I Riff on Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, Which I Haven’t Read (Book Acquired, 8.22.2012)



1. Jeffrey Eugenides’s third novel The Marriage Plot is out in paperback from Picador this month. I haven’t read it.

2. I like the cover, a sort of watercolor job on thick textured paper.

3. I read Eugenides’s first novel The Virgin Suicides in 1997 or 1998. I was a freshman or sophomore in college. It was one of those books that everyone had on their shelves (I read my girlfriend’s roommate’s copy in maybe two sittings). I recall liking its style but the story had no emotional impact on me.

I was suspicious of the talent everyone ascribed to Eugenides.

4. I bought Eugenides’s second novel Middlesex in a train station in Rome. I bought it because I needed something to read. I read most of it on trains. This was the summer of 2005 or 2006, I think.

5. Middlesex is one of the first novels I can think of that I read and thought, “Here is a writer trying to fool me. Here is a writer trying to hide a fairly predictable plot under a mask of thematic importance. Here is a writer trying to hide mundane and often clunky prose beneath relevant issues. Here is an author trying to hide a lack of penetrating insight beneath the dazzle of historical sweep.”

6. Middlesex: The seams show. It’s literary-fiction-as-genre. And I have no problem with that. I wish it was weirder.

7. Here’s the back cover blurb for The Marriage Plot:

It’s the early 1980s. In American colleges, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels. As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes—the charismatic and intense Leonard Bankhead, and her old friend the mystically inclined Mitchell Grammaticus. As all three of them face life in the real world they will have to reevaluate everything they have learned.

8. I sort of feel like I’ve already read the novel after reading this. Or maybe I feel like I could guess the trajectory of the novel.

9. Okay, so maybe I should read the first few pages . . .

10. I stopped on page 11, at this paragraph:

The cafe had just opened. The guy behind the counter, who was wearing Elvis Costello glasses, was rinsing out the espresso machine. At a table against the wall, a girl with stiff pink hair was smoking a clove cigarette and reading Invisible Cities. “Tainted Love” played from the stereo on top of the refrigerator.

Espresso! Cloves! Soft Cell! Calvino! Costello!

Okay. Maybe it’s Gloria Jones’s version of “Tainted Love.”

Anyway. There’s something insufferable about the paragraph.

I suppose I need to name or define the “something.”

11. Let me backtrack then, to the first paragraphs of the novel, to its first line even: “To start with, look at all the books.”

I like that as an opening line. I do. And I don’t mind an intertextual read. I’ll even accept this opening gambit as a form of characterization for our heroine Madeleine—this listing of authors—Wharton, Henry James, “a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope” (a smidgen!), “good helpings of Austen, George Eliot” etc. etc. We learn she reads Collette “on the sly” (who is stopping her?).

The references pile up: The surroundings of College Hill are compared to a “Charles Addams cartoon or a Lovecraft story”; those damn RISD kids are “blaring Patti Smith”; Madeleine has borrowed her roommate’s Betsey Johnson dress; you might recognize Madeleine by her “Katherine Hepburn-ish cheekbones and jawline”; etc.

For, fun, let me pick three pages at random:

On page 75, we find out that someone named Dinky is “a frosted blonde with late-de Kooning teeth.”

Page 187 is clean.

Page 87: Roland Barthes. Harpo Marx. Grolsch beer.

(I can’t help but skim over 86, a motherlode: Kafka, Borges, Musil, Vanity FairThe Sorrows of Young Werther, Derrida).

12. Erudition in a novel can be a fine thing, and works that explicitly reference and engage other works can be marvelous (Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn is an easy example to go to here). But references can also be used lazily as placeholders for real meaning, or even as a substitution for an entire milieu. (This is what I mean by the “something insufferable,” re: point 10).

13. There seems to be a trend in genre-bound “literary fiction” novels (again, I mean literary-fiction-as-genre) that lazily tie themselves to another, greater novel, without actually adding to the themes. I’m thinking explicitly of Franzen trying to borrow some of the weight of War and Peace in Freedom and Chad Harbach’s bid for Moby-Dick comparisons in The Art of Fielding. My intuition is that Eugenides is doing the same thing in The Marriage Plot.

14. Of course I’m probably (improbably enough) not the ideal audience for The Marriage Plot, not despite the fact but because of the fact that I happen to dig Talking Heads and Derrida and Barthes and literary theory &c. A romcom that involves a semiotics seminar as a setting is especially unappealing to me.

My wife, on the other hand, snapped up the copy of The Marriage Plot that the kind people at Picador sent me. I had to pull it from her night stand to write this riff. I’ll get her reaction down the line, which will certainly be more informed than my own.


17 thoughts on “I Riff on Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, Which I Haven’t Read (Book Acquired, 8.22.2012)”

  1. One of the things you’re missing by not reading the book is that the character of Leonard is pretty clearly based on David Foster Wallace; Eugenides gives him the long hair, the bandana, the personality, the suicidal depression, etc. There’s also at least one instance where Leonard says something I’ve read DFW say in an interview.

    I liked this novel well enough, but things like “Elvis Costello glasses” feel like a cheat. Not to get all James Wood here, but is that how fiction works? It seems like so few contemporary writers bother to describe their characters’ appearences that when one like Eugenides *does* bother, he simply throws out a famous name rather than let the prose do the work.


    1. Yeah, I’d read the DFW character comparison, and I’d also read Eugenides deny it. Admittedly, I picked on a few examples of cultural-reference-in-place-of-actual-descriptor, but the book seems rife with them.
      DFW actually talks about this in his essay on contemporary fiction that’s collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing, where he talks about having had a writing instructor who told his students to always avoid pop culture reference that would date the work.


  2. I actually read The Marriage Plot and I don’t totally disagree with your comments. With nearly a year to think about it, I’m not sure it’s as good as I initially thought. It’s essentially a post-college book with a twist of “maybe that thing you wanted wasn’t really what you wanted at all.” The Talking Heads and Derrida and Barthe are mostly there as scene dressing and to set up a context or sorts. I’m not sure if it’s really successful.

    Also, you may be correct about Middlesex, but I still enjoyed the hell out of it.


    1. Hey Brooks—nice to hear from you again. Yeah, looking over this I might have come across harsher than I intended to. To be clear, I think Eugenides is a decent writer, but ultimately a genre writer—nothing transcendent or poetic or whatever about his writing. I would file him along with Franzen, Lethem, and Chabon (and separate from this group Vollmann and DFW).


      1. I can see why you’re lumping Chabon, Lethem, Franzen and Eugenides together in the literary-fiction-as-genre, but it’s also overly-broad and perhaps a bit unfair (as much as “literary fiction” can be called unfair!). Maybe it’s because it’s a “genre” with which I’m very familiar and I could spend quite a while arguing for the sub-genres in which each of these writers fit.

        But since we’re playing the classification game, how would you classify Wallace and Vollmann? Are they post-modernists? The fathers of new-sincerity?

        If literary fiction is snooty step above contemporary fiction and Wallace and Vollmann are above literary fiction (i think so, at least), what would it be called?

        This is looking rather combative of me, but I’m just working it out and having a bit of fun in the process.

        AND – I really love these “riff” posts.

        Finally – how about that cover! Beautiful!


        1. Hmmm…Jeez. I gots no answers. I do like “fathers of the new sincerity,” although it has all those patriarchal overtones . . . And I do love the cover.
          And, for what it’s worth, I’ve kept all my books by Eugenides and Lethem and Chabon—I wouldn’t trade them.
          I don’t know. I mean, I’ll put it really simply—maybe we get, if we’re lucky, 70 or 80 years. Maybe we can read, what—100?!—maybe 100 books a year (although let’s face it, probably fewer).
          Maybe we can read several 1000 books in a lifetime. Or, maybe we like to reread (for me: Shakespeare, Flannery O’Connor, Tolkien, lately Cormac McCarthy and Bolano, hell, Hemingway, Vonnegut, etc.—riffing here)—and maybe we also like to dip into genre fiction for its brief pleasures (detective novels, sci-fi for me; trashy romances for my wife—no real judgments here, no snootiness, we’re all bodies bound to crumble, etc.—so we have limited time to read. I’d like to do my best to read stuff that’s not just out there sparring with the best, but maybe contesting with something else, something horrific, unnameable, unboundable.
          I don’t really know what I’m saying. (I’ve been drinking red wine for at least three hours now). I don’t mean to be unfair to Eugenides (not that he gives a fuck what I think, I’m sure). I just want something else.


  3. How are cultural references not “actual descriptors?” I’m not 100% in disagreement with you, but I also think that the book is tongue in cheek and those of us who “actually like” Derrida are in an even better position to appreciate the book. I thought it was a lovely book, although I don’t think that it is “heavyweight” fiction.


    1. Hi, Laura—thanks for the comment and intriguing question. I suppose I’m pointing toward what I see as a sort of laziness on Eugenides’s part, a reliance on not only his intended audience’s hipness to key references, but also their (the audience’s) complicity in how to receive those references. This may be no different than any other author who signifies an image or idea (or ideally both) through a word or phrase, but it just seems terribly smug in The Marriage Plot — smug and lazy.
      I haven’t read the book, so all my comments be damned, but it seems like he doesn’t smuggle Derrida or Barthes into the text so much as he name checks them, offering audiences a chance to sagely nod, “Yeah, I got assigned that shit too” or whatever. I’d contrast this with Tom McCarthy’s novel The Remainder, which actually engages post-modern/post-structuralist theory in its plot (and in the delivery of that plot).
      To go back to your first question—yeah, cultural references are actual descriptors, and we can find them in Melville, Joyce, etc.—but nothing like we see in the paragraph from page 11 I cited.


  4. I don’t think ‘serious fiction’ or even ‘serious literature’ is either signifier. I think literature is just literature. I’m poking. We need to have fun. We grieve too much.


    1. Well, literature is anything with text and occasionally pictures—novels, instructional manuals, and political tracts all qualify. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with using labels to describe things. And I understand that you want to have fun, just as I understand Biblioklept wants “something more.”

      It’s fair that our host groups Chabon, Franzen, Eugenides, and Lethem together; they’re all writers who basically want to entertain the reader. It’s an admirable goal, and I can say that I have read and been entertained by books from all four of them.


  5. Are these constant references doing something for the story? If they’re so omnipresent, so essential to the style of the novel, do they contribute to the appreciation or understanding of it?

    Even if they do it seems like a very claustrophobic technique.


  6. I’ve read that Ian Fleming was the master of deploying references, particularly to “brand name” items, in his Bond novels and, uh, I’d love to hear more about this. A compare/contrast with a (perhaps) lesser practitioner, such as our man Eugenides? Anyhow, just saying.

    Also, re: your characterization of “literary-fiction-as-genre”: well played, sir.


  7. I’d like to do my best to read stuff that’s not just out there sparring with the best, but maybe contesting with something else, something horrific, unnameable, unboundable.
    I don’t really know what I’m saying. (I’ve been drinking red wine for at least three hours now)
    –>> Exactly, and that’s why I abandoned the book about 100 pages in. As with that other relatively recent trawl through the 80s, the booker prize-winning Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, I waited and waited for something to wrestle with, or cling to, some line of beauty or sublimity or anything, but nothing really appeared. Name-checking everything-80s wasn’t enough to lock me into a narcissistic pleasure read, either.
    However, I wouldn’t lump Franzen into precisely the same category, as The Corrections tries a little harder, made me laugh a whole lot more, and lingered in the back of my mind far more than that romp Freedom ever did . (His first, The 27th City truly wowed me, but then he repudiated this DFW+Delillo-ish-ness not long after.


    1. Re-reading my reply from earlier, I quoted you mentioning the red wine and then said “exactly” — which is meant for the line above it, about contesting something unnameable… You, or the wine, obviously knew what had to be said…


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