The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Expectation is such a tricky thing. I loved Middlesex. I couldn’t wait to read The Marriage Plot because I loved Middlesex. But because I was expecting Eugenides’ latest book to make me feel the way I felt about his previous, I didn’t love it.

Perhaps I was still coming down from my Munro high and wasn’t ready to land in Eugenides’ more straightforward, less lyrical prose. The premise might also have had something to do with it; stories that center around WASP-y privilege are mildly depressing to me in even the best cases, and I couldn’t garner much enthusiasm for Madeleine (though I could relate to her feelings of intimidation when facing her first encounter with Derrida and his admiring devotees). Nonetheless, I did enjoy the book quite a bit, and had I not set the bar quite so high, I might have had an unequivocally positive response to it.

The story follows three characters, all of them undergraduate students at Brown: Madeleine Hanna, who would prefer life to look a whole lot more like a nineteenth century novel than it usually does; Leonard Bankhead, who sticks in my mind as a sort of lumbering oaf because of his name, size, and mannerisms, though he is fiercely intelligent and emotionally complex; and Mitchell Grammaticus, a skinny, smart, monastic wanderer. A more-or-less standard love triangle ties the three together: Mitchell loves Madeleine, Madeleine loves Leonard, Leonard’s energy is completely swallowed up by efforts to manage his manic depression.

Unlike the vast scope of Middlesex, in The Marriage Plot Eugenides keeps the focus tightly on these three figures. He explores the ways that they each respond to the impending turning point of college graduation–the ways in which they begin to see themselves as adults. Madeleine, naive in her longing to be loved, curling up daily and nightly with Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse to amplify first her love, then her heartsickness, plunges herself headlong into a marriage with issues far more adult than she is ready to handle. I found her to be a pretty flat character and was mildly annoyed by her at a few points in the novel.

Mitchell and Leonard I found more interesting and endearing characters. Mitchell embarks on a clichéd voyage to Europe and India, but his moments of self-discovery are genuine and told with affection. (Having become greatly interested in Christian mysticism, for instance, the focal point of Mitchell’s trip is a period of service in Mother Teresa’s Home for Dying Destitutes. Once there, however, Mitchell finds himself shirking duties and feeling both admiration for and aversion to the other volunteers. He eventually bolts from the place, in a sequence that appeared in the New Yorker as “Asleep in the Lord” (paywall, sorry). Mitchell’s baffling and longstanding obsession with Madeleine betrays his youth, but it’s clear that he’s got (or is developing) a pretty good sense of who he is.

Finally, Leonard. Leonard lacks the luxury of “discovering himself” that both Madeleine and Mitchell can indulge in. Besieged by manic depression, Leonard’s personality, behavior, and intelligence are alternately propelled to extremes, crushed by depression, and nullified by medications. He is acutely aware of his condition, but can only sometimes surmount its effects. A moment of interaction between Leonard and Mitchell completely alters the dynamic of the triangle, and leads me to believe that Leonard, not Madeleine, is the character with the most influence over the others.

As I said, the book was enjoyable, and I cared about the characters; it just didn’t blow me away. As an aside, I mentioned that part of the book appeared previously in the New Yorker; in fact, two sections have appeared there over the past year and a half or so (the other is “Extreme Solitude”). It’s probably just personal preference, but I’m not really a fan of realizing that large chunks of the novel I’m reading are pieces that I’ve already read before. It makes it harder for me to integrate everything into a cohesive whole, for one thing; I read short stories very differently than I read novels, and it’s not always easy for me to break my associations with the stories to let them dissolve into the other threads of the novel. This happens a lot, of course, and I recognize that it’s useful to publish components of a book while still working through the full piece. Still, it’s not my favorite thing, and I almost always end up feeling like I enjoyed the stories more than the novel.

I’ve still got some fiction lined up in my to-read pile (next up: Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk), but I’m also starting to feel the urge to read some good non-fiction. We’ll see what comes next.

Advertisements

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Expectation is such a tricky thing. I loved Middlesex. I couldn’t wait to read The Marriage Plot because I loved Middlesex. But because I was expecting Eugenides’ latest book to make me feel the way I felt about his previous, I didn’t love it.

Perhaps I was still coming down from my Munro high and wasn’t ready to land in Eugenides’ more straightforward, less lyrical prose. The premise might also have had something to do with it; stories that center around WASP-y privilege are mildly depressing to me in even the best cases, and I couldn’t garner much enthusiasm for Madeleine (though I could relate to her feelings of intimidation when facing her first encounter with Derrida and his admiring devotees). Nonetheless, I did enjoy the book quite a bit, and had I not set the bar quite so high, I might have had an unequivocally positive response to it.

The story follows three characters, all of them undergraduate students at Brown: Madeleine Hanna, who would prefer life to look a whole lot more like a nineteenth century novel than it usually does; Leonard Bankhead, who sticks in my mind as a sort of lumbering oaf because of his name, size, and mannerisms, though he is fiercely intelligent and emotionally complex; and Mitchell Grammaticus, a skinny, smart, monastic wanderer. A more-or-less standard love triangle ties the three together: Mitchell loves Madeleine, Madeleine loves Leonard, Leonard’s energy is completely swallowed up by efforts to manage his manic depression.

Unlike the vast scope of Middlesex, in The Marriage Plot Eugenides keeps the focus tightly on these three figures. He explores the ways that they each respond to the impending turning point of college graduation–the ways in which they begin to see themselves as adults. Madeleine, naive in her longing to be loved, curling up daily and nightly with Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse to amplify first her love, then her heartsickness, plunges herself headlong into a marriage with issues far more adult than she is ready to handle. I found her to be a pretty flat character and was mildly annoyed by her at a few points in the novel.

Mitchell and Leonard I found more interesting and endearing characters. Mitchell embarks on a clichéd voyage to Europe and India, but his moments of self-discovery are genuine and told with affection. (Having become greatly interested in Christian mysticism, for instance, the focal point of Mitchell’s trip is a period of service in Mother Teresa’s Home for Dying Destitutes. Once there, however, Mitchell finds himself shirking duties and feeling both admiration for and aversion to the other volunteers. He eventually bolts from the place, in a sequence that appeared in the New Yorker as “Asleep in the Lord” (paywall, sorry). Mitchell’s baffling and longstanding obsession with Madeleine betrays his youth, but it’s clear that he’s got (or is developing) a pretty good sense of who he is.

Finally, Leonard. Leonard lacks the luxury of “discovering himself” that both Madeleine and Mitchell can indulge in. Besieged by manic depression, Leonard’s personality, behavior, and intelligence are alternately propelled to extremes, crushed by depression, and nullified by medications. He is acutely aware of his condition, but can only sometimes surmount its effects. A moment of interaction between Leonard and Mitchell completely alters the dynamic of the triangle, and leads me to believe that Leonard, not Madeleine, is the character with the most influence over the others.

As I said, the book was enjoyable, and I cared about the characters; it just didn’t blow me away. As an aside, I mentioned that part of the book appeared previously in the New Yorker; in fact, two sections have appeared there over the past year and a half or so (the other is “Extreme Solitude”). It’s probably just personal preference, but I’m not really a fan of realizing that large chunks of the novel I’m reading are pieces that I’ve already read before. It makes it harder for me to integrate everything into a cohesive whole, for one thing; I read short stories very differently than I read novels, and it’s not always easy for me to break my associations with the stories to let them dissolve into the other threads of the novel. This happens a lot, of course, and I recognize that it’s useful to publish components of a book while still working through the full piece. Still, it’s not my favorite thing, and I almost always end up feeling like I enjoyed the stories more than the novel.

I’ve still got some fiction lined up in my to-read pile (next up: Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk), but I’m also starting to feel the urge to read some good non-fiction. We’ll see what comes next.

Alice Munro, Runaway

After loving Alice Munro’s recent New Yorker piece (“Dear Life”), I felt that I wouldn’t be satisfied until I had more of her work in my hands. I chose Runaway more or less at random from among her collections, and wow. I am blown away by Munro’s incredible skill with characters. She creates an incredible emotional climate with each story, drawing the reader in to share each protagonist’s hope, fear, or betrayal. I simply love the intimacy of her stories and the subtle ways that she teases out the complexities of human interaction.

