Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Book Review: The Marriage Plot by J. Eugenides

There is a recent trend lately whereby in an attempt to boost sales, shameless publishing marketing gurus frame a book as a modern Jane Austen. These books hint that if Jane Austen were alive today, she'd be writing this sort of book. Having written an actual Jane Austen mash-up and having read all of her books about a bazillion times, I consider myself something of an amateur expert on this subject. And the only book that I can say without a single equivocation that could have been written by Jane Austen, a book that captures her humor, wit, and commentary on society, is Bridget Jones' Diary. This is a wonderful book and, if by chance you've been living under a rock for the last fifteen years, I suggest you read it.

Despite the barrage of marketing nonsense that states that The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides is a modern-day Jane Austen, it is not. This is, as Jane Austen would say, a gross falsehood. Sadly, it also isn't a very good novel.


Within the first ten pages I knew that the author had gone to Brown University (like his protagonists), and that this would be a payback novel. That all the slights and emotional traumas that he'd experienced as a student there would be relived in these pages. In that I wasn't disappointed. Yes, it's a payback novel, and it captures the pretension of snotty undergraduate education beautifully. I went to a similar school, and the inflated self-importance walking hand and hand with crippling insecurity that characterizes ninety percent of undergraduates (as well as insufferably pretentious academics) was beautifully written.

In fact, this is one of those books that is hard to critique because there are parts of this novel that are stunning in terms of language. And that's about the only positive thing I can say about it. I relished the language even as I pined for a really good editor to whack this novel into shape.

First of all, the first third of the book is backstory.  I tend not to mind backstory. Unfortunately, it always undermines the pacing of a book, but what well-written backstory offers in terms of fleshing out a story is well worth the lag in pacing. This didn't happen here. All three main characters are given pages and pages of backstory, and at a certain point the reader is aching to get back to the real story.

Second, the book suffers from the real modern affliction that almost none of the characters are particularly likable and one of them totally odious--something I suppose I will have to get used to. It seems to be de riguer these days. Except that because they are such jerks, we don't understand the sad little love triangle that holds the novel together. We are told that the main protagonist is beautiful (and yet has no one interested in her for the first two years of college, figure that one out), and her attraction for the second (likable) protagonist is inexplicable. She's selfish, manipulative, and thoughtless. We can't help but start to get irritated with the second protagonist because he loves this thoughtless selfish woman and we don't know why. And the third protagonist is a manipulative sexual predator whom everyone finds endlessly fascinating and brilliant, and they all want to sleep with him. He is, in short, an asshole of the first order, and yet the reader is supposed to be dragged along in the general adoration. This is the main problem with the book. We are told that this character loves this character. We are told this character is brilliant. We are told everything, and yet nothing that is written compels me to feel anything about these characters other than dislike or pity.

Third, the novel does not go anywhere. We go through mental breakdowns, searches for God, and a wildly ill-conceived marriage, and the characters end up at the same place they were at the beginning of the novel. There is little to no internal movement. It's what I have come to term "the nihilistic novel." They seem to be fashionable these days. I don't know if they are emblematic of the existential crisis of realism or some such bullshit, but I want my books to go somewhere. I want them to move. I don't need them to be happy. I don't need them to resolve everything. But I want something to happen. Nothing happens in this book. It's all filler.

Regarding Jane Austen: The only thing that this book has in common with a Jane Austen novel is that someone gets married. That's it. Marriage in Austen has a point. It's not merely a vehicle for financial salvation. It happens because the characters in the novel have some sort of personal epiphany. It is a physical manifestation of an internal self-reckoning. In The Marriage Plot, the marriage is, in fact, the nadir of the book, and does not signal any sort of personal epiphany. In fact, it's the opposite. It signals the desperation and wish fulfillment of a spoiled young woman taking advantage of desperately ill young man. In Austen's world, she would be the villain not the heroine of the novel. She can only move forward emotionally and even physically by divorcing this man.

I suppose that's the point. Hello, modern-day nihilism.  But Jane Austen was the opposite of this nihilistic view of the world, and the next time the back of a book announces that it's the modern Jane Austen, I will look on it with a jaundiced eye. And reach for a real Jane Austen novel.