, of course. Some girl has so little self-worth that she changes her whole life’s plan to follow a cute boy. Misogynist bullcrap.
And then I watched the show. Religiously. Until it went off the air four years later. Now I have each season on DVD, nestled carefully in the television cabinet. I watch them any time I am in a bad mood. Felicity always cheers me up.
It’s not misogynist bullcrap, in fact. It’s a show about the magic of college, friendship and self-discovery. Every shot is beautiful. Everyone talks in soothing half-whispers. While the old-fashioned love triangle is central, the writing and acting are so well-done that it feels comforting and gripping at the same time. So many girls dream of such a problem: Do I choose Noel, the sort of nerdy computer guy who is head over heels, or Ben, the mysterious blonde with a lot of emotional turmoil?
The twenty-somethings will almost always choose Ben. The thirty-somethings choose Noel.
Flash to 2011, The Marriage Plot.
Madeleine is stuck between Mitchell, the sort of nerdy religious guy and Leonard, the passionate manic-depressive.
Madeleine chooses Leonard. Felicity chooses Ben. And so the story goes, and goes.
* * *
Last week, revving up for our book club discussion, I got a link to a scathing (but hilarious) critique of The Marriage Plot by Anna Brenshaw. In short, she hates it. She thinks it’s as bad as Twilight. And she thinks Jane Austen’s heroines seem more progressive than Madeleine Hanna. She doesn’t seem appreciative of the book’s explicit sex scenes, either.
I know I shouldn’t, but I took personal offense to Brenshaw’s critique. Eugenides poured his heart and soul into a book, and she cuts it down with a sharp knife in 800 words. Here’s the thing she’s missing: It’s perfectly okay if Austen’s heroines are more progressive than Madeleine. Madeleine is living in a postmodernist world. Nothing is as it seems. No word is what it says. Just look at the passage by Roland Barthes from A Lover’s Discourse, the one that causes Madeleine to break up with Leonard the first time around: “Once the first avowal has been made, ‘I love you’ has no meaning whatsoever” (67).
(Can anyone who has been in love actually believe that bullcrap? Unlikely. Roland Barthes died a lonely man.)
Austen’s heroes (and Eliot’s, and Bronte’s) are not living in a very progressive time, so what does progressive even mean? It’s all relative. Toss it out there and watch the semiologists rip it to shreds with their cat-hands.
More than the love triangle, more than the heroine’s desire for fulfillment through sex and love and intellectual curiosity, Eugenides tries to show the magic of narrative, the way we can get lost in a story that may be strikingly similar to a story we’ve seen time and time again. The artist’s job is not to dissect language; it’s to celebrate it, to kiss the letters of each delicate word. And every page of this book is a celebration. Every paragraph begs the reader to continue a little more, and some more still. This is, after all, why we fall in love with reading. We read for the feeling of self-identification and discovery, for witty observations, for entertainment. Political and social commentary are the leftovers. So are the critics. They’re good, but they’re never as gratifying as the first hot words.
The Marriage Plot makes a case for the old-fashioned novel, for turning and turning and turning the page. It portrays the inherent war between the artist and the critic. And, in my opinion, the artist wins.
The artist always wins.
* * *
There is, of course, Mitchell. I can’t forget Mitchell.
In those days of watching Felicity, I wanted Ben. Yes, he was a little screwed up, and he did stupid things, and he kept lots of secrets from Felicity. That’s kind of why I liked him. He was so smooth, so needy for the salvation only a woman can give. Back then, I had the energy to do some saving.
Two kids and eight years of marriage later, I have since changed my opinion. Noel is the way to go.
Let me rephrase that in apostrophe form. Mitchell is the way to go, Madeleine.
True, he’s quirky. He has that religious thing going on, but he tackles theological questions in a way I’ve never heard them answered. (Clearly, I am not hanging out with the right people.)
“I’ll tell you what I learned in religious studies,” Mitchell said with a slight smile. “If you read any of the mystics, or any decent theology–Catholic, Protestant, kabbalistic–the one thing they all agree on is that God is beyond any human concept or category. That’s why Moses can’t look at Yahweh. That’s why, in Judaism, you can’t even spell God’s name. the human mind can’t conceive what God is. God doesn’t have a sex or anything else.”
“Then why is he a man with a long white beard on the Sistine Chapel?”
“Because it’s what the masses like.”
“Some people need a picture. Any great religion has to be inclusive. And to be inclusive you have to accommodate different levels of sophistication.” (137)
And then, of course, Mitchell continues on his journey of self-discovery, of self-reliance. He helps people in Mother Theresa’s compound in India. He finds out his best friend is gay and doesn’t judge him. He cuts his hair and comes home and realizes that while he loves Madeleine Hanna, it might never be the right time for them.
The novel at first appears to be Madeleine’s, but it could really be Mitchell’s. In the same way that Anna Karenina is really about Nikolai Levin.
For 19th century heroes and heroines, marriage was an end rather than a beginning. Mitchell and Madeleine, on the other hand (who the hell knows about Leonard?), are just starting out.
The Maladjusted Readers’ Guide.
Do the books we read tend to capture a specific mood or time we’re going through, as Eugenides has said in interviews surrounding The Marriage Plot?
Did you identify with Madeleine’s frustrations in learning semiotics? Is there a value to dissecting language as a means of communication? (If I was going to be really semiotical, I’d add a footnote here. But I don’t know how.)
Who wins, the critic or the artist?
Why do you think the book’s second-to-last scene ends in a Quaker meeting? (Can I tell you how much I love that?)
What do you think will happen to Leonard at the end of The Marriage Plot? And Madeleine? And Mitchell? Is The Big Chill in their future?
What, if anything, did the explicit sex scenes between Madeleine and Leonard add to the story?
Which character did you identify most with? Why?
What is the deal with the following picture?I look much better in person, I assure you. Just ask the author of this blog.
Nice shirt, Jeff.
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