Familial and romantic relationships are central in Runaway, and in a couple of instances Munro spins the development out beyond the length of a single story.  In “Chance” for instance, we read a beautiful and hopeful story of a couple coming together; the characters reappear in the next story, “Soon,” where we read a much more complicated continuation of the same family. “Chance” ends with Juliet and Eric in each others’ arms. (Well, not quite; the couple comes together with this breathtaking paragraph–

She can tell by his voice that he is claiming her. She stands up, quite numb, and sees that he is older, heavier, more impetuous than she has remembered. He advances on her and she feels herself ransacked from top to bottom, flooded with relief, assaulted by happiness. How astonishing this is. How close to dismay. (85)

–which Munro gently sets down by adding a bit of context, a bit of explanation, and the faintest sketch of the couple’s life together. The actual end of the story is not an image of Juliet and Eric together, but the perhaps more intriguing mention of the “submerged rivalry” of Juliet and Christa, Eric’s former lover.)

“Soon” takes place many years later, and complicates the emotions of the first story with the inevitable growth and change as characters spend their lives together.  As I started “Soon,” it came as a surprise to see Juliet re-emerge; Munro’s exquisite skills as a short story writer mean that each piece conveys a sense of perfect wholeness on its own, making the continuation unexpected, but the added nuance of the connected stories multiplies the effect of each. Excellent short stories always create a tension for me: I want so much to see the writer continue developing the characters into a full-blown novel, and yet I know that the very thing I love so much depends on the succinct form of the story.

I came across this review by Jonathan Franzen from the New York Times in 2004, and was amused to find that he gives free reign to the gushing admiration that I have been trying somewhat to temper:

“The only adequate summary of the text is the text itself.
Which leaves me with the simple instruction that I began with: Read Munro! Read Munro!”

(Franzen’s review is excellent, by the way, and worth reading in its entirety.)

I’m selfishly glad that there are still so many of Munro’s stories ahead of me to read. I suspect I’ll be returning often.

Alice Munro, Runaway

After loving Alice Munro’s recent New Yorker piece (“Dear Life”), I felt that I wouldn’t be satisfied until I had more of her work in my hands. I chose Runaway more or less at random from among her collections, and wow. I am blown away by Munro’s incredible skill with characters. She creates an incredible emotional climate with each story, drawing the reader in to share each protagonist’s hope, fear, or betrayal. I simply love the intimacy of her stories and the subtle ways that she teases out the complexities of human interaction.

Familial and romantic relationships are central in Runaway, and in a couple of instances Munro spins the development out beyond the length of a single story.  In “Chance” for instance, we read a beautiful and hopeful story of a couple coming together; the characters reappear in the next story, “Soon,” where we read a much more complicated continuation of the same family. “Chance” ends with Juliet and Eric in each others’ arms. (Well, not quite; the couple comes together with this breathtaking paragraph–

She can tell by his voice that he is claiming her. She stands up, quite numb, and sees that he is older, heavier, more impetuous than she has remembered. He advances on her and she feels herself ransacked from top to bottom, flooded with relief, assaulted by happiness. How astonishing this is. How close to dismay. (85)

–which Munro gently sets down by adding a bit of context, a bit of explanation, and the faintest sketch of the couple’s life together. The actual end of the story is not an image of Juliet and Eric together, but the perhaps more intriguing mention of the “submerged rivalry” of Juliet and Christa, Eric’s former lover.)

“Soon” takes place many years later, and complicates the emotions of the first story with the inevitable growth and change as characters spend their lives together.  As I started “Soon,” it came as a surprise to see Juliet re-emerge; Munro’s exquisite skills as a short story writer mean that each piece conveys a sense of perfect wholeness on its own, making the continuation unexpected, but the added nuance of the connected stories multiplies the effect of each. Excellent short stories always create a tension for me: I want so much to see the writer continue developing the characters into a full-blown novel, and yet I know that the very thing I love so much depends on the succinct form of the story.

