The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
Canon
, Ted Gioia reviews The
Marriage Plot
by Jeffrey
Eugenides.
The Marriage Plot
by Jeffrey Eugenides

Reviewed by Ted Gioia


Modern fiction sometimes seems like a reclamation
project.  The house of narrative has let in some unruly
tenants in recent decades. The surrealists and absurdists
left everything in disarray.  The cyberpunks held wild
parties and didn't clean up the mess.  The stream-of-
consciousness folks didn't pay attention to the structure,
and it started leaking. Finally,
the postmodernists and meta-
fiction specialists began dis-
mantling the building, using
up the bricks and planks for
their own makeshift shelters.  

There went the neighborhood!

So I give credit to those brave
writers who have moved into
these ruins, ignoring the litter
and wreckage and trying to
build solid and stately narratives,
up to code and sturdy enough
to invite in guests.   

Of course, gentrification is always controversial.  Not
everyone applauds the return to coherent, character-
driven storytelling in contemporary fiction, and a few
stragglers, many of them on a higher level than mere
readers, some even possessing that deep mojo known as
tenure, bitterly complain as they walk past the new, clean
neighborhood rising around them. They reminisce about
the days when characters were overwhelmed by torrents
of language, washed away far from the shores of plot and
structure, storms that left many reader shipwrecked in
the process.

But the hardest restoration job is the love story, or as
Jeffrey Eugenides calls it in his novel of the same name,
"the marriage plot." This structure, once the finest mansion
in town, is in sad shape nowadays, good for little more than
the lowliest escapist genre fiction.  If literature were a real
neighborhood, these stories are stuck in the worst ghetto,
relegated to the racks by the checkout counter in
supermarkets, with covers depicting sweaty, scantily-clad
bodies locked in passionate embrace.  Where have you gone,
Madame Bovary, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you….

Or in the words of Eugenides, here summarizing the view
of a professor who teaches a university course on these out-
dated love stories:

"The novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot
and had never recovered from its disappearance. In the
days when success in life had depended on marriage, and
marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a
subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the
novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had
been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it
completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if
she could file for separation later? How would Isabel
Archer's marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected
by the existence of a prenup?....Where could you find the
marriage plot nowadays? You couldn't."

But don’t let Eugenides fool you.  This passage is perhaps
better seen as a boast about the challenge he is setting
himself, or what the judges at athletic events would call
"the degree of difficulty." In fact, Eugenides must now be
considered our reclamation specialist in American fiction,
a pro at updating the love story for our post-marriage-
plot  psyches.  Certainly he has matched the challenge of
the task with the daring of his reclamation projects to date.  

In his debut novel
The Virgin Suicides, Mr. Eugenides
came up with a new spin on an old story, radically inverting
the Bildungsroman and the familiar tales of romantically
suicidal lovers, epitomized in Goethe's
The Sorrows of
Young Werther
.  In Eugenides's reworking, the passionate
male admirers remain psychically healthy and infatuated,
but the indifferent young ladies who fill their dreams are
the ones who end it all.  Readers were invited to come up
with their own explanation, but these virgin suicides could
hardly be due to heartsickness and the demands of love—
the victims had little taste of that—but perhaps merely
caused by the burden of being beloved. Clearly they didn't
buy into the marriage plot.

In his follow-up novel
Middlesex, winner of the Pulitzer
Prize for fiction, Eugenides raised the ante further, even
while retaining echoes of the Bildungsroman and con-
ventional tales of young love.  Here his protagonist is both
man (Cal) and woman (Calliope), a hermaphrodite coming
of age during the era of Vietnam and Watergate. With such
a starting point, Eugenides's novel could easily have turned
into a tawdry and titillating exposé, highbrow trash akin to
what Gore Vidal delivered with
Myra Breckinridge  or
John Updike with
Couples.  But Eugenides delivered
something much different in
Middlesex, moving and
nuanced, and with nothing exploitative or campy in the
mix.  

For another author, these would be career-defining works
and, given Eugenides's small output and slow pace—he
comes out with around one novel per decade—unlikely to
be topped.  Yet with
The Marriage Plot, he delivers what
many (myself include) see as his finest work, and certainly
the most ambitious attempt to redefine the love story for
serious modern fiction, even while he accepts that the old
rules of the genre no longer apply.

The book focuses on the most ancient device of love
stories, the romantic triangle.  Yet if updating that
threadbare plot for the jaded
post-post-modern literary
audience weren't already hard enough, Eugenides makes
it harder by the three characters he inserts into his tale.  
Each is immersed in the various and sundry ideologies of
the late 20th century, and though their intellectual drug of
choice is different, all of them have reason to believe they
have gone beyond the conventional marriage plot in their
own lives.  

Mitchell love Madeleine, but he seems to be on a spiritual
quest, and can hardly pursue a romance in the US if his
destiny requires him to go to India, where he helps the
dying in Mother Teresa's hospice.  What could be more
incompatible with the traditional romance?  But Madeleine
is even less likely to get involved. She wants to get a PhD
in English, and is immersing herself in the latest and
trendiest lit-crit currents from France. Her role should
be to deconstruct the marriage plot, not participate in it.  
Besides, she is indifferent to Mitchell and sleeping with
Leonard, who is even a less promising stand-in for
Heathcliff and Mr. Darcy.  He suffers from manic
depression, and can hardly deal with the basic res-
ponsibilities of his own life, let alone serve as a fulfilling
romantic partner to someone else.  

Make no mistake about it, this is a character-driven novel.  
Yet Eugenides does not shy away from immersing his
characters in the most varied intellectual currents and
belief systems, and much of the power of this book comes
from the peculiar and appealing flavor of young love as it
tries to define itself in the marketplace of contemporary
ideas.

Can you manage your romances by consulting Roland
Barthes's
A Lover’s Discourse?   Can the study of mating
processes of yeast cells and conversations with a Nobel
Prize-winning geneticist improve the chances of your own
DNA finding a suitable partner? Can you predict the future
of your love life at a Quaker Meeting?   I was delighted
again and again by Eugenides's boldness in putting love to
the test, indeed to a dizzying array of tests, in the face of
almost every modern mental framework.

This also allows our author to confront, in a roundabout
way, those who don’t like the narrative reclamation project
that books of this sort represent.  The hardliners with
tenure who want to keep narrative subservient to
language games will see their own views given plenty of
air time here.   But they don’t fare too well.  Few novels of
recent years incorporate more postmodern theory into
their storylines—but MLA rhetoric ends up looking a bit
ridiculous in the process.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised
that, when the history of the rise and fall of deconstruction
as a fashionable literary discipline is finally written, that
this novel is seen as one of the nails in the coffin.  

I am tempted to cite many passages to help make this
point, but I will settle for two:

"Then one Sunday morning before winter break, Abby’s
boyfriend, Whitney, materialized at their kitchen table,
reading something called
Of Grammatology. When
Madeline asked what the book was about, she was given
to understand by Whitney that the idea of a book being
'about' something was exactly what this book was against,
and that, if it was 'about' anything, then it was about the
need to stop thinking of books as being about things.
Madeleine said she was going to make coffee. Whitney
asked if she would make him some, too."

And a few pages later:

"Since Derrida claimed that language, by its very nature,
undermined any meaning it attempted to promote,
Madeleine wondered how Derrida expected her to get his
meaning. Maybe he didn't. That was why he deployed so
much arcane terminology, so many loop-de-looping
clauses. That was why he said what he said in sentences
it took a minute to identify the subjects of. (Could 'the
access to pluridimensionality and to a delinearized
temporality' really be a subject?)"

