Rethinking the marriage plot

21:19, Apr 22 2012
Jeffrey Eugenides
REALITY CHECK: Jeffrey Eugenides thinks the fictional idea of marriage is dangerous.

The Marriage Plot. Seems romantic, doesn't it? It's not. In his latest novel, Jeffrey Eugenides has taken aim at the rose-tinted ideas of romance channelled by the likes of Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Hollywood machine and shot them to the ground. Dead.

In a novel which took nine years to write, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who gave us The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex has taken on the idea of the traditional marriage plot and left readers questioning if this old-fashioned construct has a place in modern fiction.

Eugenides, who willingly accepts being called a "great American writer" – because "it's better than being called the worst" – thinks the fictional ideal of marriage is "dangerous".

"The marriage plot is the foundational plot of the English novel and I knew you couldn't write a marriage plot consistent with modern reality. But we have internalised the marriage plot over the years. Through Jane Austen books, Hollywood movies, we've come to have romantic expectations that stem from these works," says Eugenides. "I wanted to tell how dangerous it is to read those kinds of books and have those different conceptions of your life. And the love you'll get from reading and the difficulty of reconciling that with life."

Set in 1982, The Marriage Plot is about a love triangle between three Brown University graduates whose bookish heroine, Madeleine Hanna, is generically beautiful and ambitious. Her suitors are the charismatic loner Leonard Bankhead and old friend Mitchell Grammaticus.

As a lover of 19th century fiction, naturally, