Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Marriage Plot by way of that Gatsby Review

I've recently picked up the Marriage Plot, the much-talked about latest from Jeffrey Eugenides. And while not too far in as of yet, I'm going to say something controversial here: I'm enjoying it.

Madeline Hanna, Leonard, Mitchel- they read as screwed up versions of people we've all known at one point or another. The action, in particular the drunken late night hook ups, the well meaning roommates, the angst of waiting for that phonecall, torn out of the diary of a college everyman. And the vignettes! (the central things to Jeffrey Eugenides work) they're as beautiful and luminous as ever.

But I'm on an island. Comparing notes with my little sister, with my (new) husband, with my husband's sister, and with my sliding doors literary me (don't ask), I was dismayed to find how everyone seems determined to find the plot simplistic, the material frothy, the concept too basic, the characters too shallow. Are people afraid to like a marriage plot? Are these the same peeps who refuse to acknowledge the rom-com as an entertainment genre?

Here's Thessaly La Force on the Marriage Plot for The Daily
"But here’s the thing. “The Marriage Plot” comes 18 years after Eugenides’ debut with the eerie “Virgin Suicides”; it comes nine years after the ambitious and epic “Middlesex.” One can’t help but feel — in the midst of all this meta-ness — that Eugenides has settled down. He’s metaphorically moved to the ’burbs, had the baby, gained the 10 pounds, and gotten comfortable.After covering teenage suicide and a hermaphrodite, he’s reached … a love story. Which gets back to something we’ve already established. The problem isn’t that you can’t tell a story of love and marriage in the 20th century. You can. We still do. The problem is, I think, that —...— no matter how you do it, it’ll be conventional. Girl meets boy. Girl meets another boy. Girl has to choose. Something happens. That’s it."

I can't help but notice how similar the critical reception to Jeffrey Eugenides bares to Fitzgerald's  Great Gatsby. Here's Mencken on the unimportant plot and the shallow character depiction in Gatsby:

"This story is obviously unimportant, and though, as I shall show, it has its place in the Fitzgerald canon, it is certainly not to be put on the same shelf, with, say, This Side of Paradise. What ails it, fundamentally, is the plain fact that it is simply a story—that Fitzgerald seems to be far more interested in maintaining its suspense than in getting under the skins of its people. It is not that they are false; it is that they are taken too much for granted. Only Gatsby himself genuinely lives and breathes. The rest are mere marionettes—oftenastonishingly lifelike, but nevertheless not quite alive.

What gives the story distinction is something quite different from the management of the action or the handling of the characters; it is the charm and beauty of the writing....

The rewards of literary success in this country are so vast that, when they come early, they are not unnaturally somewhat demoralizing. The average author yields to them readily. Having struck the bull‘s-eye once, he is too proud to learn new tricks. Above all, he is too proud to tackle hard work. The result is a gradual degeneration of whatever talent he had at the beginning. He begins to imitate himself. He peters out.

There is certainly no sign of petering out in Fitzgerald. After his first experimenting he plainly sat himself down calmly to consider his deficiencies. They were many and serious. He was, first of all, too facile. He could write entertainingly without giving thought to form and organization. He was, secondly, somewhat amateurish. The materials and methods of his craft, I venture, rather puzzled him. He used them ineptly. His books showed brilliancy in conception, but they were crude and even ignorant in detail. They suggested, only too often, the improvisations of a pianist playing furiously by ear but unable to read notes. These are the defects that he has now got rid of."

It seems like the obvious choice to dismiss The Marriage Plot as trivial, but I think, after winning our hearts with Virgin Suicides and further deepening the bond with Middlesex, Eugenides, like any good Marriage Plot protagonist, deserves the benefit of the doubt, here.

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