Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Stockholm syndrome

Jeffrey Eugenides took the literary world by storm in 2002 with his novel Middlesex. While talking about the life of a hermaphrodite, Eugenides, who is of Greek descent, narrated a post-modern tale of the three generations of a Greek family. He tackled themes as varied as incest and gender identity, which earned him a Pulitzer for fiction. Almost a decade later, Eugenides’ new book, The Marriage Plot, is out. It is not even half as complex as Middlesex or, for that matter, his debut novel, The Virgin Suicides.

That said, The Marriage Plot is a huge departure for Eugenides after writing something as mind-bending as Middlesex. Set in Reagan-era America, the latest Eugenides novel centres around 22-year-old Madeleine Hanna, an English major at Brown University, who is trying to write a thesis on the eponymous subject in classic English novels by the greats like Austen, Eliot, James et al. A PhD is on the cards too. In a truly life-imitating-art fashion, Madeleine’s life takes an Austenesque (it’s a made-up term) turn as she ends up caring for her super intellectual manic-depressive of a boyfriend, Leonard Bankhead.

When at his best, Leonard is a charismatic silver-tongued man who’s equally at home talking about the DNA of yeast cells and Kierkegaard’s concepts. In a rather dramatic situation, Madeleine ends up being Leonard’s live-in partner at the fellowship programme he’s pursuing at Pilgrim Lake on the mating habits of yeast. Here’s where the relationship falls apart like a pack of cards as Leonard’s medication takes a toll on his psyche and he ends up playing havoc with Madeleine’s mind as well. Like in every classic English novel, there’s a counterpoint to Leonard in Mitchell Grammaticus, a friend of Madeleine who nurtures feelings for her but his love for her never transcends their platonic friendship.

The first thought that struck me when I heard of the novel was why it took him a decade to write a novel that looks, more or less, pretty straightforward. I voiced similar sentiments when Jonathan Franzen took the same amount of time to get Freedom published after his barnstormer of a novel Corrections. It’s obvious that Eugenides had to unlearn a lot of things and write something more linear in narrative and in a throughout second-person account unlike his other two novels. This is probably his most personal novel.

What might look like a wafer-thin plot is more than just masked by Eugenides’ vivid imagination and his hands-on experience of the eighties. Right from evoking Talking Heads lyrics to the post-hippie milieu of the eighties, Eugenides lives his youth vicariously through the book. Apart from writing about Brown University, Eugenides’ alma mater, The Marriage Plot is quite autobiographical. He mines his friendship with David Foster Wallace in the way Leonard is presented: always sporting a bandanna, a philosophy junkie, chewing tobacco, depression. Mitchell is more on the lines of Eugenides himself: student of religion, Greek roots. While these similarities might give a roman à clef feel to the novel, they never impede its consistently good flow.

With Middlesex Eugenides established himself as one of the most sensitive wordsmiths in the Western Hemisphere, and he does his reputation no harm in The Marriage Plot. Here’s how he describes Madeleine’s joy during an ephemeral period of time when Leonard is back at his cerebral and cheerful best: “The experience of watching Leonard get better was like reading certain difficult books. It was plowing through late James, or the pages about agrarian reform in Anna Karenina, until you suddenly get to a good part again, which keeps on getting better and better until you were so enthralled that you were almost grateful for the previous dull stretch because it increased your eventual pleasure.”

The biggest strength of The Marriage Plot is its richly imbued characters; they are not perfect and that makes them very human. The reader will find herself at the heart of a moral nightmare throughout the novel. Why would Madeleine stick to Leonard instead of dumping him? Maybe it will give her ego a boost that her “love” brought a guy out of a deep mess. Why would she always give ideas to Mitchell if she never thought of him as anything beyond a “friend”? Maybe 22-year-olds behave so vacuously. Fittingly, the novel opens with the following Francois de La Rochefoucauld quote, “People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about.” If there’s a problem with The Marriage Plot, it has to be the backstories of Leonard and his family. His entire upbringing in a dysfunctional family in Portland is animatedly written about for something so banal. Equally weariness-inducing is Leonard’s depression that Eugenides is always skirting and never gets around to cutting to the chase.

However, these wrinkles are smoothed out soon enough whenever Eugenides is at his personal best: talking about Brown University or Calcutta, where he spent some time working in a Mother Teresa home in the eighties. And, of course, the novel is suffused with his mordant wit. Madeleine “could become a spinster, like Emily Dickinson, writing poems full of dashes and brilliance, and never gaining weight”. The reader wouldn’t mind waiting another decade if Eugenides promises something equally unbelievably beautiful.

Jeffrey Eugenides
Fourth Estate;
406 pages; Rs 399


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