Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Marriage Plot: So, Jeff, You Doing OK?

I fully expected to hate The Marriage Plot. I had read all the reviews. I read about how the supposedly main character, Madeleine, was really just a Mary-Sue. And I read about how the two male protagonists, Leonard and Mitchell, were just "Muppet-Baby versions of David Foster Wallace and [Jeffrey] Eugenides".  So I fully expected some kind of narcissistic, introspective literary craptacular that I would hate.

Instead, I was hooked after the first 10 pages.

It was obvious that Eugenides was working out some issues, and I wanted along for the ride. I wanted to make sure my pal Jeff (Can I call you "Jeff"?) was doing OK.

Initially I thought the book was about some unresolved issues Jeff had with Academia (Brown in particular).  Eugenides spent so much time describing insufferable academics and painfully smug students that I was sure that this novel was actually going to be about that. Then Leonard entered the scene. It was obvious from the get-go that the hard-drinking, hard-loving, utterly brilliant, but totally broken Leonard was DFW. I mean, Eugenides even gave the guy a bandana! How much more literal (literally!) can you get?

I didn't find our man Jeff for a while, though. Mitchell isn't as obviously Jeff as Leonard is DFW. Mitchell starts off being your typical Mr Sensitive Nice Guy and slowly builds up to being Jeff's literary doppleganger.

That left one character who needed identification: The Lady They Loved, Maddy. Who is Maddy, exactly? Is she some chick who rebuffed our boy Jeff at Brown and who Jeff is now punishing by making her clean up figurative DFW barf?

After much thinking about this, I submit for your approval that Maddy is, basically, The Reader. She is you. She is me. She is the guy from the New York Review of Books and the Guardian Books Editor and The Folks at Salon. She is all those readers who loved DFW unconditionally, enjoying the non-stop fuck fest of Infinite Jest, hanging on for the crazy mania of 10-page essays on Lobsters (with footnotes!), and waiting patiently during unbearably depressing sojourns at the grocery story.

While everyone's fawning over bipolar DFW, our boy Jeff is on a quest to better himself and the planet. He's making a pilgrimage to India and volunteering with Mother Teresa's organization. He wants to heal the world and make you whole. He wants to be the Bestest Jeff He Can Be.

Jeff respects you too much to just take you on the stairs. He's going to talk to you about Important Things and make sure you get home OK. He isn't going to play games with your emotions or suddenly run off to the casino in the middle of the night. But despite all this, you never fall in love with Jeff. You just keep loving DFW, even when he's all limp and fat, lounging around the house in ratty shorts, smoking cigarillos, and using too many parentheses.

That, people, is what this book is about. YOU are Maddy. YOU love a marriage plot. YOU have read too much Austen and now YOU are in love with Mr Darcy, despite the fact that a real Mr Darcy would not make you happy.

You. You would rather hang out in a dingy apartment, scrubbing floors waiting for a disturbed genius to return than tour the world with our boy Jeff. Jeff would show you beautiful, sad places, too, you know. He'd show you strange, beautiful, and sad people and places, but he'd keep you at arm's length from it and you'd never be in danger.

But you've read too much Henry James and what you want is drama! You want to be swept off your feet by an author who's different, troubled, and a little scary. You pass up our man Jeff for a guy who ├╝ber-verbosely describes every emotion and thought that was ever had until the room is so full of descriptions that you feel you can't breathe. And just when you think he's opening the door to give you some air, he'll grab your hand, drag you to the bluffs, and make you look over the cliff, into the void until you beg to be left alone.

And even when DFW lets you down, you still don't run into Jeff's warm embrace of sublime descriptions of sad but beautiful melancholy places. Instead you have a one off with a dirty post-modernist who's stopped using punctuation. (I can only assume that shaven-eyebrow Thurston Meems would be that kind of author. I know I've read him when I've been let down by my usual favourites and need a change.)

You silly reader.

The only problem with all this is that our man Jeff doesn't realize that Mitchell -- his literary stand-in -- is an asshole.

I spent a lot of the book trying to figure out if ol' Jeff knew that Mitchell was a douchebag. Was Jeff aware that Mitchell is not really Maddy's friend? Mitchell is not a nice guy, but is instead pretending to be a nice guy to get into Maddy's pants -- something which is despicable and duplicitous. He wants to be able to grab Maddy, throw her on the bed and give her the fucking of a lifetime the way Leonard does, but he can't because he lacks the self-confidence to even respond to Maddy's direct advances. Instead he obsesses over Maddy, weasels his way into her life, and finally manages an uncomfortable and unsatisfying romp with her.

And then he dumps her. Because he's a nice guy and he knows that he'll just tie her down.

"FREEBIRD!"

So, no, Jeff does not realize that Mitchell is a duplicitous, false, fake, inauthentic, self-congratulatory jerk.

Or maybe Jeff does realize this, but he's actually a literary genius and wrote the character as if he didn't realize this, in some kind of weird double-fake-out.

And what does this means in terms of the literary analogy? That our man Jeff doesn't really respect the reader? That, in essence, he isn't so much interested in telling heartbreaking stories about oppressed teen girls as he is in just getting us to buy his books?

And when we do and don't like the story, and don't give him praise and a prize, he'll shrug it off and decide that maybe we'd be better off without him. Because he's Better Than That.

Either way, it doesn't matter. I liked the book and couldn't put it down. I didn't care if it failed the Bechdel Test. It made me laugh and I actually cared about the characters. And I actually wanted to watch Jeffrey Eugenides work out his issues in a book.

And for the record, I never, ever, ever liked David Foster Wallace. I always found him too dramatic and morose.

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