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The Hermaphrodite

The Marriage Plot
By Jeffrey Eugenides
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 406 pp., $28)

Women write about love and marriage; men write about everything else. Like all truisms, this one is best served with a heaping spoonful of caveats, but they don’t alter its essential flavor. Just “look at all the books,” as Jeffrey Eugenides’s new novel exhorts the reader in its very first line. The bookshelf in question belongs to Madeleine Hanna, an English major at Brown University in the early 1980s, and it offers a snapshot of the dominant strain in English and American literature up through the beginning of the last century. Madeleine’s collection includes Dickens, Trollope, the Brontës, Austen, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Henry James: with one important exception, they break neatly along the gender divide. Dickens and Trollope wrote about society, history, religion. For Wharton, Austen, Eliot, and the Brontës, the primary drama is a woman’s choice of husband—“the marriage plot.”

The exception, of course, is Henry James, whose experiments in portraying the workings of human consciousness have led him to be perceived, quite rightly, as one of the first of the modernist novelists. James’s interest in subjectivity in all its forms allowed him to inhabit protagonists of both sexes in a way that had rarely been seen before, putting the internal situation of men and women on truly equal standing. We might call James the first hermaphrodite novelist, in that he combined characteristics once thought of as exclusively male (such as the depiction of masculine political, economic, or commercial arenas) or exclusively female (the focus on matters of the heart) into a single, fully imagined whole.

Jeffrey Eugenides is also a hermaphrodite novelist. Starting with his knockout debut, The Virgin Suicides, nearly twenty years ago, all his works have straddled the divide between men and women, mixing themes and styles with little regard for the typical gender categories. (I’d like to see Naipaul try out on any passage by Eugenides his preposterous claim, earlier this year, that he could determine a writer’s sex “within a paragraph or two.”) Narrated by an anonymous chorus of boys who observe a family over the year following the suicide of the first of four sisters, The Virgin Suicides is steeped in femininity and yet at a remove from it, male and female uneasily united by violence.

In Middlesex, Eugenides’s second novel, which appeared in 2002, he took the question of gender a step further with the protagonist Calliope/Cal, who discovers in childhood that she/he is literally a hermaphrodite—a person with both male and female sex characteristics. The hermaphroditism is not merely a metaphor; its physical consequences are described in detail. But it functions also, quite effectively, as an image for the many divided American selves—the immigrants, like Calliope’s ancestors, split between the old country and the new; race relations in Detroit in the 1960s, when she/he comes of age there; and the ways people transform themselves, under duress or through force of will, into new creations. Living as a man, Cal ultimately winds up in Berlin after the fall of the Wall, its two halves struggling to reunite.

Where The Virgin Suicides was tense and compact, Middlesex was exuberant and capacious, nearly bursting with the effort to contain all the life stuffed inside it. The Marriage Plot, sober almost to the point of primness, feels initially like a step back, a novel more about books than about people. (“Books aren’t about ‘real life.’ Books are about other books,” one of the novel’s deconstructionists helpfully reminds us.) But it turns out to be a novel about books and people, and specifically about one of the most primary questions for people to whom books are important: namely, what good are they? If books are meant to teach us “how to live,” as one character (following the classical humanist tradition) puts it, are they actually of much practical use? And if not, are the other old standbys—love, religion, science—any better? This novel is an investigation into literary theory dolled up as a romance, as much about plot as it is about marriage.

NOT SINCE EMMA BOVARY went astray by reading too many romance novels has there been a character who lived so thoroughly through books as Eugenides’s Madeleine. Much of the pleasure of The Marriage Plot is to be found in the ways in which it toys with the old trope of the female reader as a hothouse creature of sensibility, which turns out here to apply to men as much as to women. The novel’s opening exhortation to “look at all the books” proves ironic, since reading about love has not helped Madeleine at all. When we first meet her, on the morning of her graduation from Brown, she is in a state of post-binge collapse after a night of drinking and aborted sex with a man she dislikes. This is not the way Austen tells us to behave, as even non-English majors will know.

But Madeleine, who became an English major “for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read,” is in a state of both intellectual and emotional crisis. Even the one remaining professor who champions the nineteenth-century novels she adores has decided that they are no longer relevant, having been undone by sexual equality and the breakdown of the divorce taboo. “Marriage didn’t mean much anymore, and neither did the novel,” he concludes. Maybe it never did. A line from Barchester Towers serves as the epigraph to Madeleine’s seminar paper: “There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel.” If this is true, then novels do not mirror nature as much as we expect them to. As we have always known, they represent not life but some imaginary version of it.

Intrigued by the mysterious tome about “grammatology” suddenly appearing everywhere, Madeleine takes a drastic step that will be familiar to self-doubting literature majors: she signs up for a course in semiotic theory. Next to the other students, who dress in black and spout cold platitudes about the Death of the Author, she is emotive to the point of hysteria. (The class villain, the one who says that “books are about other books,” is named Thurston Meems—get it?) The course is useful mainly for rekindling her love for old-fashioned fiction. “What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative! Madeleine felt safe with a nineteenth-century novel. There were going to be people in it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world.”

Yet the syllabus fatefully calls for Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse just as Madeleine is starting to fall for Leonard Bankhead, a tobacco-chewing biology-and-philosophy major and the only other student in the class who refuses to gulp down semiotics whole. The book fans her ardor as efficiently as any of her old favorites. “The more of A Lover’s Discourse she read, the more in love she felt. She recognized herself on every page…. Here was a book addressed to lovers, a book about being in love that contained the word love in just about every sentence. And oh, how she loved it!”

But Leonard has a problem for which neither Austen nor Barthes has prepared Madeleine: he is bipolar, suffering from swings of uncontrolled mania and devastating depression that started when he was in high school. After a fight with Madeleine—in which she declares her love for him and he responds by showing her a page of A Lover’s Discourse that mocks the idea of declaring love—he spirals down again and winds up in the hospital. Over the summer after their graduation, she helps him recover sufficiently to take up the prestigious laboratory internship he has secured. But this is 1982, when lithium was the treatment of choice for bipolar disease, and Leonard has trouble tolerating the side effects of the megadose that he requires for stability. Without telling his doctors, he starts experimenting with his medication, trying to recapture the energy of his mania without the crash that inevitably follows. It sounds a little like being in love: how long can that spark be kept alive? Can long-term balance be achieved, or will the highs always be matched by equally dramatic lows?

THE MARRIAGE PLOT presents itself as a classic “marriage plot” novel, driven by the question of which man the heroine will choose. But it is also a religious quest novel, and this aspect of the book is both more interesting and more subtle than the romantic-realist romp of Madeleine’s dilemma, for all its pleasures. Her other suitor is Mitchell Grammaticus, with whom she has been conducting an on-and-off platonic relationship since they started college. Frustrated by Madeleine’s constant rejection, Mitchell is driven to seek the answer to the question of how to live not in love but in religion: the path of William James rather than Henry. “Everyone he knew was convinced that religion was a sham and God a fiction,” he muses. “But his friends’ replacements for religion didn’t look too impressive. No one had an answer for the riddle of existence.”

Mitchell’s religious studies professor is impressed enough to promise him a full scholarship to divinity school. But the academy is the opposite of what Mitchell wants. Like Larry in The Razor’s Edge, W. Somerset Maugham’s brilliant novel about another religious seeker, he takes off for Europe and ultimately makes his way to India. (I suspect it is not an accident that Mitchell’s traveling companion happens to be named Larry.) Where Maugham’s hero found enlightenment on a mountain top, Mitchell plunges into the filth, volunteering in a Calcutta hospital run by Mother Teresa.

Eugenides can be nicely sardonic about the holier-than-thou. A traveler whom Mitchell meets in India “considered himself a spiritual person ... the way he held your gaze let this be known.” In a wonderfully amusing scene, Mitchell encounters a Bible-thumper at the American Express office in Athens and calls her a few days later to say he wants to be saved. She asks him to get down on his knees immediately and take Jesus into his heart, but he cannot do this, because he is in the hotel lobby. Mitchell himself is that figure rarely found in a contemporary novel: a believer whose faith is taken seriously. His spiritual contemplation is described in terms that most writers reserve for sex or hallucinogens. When he enters the Sacré Coeur in Paris, “the vault seemed to draw him upward like liquid in a syringe.” Strolling around Calcutta, he is “filled with an ecstatic tranquility, like a low-grade fever.” Yet what he seeks is not God so much as a way of extinguishing his desire for Madeleine. Confronted with the inadequacy of his charitable impulses, he ultimately flees the hospital, heading “up the steps to the bright, fallen world above.” Neither love nor religion, it turns out, can be an escape from real life.