I came across this review by Jonathan Franzen from the New York Times in 2004, and was amused to find that he gives free reign to the gushing admiration that I have been trying somewhat to temper:

“The only adequate summary of the text is the text itself.
Which leaves me with the simple instruction that I began with: Read Munro! Read Munro!”

(Franzen’s review is excellent, by the way, and worth reading in its entirety.)

I’m selfishly glad that there are still so many of Munro’s stories ahead of me to read. I suspect I’ll be returning often.

Christian Oster, Rouler

Rouler put me face to face with a character that I couldn’t stand, and yet Oster’s writing is so enjoyable that I couldn’t stop reading. The premise is not uncommon: a man suffers a difficult emotional experience, gets in his car, gets on the road, and starts driving with no destination in mind. The problem, in this case, is that Jean, the narrator who has taken to the road, can’t really tolerate the uncertainties of what he’s doing, and makes himself and his various companions miserable throughout the entire journey.

In many ways the novel reads like an exploration of masculinity, and the glimpse that it provides is unflattering. Jean seeks to be impulsive, spontaneous, and irresponsible, but he constantly slips into small-minded worrying, scolding, and and self-doubt. Even his actions that look free-spirited are actually signs that he has worked himself into an inner turmoil of feeling obligated to do something that he finds utterly distasteful. At a gas station, for instance, he offers to drop a couple of hitchhikers at a nearby town–not because he wants to help them, but because he’s afraid they’ll ask him to take them much further, and he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to refuse. He immediately begrudges their carefree mentality, becoming a scolding father-type figure rather than opening himself up to any new experiences. When the hitchhikers convince him to stop near a stream so that they can swim, he stubbornly refuses to go with them–even though he is hot, uncomfortable, and wants nothing more than to jump in the water. Throughout his travels, Jean puts himself into situations like this, hurting nobody but himself and for no reason other than a vague distaste for his own decision-making.

An encounter with an old high school friend of his perfectly illustrates Jean’s entrapment within himself. After encountering the friend, Fred, while approaching a hotel in Arles, Jean wants only to avoid having to spend time with him; rather than politely decline an invitation, though, he launches into a needless sequence of lies that don’t even maintain an internal logic. Unable to properly turn down the offer, Jean ends up following Fred and intentionally losing him–but then regrets it, and can’t stand either the thought of going back to Arles or arriving already in Marseille, and spends the night in his car before arriving at Fred’s bed and breakfast in a terribly awkward scene the next morning. This kind of things happens throughout the book: Jean traps himself in sequences that he could easily stop or change, but instead he ends up playing them out to their uncomfortable conclusions.

It’s not the road itself that seems to draw Jean, as he doesn’t especially like being there. He does, however, value the idea of it, and he hangs onto a rough goal of reaching Marseille–as long as he doesn’t arrive there too quickly. He wants to have everything before him and nothing behind him, and it’s clear that this desire has to do with his constant regret over decisions made. Once he reaches Marseilles, then, even that goal will be behind him, and he will have nothing to do but look back on his experiences, and return to his life in Paris.

Eventually and surprisingly, Jean is able to escape from the cycle of obligation and regret that he puts himself through, and the end of the book reads like a sort of redemption.  At the bed and breakfast that he never wanted to visit in the first place, and where he oversteps his welcome with the host couple, Jean manages to make a genuine connection with a fellow guest. The guest, elderly André Ségustat, is gruff and distant with most of the others at the bed and breakfast, yet mysteriously allows himself to be vulnerable with Jean.  Ségustat makes it possible for Jean to be useful in a small but meaningful way, which is enough for Jean to shed his self-protective stance that does him so little good.

I didn’t expect the turnaround, and while I was relieved to see Jean finally stop making himself and everyone around him miserable, the change happened a little too quickly to feel natural. Still, Oster’s insightful look into a difficult character is wonderfully written, and while it may not be my favorite of Oster’s novels (I still prefer both Mon grand appartement and Une femme de ménage), Rouler is well worth a read.

Christian Oster, Rouler

Rouler put me face to face with a character that I couldn’t stand, and yet Oster’s writing is so enjoyable that I couldn’t stop reading. The premise is not uncommon: a man suffers a difficult emotional experience, gets in his car, gets on the road, and starts driving with no destination in mind. The problem, in this case, is that Jean, the narrator who has taken to the road, can’t really tolerate the uncertainties of what he’s doing, and makes himself and his various companions miserable throughout the entire journey.

