Sex, Drugs and Semiotics: a review of Jeffrey Eugenides’ ‘The Marriage Plot’

For some time now, we’ve been watching for what Jeffrey Eugenides will do next. He has cultivated a reputation as one of the safest hands in modern fiction, and his new novel, The Marriage Plot, topped international best-sellers lists and won the 2011 Salon Book Award. It is in many ways an impressive book. It follows the lives and loves of three students in their final year of Brown University in 1982, and pursues them through their first year of graduation.

Madeleine, a somewhat naive English major, has been sucked into one of the biggest crazes to sweep Brown University in the early 80’s. Is it toga parties? Ecstasy? No, it’s semiotics, the new, byzantine study of sign and signification.

But if she finds the work of Ferdinand de Saussure and Umberto Eco perplexing and overwhelming, it’s because she has yet to be sucked into the love triangle that will consume the next two years of her life. She becomes torn between Leonard, a tortured but apparently brilliant polymath, whose ‘goal in life is to become an adjective’, and Mitchell, a spiritually-inclined and studious guy who spends his graduate year volunteering with Mother Teresa in India. As the plot winds on, Madeleine’s life comes increasingly to resemble ‘the marriage plot’ that is such staple to Victorian novels, and forms the basis of her graduate thesis.

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I have to admit I was dubious about the novel in its opening pages. Eugenides’ 1993 debut, The Virgin Suicides, was a tense and quietly beautiful book, narrated in the plural first person by a sort of chamber choir of narrators. It was experimental and fresh, startlingly confident. His second novel, Middlesex, was similarly writing on the fringes, the memoirs of Cal, a hermaphrodite relaying the immigrant experience and the tensions of twentieth century America. The Marriage Plot, on the other hand, is what Eugenides calls ‘writing in C Major’. There are no narrative frills, no nods to postmodernism; just a free, indirect style rotating between three characters.

Still, this is not to say the he’s playing it safe. The Marriage Plot is a headlong rush at modern romance, and its characters for the mostpart remain true and engaging. Eugenides is known to pour much of himself into his novels. Like Madeleine, he majored in English at Brown (graduating in 83, not 82), and, like Leonard, spent time in Calcutta working with Mother Teresa. He loves his characters, but on occasion loves them too much, treating them with a sort of romanticism that rubs up against reality. We first see Mitchell, for instance, sitting ‘half-lotus’ in the churchyard, whispering to himself. Leonard is rumoured to be based on the late David Foster Wallace.

Still, Eugenides is wary of these conceits, and of losing the readers’ trust – to remedy this he is constantly rolling his eyes behind his characters’ backs, and, sadly, mostly behind Madeleine’s. The result, at times, is that the characters are left both a little hackneyed and a little unlikeable, but thankfully this is not the overriding impression with which you will leave the book. Moments such as Leonard’s mental deterioration and Mitchell’s time in India are luminous and insightful.

While the 1982 Brown University campus is evocatively described, all leaf-smelling air and black metal railings, the true landscape of Eugenides’ book is the landscape of literature, the topography of ideas. We watch as Madeleine traverses the rocky gullies of de Saussure and Derrida, forges for the abundant ridges of Barthes.

Perhaps the only jarring point is that the book is set conveniently before the advent of social networking and mobile phones changed both campus life and romantic love forever. Characters are always leaving each other notes and waiting for each other to call. The book’s premise is to investigate how the marriage plot can operate in a world that has changed the rules, but today it feels out of date: the rules have once again changed. Still, perhaps it will be thirty years before a writer of Eugenides’ talent takes on that task, so for now enjoy a master at his best.

A version of this material appeared in New Welsh Review. It’s possible they retain the rights.

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