In other words, this is a postmodern novel that under-
mines postmodernism.  And it deconstructs the marriage
plot, even as it tries to find a way of revivifying it.   And
every other form of modern redemption also gets its
moment to strut on the stage in this novel, and try to set
things right.  But how can they?   To pull off his mad
endeavor, our author needs to resolve the romantic
triangle, yet he can’t just bring back the expected endings,
hand-me-downs from Jane Austen.  Nor are the other
familiar evasions of experimental literature available to
him.  Our novelist has enlisted our emotional commitment
to this story, and now mere language game can no longer
satisfy.

Jeffrey Eugenides somehow succeeds, against the odds.  
He makes this marriage plot work, giving closure in a way
as pleasing as it is unconventional.  But I’m still not sure
whether this is a successful reclamation project that
others can emulate, or a one-of-a-kind success that will
make it even harder for other writers to follow in his wake.   
But, at least for the time being, the house of narrative is
still standing, and even looks a little bit cozy.  
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
Click on image to purchase
The New Canon

Home Page

Gabriel García Márquez:
Love in the Time of Cholera

David Foster Wallace:
Infinite Jest

Margaret Atwood:
The Handmaid's Tale

Toni Morrison:
Beloved

Jonathan Franzen:
The Corrections

Don DeLillo:
Underworld

Zadie Smith:
White Teeth

Roberto Bolaño:
2666

Mark Z. Danielewski:
House of Leaves

Cormac McCarthy:
Blood Meridian

Philip Roth:
American Pastoral

Jonathan Lethem:
The Fortress of S0litude

Haruki Murakami:
Kafka on the Shore

Edward P. Jones:
The Known  World

Ian McEwan:
Atonement

Michael Chabon:
The Amazing Adventures of
Kavalier & Clay

Philip Roth:
The Human Stain

Mario Vargas Llosa:
The Feast of the Goat

Marilynne Robinson:
Gilead

David Mitchell:
Cloud Atlas

José Saramago:
Blindness

Jennifer Egan:
A Visit from the Good Sqad

W. G. Sebald:
Austerlitz

Jeffrey Eugenides
The Marriage Plot

Donna Tartt:
The Secret History

Michael Ondaatje:
The English Patient

Saul Bellow:
Ravelstein

A.S. Byatt:
Possession

Umberto Eco:
Foucault's Pendulum

Cormac McCarthy:
The Road

David Foster Wallace:
The Pale King

J.K. Rowling:
Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone

Arundhati Roy:
The God of Small Things

Roberto Bolaño:
The Savage Detectives

Paul Auster:
The New York Trilogy

Per Petterson:
Out Stealing Horses

Ann Patchett:
Bel Canto

Ben Okri:
The Famished Road

Joseph O'Neill:
Netherland

Haruki Murakami:
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Marisha Pessl:
Special Topics in Calamity
Physics

Jonathan Franzen:
Freedom

Colm Tóibín:
The Master

Denis Johnson:
Tree of Smoke

Richard Russo:
Empire Falls

Alice Munro:
Runaway

Martin Amis:
London Fields

Mark Haddon:
The Curious Incident of the
Dog in the Night-Time

John Banville:
The Sea

Chuck Palahniuk
Fight Club

Jeffrey Eugenides:
Middlesex

Junot Diaz:
The Brief Wondrous Life of
Oscar Wao

Aravind Adiga:
The White Tiger

Tim O'Brien:
The Things They Carried

Irvine Welsh
Trainspotting

Tobias Wolff:
Old School

Tim Winton:
Cloudstreet

David Foster Wallace:
Oblivion

Oscar Hijuelos:
The Mambo Kings Play
Songs of Love

More to come


Recommended Links:

Great Books Guide
Conceptual Fiction
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's personal web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

American Fiction Notes
LA Review of Books
The Big Read
Critical Mass
The Elegant Variation
Dana Gioia
The Literary Saloon
The Millions
The Misread City
Page-Turner
Page Views

Disclosure note: Writers on this site and its
sister sites may receive promotional copies of
works under review.