Now, this novel by a one-time Pulitzer Prize winner American author, Jeffrey Eugenides, caught my attention in the public library in town for one simple reason – I had not heard about the author or the book at all; it fell in the attractive “new and un-recommended” (as against recommended or not recommended) category :P.
The verdict? The Marriage Plot makes a very interesting read - interesting not in the sense that it cannot be understood (:D) - but interesting in the sense that it challenges your own intellectual background and reading.
Set in the early 1980s, in the context of the global economic recession, the novel traces the lives, during the one year after school, of three undergraduates at the Brown University, the then emerging hot bed for post modernism.
Interestingly, the female protagonist is an English major who finds it tough to make the leap from outdated Victorian sentimentalism to the ragingly fashionable semiotics – Caught in the times when Jane Austen had become passé, and Derrida had come to be in vogue.
As an English Lit grad myself, I found myself empathizing with Madeleine, every time she exasperated on discourses on deconstruction and post structuralism. I remember sitting in my literary theory classes trying to decipher Foucault and wondering where had gone all the texts that could be understood in one simple reading!
In this ‘semiotically’ charged backdrop, the two male protagonists – Leonard, a charming Darwinist, and Mitchell, a religious scholar, court careers, confusion, existential crisis, undergrad life, dope, mental and emotional extremes, and Madeleine. To call this a love triangle, would be not only overly simplistic but against the very grain of the novel.
The Marriage Plot is about the death of the 'marriage plot' as existed in the seemingly romantic and uncomplicated times of the nineteenth century. Through the novel, and the so many failed marriage plots inherent in it, the author seems to ask the retrospective question – faced with the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenuptials and divorces - are we in an age sans of any great majestic love stories?
Through the three characters, Eugenides brings out the intellectual angst representative of the world we live in today. Madeleine is devastated as Barthes deconstructs the very notion of love and even more so when Leonard quotes from the very book to respond to her declaration of love.
Leonard has a complex layer of grey matter that plays hide and seek with him and in a way writes the destiny of all three of them.
Mitchell is confused about most things – his love and the lack of it, religious mysticism, Nietzsche, his true calling and the meaning of life. His anti-proposal is a crucial aspect to the marriage plot – concealing its fate completely.
In its commentary of the coming of the new age – as confused and as angst ridden it may be – Eugenides does a fantastic job – And I feel there is also exactly where the book fails as a work of pure fiction. Maybe it was never intended to be so.
The characters, seemingly real, fail to appeal to you as people in flesh and blood. I failed to emotionally connect with any of them, as usually would be the case in a typical novel. At least, the two male leads show some kind of progression or regression – but in the case of Madeleine, there does not seem to be a movement – no journey – and apparently no growth – in that sense, the characters are not well carved.
The scholarly didacticism takes over the story telling – the focus is on literary commentary, and the lives of the protagonists a context to experiment with and prove the theories.
I would recommend this book to people who keenly follow literary theories and emerging philosophies – for the pure genius of contextuality that the author weaves in a highly readable and fast paced novel. This one’s not for those looking for a tale with vivid characterization and a plot that binds and progresses.