THE MARRIAGE PLOT is a more restrained book than Middlesex, smaller not only in size but also in metaphorical reach, and it has already disappointed some of its critics, who seem to have been hoping for an elephantine all-but-the-kitchen-sink summation of the here-and-now, in the Great American Novel mode of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. But that behemoth was a flabby one, and the more streamlined Marriage Plot is a far more accomplished novel, written with an elegance and a stylistic control that have always eluded Franzen. There are no fancy tricks here, but there are also no odd gaffes, such as Franzen’s undergraduate-workshop technique of narrating much of his book in the form of his protagonist’s therapy journal, in a voice indistinguishable from that of the novel itself. More importantly, Eugenides has mastered the patterning through which the finest novels build their power, repeating ideas and themes with nuanced variations until every detail seems to reinforce the logic of the whole. One nice example: even the wallpaper in Madeleine’s childhood room, based on the illustrations in Ludwig Bemelmans’s picture book Madeline, reveals how deeply her life has always been steeped in books. A novelist who hits no false notes, who makes things look easy, may fool his readers into thinking that creating the illusion of realism is easy.

More than Franzen, the writer whose ghost hovers in the margins of The Marriage Plot is David Foster Wallace. It has already been pointed out that Leonard Bankhead is suspiciously reminiscent of Wallace, with his bandanna, his chewing tobacco, his ferocious charm, his mental illness. Though Wallace was not bipolar, he apparently experimented with his depression medication in a way similar to Leonard. Since I do not know very much about Wallace as a person, the references that some readers have found distracting initially escaped me, and I continued to experience Leonard as a full and distinct character even after I became aware of them. (Eugenides has denied that he consciously based his character on Wallace.) But if Leonard is in some way a stand-in for Wallace, his presence deepens the novel rather than detracting from it. For it would be impossible to have the conversation that Franzen and Eugenides are having about the state of the realist novel without including Wallace, who did more than anyone else in the last twenty-five years to try to alter the course of the art. Infinite Jest, despite its futuristic absurdities and its Aspergeresque tics, successfully rewrote the epic for the present moment. Next to Middlesex or The Marriage Plot, it feels gargantuan, overpopulated, and needlessly complicated; but even in his overindulgence Wallace was a visionary.

Both Franzen and Eugenides have responded to the salvos of postmodernism by writing “throwback” novels, the kinds of novels that Madeleine Hanna enjoys reading, and that most reliably bring pleasure to all but the fussiest readers: novels with people in them, as Madeleine puts it, in which things happen to those people in a place resembling the world. But they have gone about it quite differently. Apart from the topicality of its subject matter, Freedom could as easily have been published thirty years ago, around the time its story begins. Franzen’s style has changed not at all since 1988, when his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, appeared. (“When the sky began to lighten, low in the east over southern Illinois, the birds were the first to know it. Along the riverfront and in all the downtown parks and plazas, the trees began to chirp and rustle”: could these lines not appear anywhere in Franzen’s remarkably static corpus?) For all their up-to-the-momentness, Franzen’s novels do not quite fit the circumstances of their creation, because they do not take into account anything outside themselves—namely, other developments in the world of fiction over the last few decades. Making the novel new means more than sprinkling in a BlackBerry or two.

EUGENIDES HAS declined to moan in public about the plight of the realist novel, as Franzen has, or to make bold statements about his own intentions to revive it. He has simply proceeded to his own project of renovation, without making a fuss over it—which may be why less fuss has been made over him. His experimentation is subtle: no Wallacian footnotes or typographical tricks. But he has reinvented himself with each book. He is genuinely original. From its opening lines, the dreamy sophistication of The Virgin Suicides was immediately arresting. “On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope”: Eugenides took the beautiful-dead-girl trope familiar from centuries of art history and poetry and updated it to the American suburbs, circa 1970. And the gorgeous kaleidoscope of Middlesex, blending the latest developments in genomic research with Greek mythology (“Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome!”), the experiences of new immigrants with those of their grandchildren, the hope and squalor of teenage love—it is one of the best American novels of the last decade. No one else combines Eugenides’s broadness of imagination with his technical mastery of the novel form.

The conclusion of The Marriage Plot somewhat deflates its ambitions: this is a novel about marriage that ends not with a wedding—that would be so nineteenth century!—but by raising doubts about both the value of marriage and the value of plots. During their separate pilgrimages, Madeleine and Mitchell discover that life finally has to be experienced unmediated, through the direct connection rather than the page. After her romantic romp through the literary possibilities—from realism to postmodernism to deconstruction and back again—Madeleine’s education is complete. She now understands that love of reading is not love enough.

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic. You can follow her on twitter @ruth_franklin. This article appeared in the December 1, 2011, issue of the magazine.