In many ways the novel reads like an exploration of masculinity, and the glimpse that it provides is unflattering. Jean seeks to be impulsive, spontaneous, and irresponsible, but he constantly slips into small-minded worrying, scolding, and and self-doubt. Even his actions that look free-spirited are actually signs that he has worked himself into an inner turmoil of feeling obligated to do something that he finds utterly distasteful. At a gas station, for instance, he offers to drop a couple of hitchhikers at a nearby town–not because he wants to help them, but because he’s afraid they’ll ask him to take them much further, and he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to refuse. He immediately begrudges their carefree mentality, becoming a scolding father-type figure rather than opening himself up to any new experiences. When the hitchhikers convince him to stop near a stream so that they can swim, he stubbornly refuses to go with them–even though he is hot, uncomfortable, and wants nothing more than to jump in the water. Throughout his travels, Jean puts himself into situations like this, hurting nobody but himself and for no reason other than a vague distaste for his own decision-making.

An encounter with an old high school friend of his perfectly illustrates Jean’s entrapment within himself. After encountering the friend, Fred, while approaching a hotel in Arles, Jean wants only to avoid having to spend time with him; rather than politely decline an invitation, though, he launches into a needless sequence of lies that don’t even maintain an internal logic. Unable to properly turn down the offer, Jean ends up following Fred and intentionally losing him–but then regrets it, and can’t stand either the thought of going back to Arles or arriving already in Marseille, and spends the night in his car before arriving at Fred’s bed and breakfast in a terribly awkward scene the next morning. This kind of things happens throughout the book: Jean traps himself in sequences that he could easily stop or change, but instead he ends up playing them out to their uncomfortable conclusions.

It’s not the road itself that seems to draw Jean, as he doesn’t especially like being there. He does, however, value the idea of it, and he hangs onto a rough goal of reaching Marseille–as long as he doesn’t arrive there too quickly. He wants to have everything before him and nothing behind him, and it’s clear that this desire has to do with his constant regret over decisions made. Once he reaches Marseilles, then, even that goal will be behind him, and he will have nothing to do but look back on his experiences, and return to his life in Paris.

Eventually and surprisingly, Jean is able to escape from the cycle of obligation and regret that he puts himself through, and the end of the book reads like a sort of redemption.  At the bed and breakfast that he never wanted to visit in the first place, and where he oversteps his welcome with the host couple, Jean manages to make a genuine connection with a fellow guest. The guest, elderly André Ségustat, is gruff and distant with most of the others at the bed and breakfast, yet mysteriously allows himself to be vulnerable with Jean.  Ségustat makes it possible for Jean to be useful in a small but meaningful way, which is enough for Jean to shed his self-protective stance that does him so little good.

I didn’t expect the turnaround, and while I was relieved to see Jean finally stop making himself and everyone around him miserable, the change happened a little too quickly to feel natural. Still, Oster’s insightful look into a difficult character is wonderfully written, and while it may not be my favorite of Oster’s novels (I still prefer both Mon grand appartement and Une femme de ménage), Rouler is well worth a read.

Jean Echenoz, Des éclairs

I know little enough about the history of scientific innovation that it was an embarrassingly long time before I realized that Gregor, the protagonist of Des éclairs by Jean Echenoz, is based on the life story of Nikola Tesla. The book is part of a trio of novels inspired by biographical stories; I haven’t read the other two, which are based on the lives of composer Maurice Ravel (Ravel) and long-distance runner Émil Zátopek (Courir).

Like Tesla, Gregor moves from southeastern Europe to New York City to work for Thomas Edison. The lightning of the title comes into play within the first few pages: born into an otherwise unilluminated night, a flash of lightning accompanies the moment of his birth. The shock of the lightning, thunderclap, and resulting forest fire stun those attending the birth, with the result that nobody can remember quite when he was born. Echenoz dubs it a “naissance hors du temps, donc, et hors de la lumière” (9). For Gregor, his birth outside of time and light is the start of a lifelong obsession with electricity.

