Jeffrey Eugenides, David Foster Wallace, and the State of the Novel
What is it about the novel? Why—during an era in which robot Watson is beating all human comers on Jeopardy! and we receive our daily agonies and ecstasies in ever smaller digital bytes—is there still this pull to a nineteenth century form that requires countless hours of concentration? After all, novels ask a lot of us—time, engagement, what the critic N. Katherine Hayles calls “deep attention.” Novels command us to sit still in a chair (or a couch or a bathtub) for days on end and believe in a world apart from the one in which we exist.
At first glance, Jeffrey Eugenides’ newest book, The Marriage Plot, the long-awaited follow-up to his critically-lauded Middlesex, is pretty standard fare. While Middlesex took on transgender identity and the historical enmity between Greece and Turkey and coming of age in gritty, urban Detroit, The Marriage Plot focuses on wealthy, overeducated white kids puzzling over their experiences in the Ivy League. However, Eugenides’ newest book turns out to be something quite remarkable in its own way: a novel about loving novels and finding a future for them in an inhospitable world.
The Marriage Plot, its title and structure an homage to the classic boy-meets-girl formula that characterized many eighteenth- and nineteenth century- bourgeois novels, begins (and ends) in the library. Madeleine Hanna, its protagonist, is less a character than an archive. The first page of Eugenides’ novel asks us to “look at all the books” she possesses—from “Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication” to “the complete Modern Library set of Henry James,” and “good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Brontë sisters.” We greet Madeleine on the day of her college graduation from Brown University, and Eugenides makes it clear that Madeleine’s love for these unfashionable novels is a litmus test for her personality, marking her as “incurably romantic” in contrast to the rough-and-tumble theoryheads who have come to dominate college campuses during the early 1980s. Unlike the Derrida-mad students in her Semiotics 211 course, Madeleine had “become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read.”
Eugenides writes that “even as a girl in their house in Prettybrook, Madeleine wandered into the library, with its shelves of books rising higher than she could reach—newly purchased volumes such as Love Story and Myra Breckenridge that exuded a faintly forbidden air, as well as venerable leather-bound editions of Fielding, Thackeray, and Dickens—and the magisterial presence of all those potentially readable words stopped her in her tracks.” Finely-wrought descriptions like these stop the reader in her tracks, as well. It is not every day that we get to read a serious novel about a person whose life revolves around reading serious novels—at least not someone who is more than fodder for Fox News for doing so (maybe one day, I will figure out why people hate English professors so much; for the elite, they sure don’t make much money or wield much power). Madeleine fantasizes about becoming an English professor, a Victorianist; her happiest moment in the novel comes from attending a conference where she communes with other ecstatic young women academics. There is something brave about writing a book about book-mad people and a budding professor heroine—a resolutely non-populist endeavor in a time when novelists are encouraged to be relatable and not to do anything to alienate their ever-shrinking public.
That being said, in a novel that is all about the novel’s alluring capacity to get us to suspend disbelief, Eugenides’ Madeleine is not a very believable character. More a collection of census data than a woman (rich, white, preppy, cosmopolitan), Madeleine never feels real. She is an incomparably pretty young thing from a town called Prettybrook, who gets involved with a crazy person despite being fundamentally, almost creepily healthy herself (at times, it is difficult not to imagine Madeleine and her hearty WASP clan as Annie Hall’s family, effortlessly beautiful and healthy in contrast to their daughter’s enfeebled boyfriend). The idealization of Madeleine by religious studies student Mitchell Grammaticus, one vertex in the love triangle that makes up The Marriage Plot, feels more believable than Madeleine herself—a fact that makes Eugenides’ well-meaning attempt to write from a woman’s perspective, Jane Austen-like, end up reproducing the age-old idea that women are mysterious objet d’art, quasi-religious figures to be approached with fear and awe.
Despite this misstep, Eugenides’ writing is adept and pleasurable in a manner that can’t be ignored. As in Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides, he is masterful at creating a sense of place in his newest novel. Brown University in 1982 is everything you would expect it to be. A champagne socialist paradise, the Providence Madeleine and her friends inhabit is one of gorgeous period architecture, leather-jacketed academics, recreational drugs, and a surfeit of brunch options. The other Providence—the working class one—is only glimpsed when the Brown kids slum it outside their usual environs. The effortless realism, the deep sense of place evoked in The Marriage Plot is itself an optimistic endorsement of the novelist’s enterprise. In Eugenides’ able hands, the novel is a living thing, an extant medium, and not just another nineteenth century patriarch over whose grave we gather to give a eulogy every couple of years.