Gregor’s brilliance is undeniable and undisputed–he learns languages in minutes, his memory is photographic, and most of all he conceives of astonishing new ideas in flashes of ingenuity. Before we learn a thing about his intellect and capacity for innovation, though, we learn that he is profoundly unpleasant.  His character is described as “ombrageux, méprisant, susceptible, cassant” and above all, “précocement antipathique” (11). In fact, his personality is as unpredictable and stormy as the lightning storms that obsess him.

After the first series of reversals in fortune as Gregor tries to persuade first Edison, then Westinghouse of the utility and viability of alternating current, his subsequent ideas and conceptual inventions are no longer foregrounded as major innovations, but rather referred to in passing in a way that makes Gregor seem increasingly absurd and pitiful. Serious and essential inventions like radio, hydroelectricity, and robotics are mentioned alongside his efforts to communicate with Mars and establish world peace. He excels in the initial idea phase, but has no interest whatsoever in the nuts-and-bolts implementation of a project. Completely unable to navigate the system of intellectual property, patent development, and business negotiation, Gregor is duped again and again into releasing just enough of a kernel of each idea to allow someone else to develop it to fruition and profit.  He appears foolish and impatient:

“Ce n’est donc peut-être pas que Gregor invente des choses à proprement parler mais, dans la découverte et l’intuition de ces choses, il se borne à jeter l’idée qui les produira. Il a tort, allant beacoup trop vite, il debrait s’arrêter cinq minutes sur l’une d’elles pour la mener à son terme et la développer, l’explorer d’autant plus qu’il s’agit chaque fois de phénomènes promis à un certain avenir, jugez-en. La radio. Les rayons X. L’air liquide. La télécommande. Les robots. Le microscope électronique. L’accélérateur de particules. L’Internet. J’en passe.” (80)

His mismanagement of astonishing new ideas eventually leaves him destitute. Having willingly torn up what would have been a highly lucrative contract with Western Union, Gregor slips deeper into poverty. No longer simply antisocial or volatile, he becomes an image of absurdity as his brilliance slips into the background, leaving his compulsions and oddities to come into sharper and sharper relief.

(Not that you can blame Gregor; even now the patent system in the U.S. looks more like a Rubik’s cube of litigation, buyouts, and stock value than a genuine protection of intellectual property. The tragedy that befalls Gregor because of his inability to protect his ideas and turn them into profit is a timely image of the ways the patent system favors corporations rather than individuals.)

Patent reform issues aside, I haven’t yet mentioned the pigeons that accompany Gregor’s demise. While Gregor bristles at even the thought of intimacy or companionship, and despite his crippling phobia of germs and dirt, he has no trouble at all communing with, yes, pigeons. What innocently begins as a certain pleasure and relaxation found in feeding the pigeons in Bryan Park escalates to an obsession. The tipping point between quirkiness and insanity becomes starkly (and humorously) apparent in his attempt to give Christmas gifts to the creatures. The birds swarm him, covering him from head to toe, and he revels in their company:

“Enveloppé de la tête aux pieds par ce manteau de bestioles, ne respirant qu’à peine pour ne pas les troubler, Gregor reste immobile près de la grille du square à travers laquelle des passants arrêtés dans l’ombre, porteurs de gros paquets enrubannés, le considèrent en hochant.” (130)

From there, the pigeons become key players in scenes of violence, determination, and romance in perplexing ways that I’ll leave other readers to discover. More than for his inventions, I’ll remember Gregor for his connection to the foul birds that cover New York’s public parks.

All in all, Des éclairs a highly creative look at brilliance, madness, and society. As always, Echenoz’s prose is super-smart and elegant; his works are consistently among my favorite contemporary French novels (Au piano and Cherokee  are longstanding favorites; L’occupation des sols was fascinating, dense, and will stick with me for a long time). In this case, the historical backdrop opens up into a narrative that is an unusual (and a really enjoyable) read. Gregor’s descent into irrelevance and absurdity is both bleak and comic–and I’ll never look at NYC pigeons in quite the same way again.