The specter that haunts The Marriage Plot is not simply the novel, however, but one of its most innovative twentieth-century practitioners. Effortlessly brilliant, barely held together by a scruffy bandanna and a tin of chewing tobacco, Leonard Bankhead, Madeleine’s ill-fated lover and the engine for the marriage plot at the heart of Eugenides’ novel, is a thinly-veiled stand-in for David Foster Wallace. Encountering this figure in the early 1980s landscape of The Marriage Plot is shocking, like casually coming across a simulacrum of Salman Rushdie wooing Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. Leonard’s bandannaed visage reminds us that The Marriage Plot is a paean not to the late 1970s or early 1980s, as its setting suggests, but instead to another decade altogether: the 1990s and the vista for the novel presented during that period of economic expansion and boundless creativity.
Just as Nathaniel Hawthorne set The Scarlet Letter during the Salem witch trials even though he was really making a commentary on corruption during his own mid-nineteenth century era, Eugenides makes college campuses during the early years of Reagan’s rule stand in for his own literary heyday during the dotcom boom. After all, Eugenides is of that competitive, brilliant, somewhat bratty cohort that came of age during the Clinton years in the White House, a cohort that included not just Wallace, but also Jonathan Franzen, Rick Moody, and other powerhouse maximalists. Maybe it was for this reason that it’s hard to read about Leonard Bankhead’s struggle with mental illness and romantic and career failure without crying. Even though the Bankhead of The Marriage Plot is ostensibly a scientist and not a novelist, he is every bit the doomed, lumbering Wallace (Eugenides’ protestations aside), and his character’s role in The Marriage Plot suggests that with the death of David Foster Wallace, something about the messy, beautiful, ambitious world of late twentieth-century fiction died, too.
Such depictions of Wallace—and our own response to them—certainly contribute to the hagiography growing up around DFW since his death, a mythology that Jonathan Franzen bitterly laments in an article about the writer’s suicide in The New Yorker. At the same time, this protracted collective mourning for Wallace says less about the writer than it does about the paucity of our own contemporary literary sphere. In 2000, James Wood could lament the rise of what he dubbed “hysterical realism,” a genre that brought together over-the-top, unbelievable characters and plots with an exploration of real social systems. Wood dubbed “hysterical realist” a number of novels being produced during the last decade of the twentieth century—novels by megawatt writers such as Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, and Salman Rushdie. Ten-plus years later, in Anglo-America, it’s hard to even grasp what Wood was so worried about. In 2011, the literary landscape seems somehow quieter, more fragmentary now than it did when Wood wrote his critique of the hysterical real. Maybe, in a post-9/11 world, at war on multiple fronts, our social landscape is already too “hysterical” to brook representation. In many ways, not so much has changed, really. Every year, there are still novels christened great ones. Every year, some 25-year-old novelist is still inaugurated that year’s enfant-terrible-in-training. Every year, critics are still in search of novels that treat the big Themes (capital letter intentional). In 2011, N+1 editor Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding was the one to beat. However, despite the continuities of the writing, publishing, and reviewing cycle, it’s hard not to cast our eyes backwards, as Eugenides does, to the 1990s, a time when the novel—hysterical realist, naturalistic, or otherwise—mattered so much, drew so much ire, contributed to a common public discourse that no longer seems to exist.
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes
- 1 Brooklyn Man Now Living Entirely Off Own Beard Garden
- 2 First Openly Straight Figure Skater Comes Forward
- 3 “Cra Cra” Now Official Diagnosis in New DSM (DSM-5)
- 4 OfficeMax Marketing Director Struggling to Make Staplers ‘Sexy’ and ‘Conversational’
- 5 Area Man Tailors Life To Be More Relevant To His Hulu Advertisements
- 6 Fan Banging Furiously on Glass Could Be the Difference in Hockey Playoffs
- 7 Homeless Guy Woos Silicon Valley VCs with Low-Tech Crowdfunding Startup
- 8 Survey: 88% of Eagles Fans Too Drunk To Spell Nnamdi Asomugha Last Season
- 9 Attorney Actually Starting to Believe Own Bullshit
- 10 Local Mom Won’t Stop Being First Person to Like Every Goddamn Thing Son Posts to Facebook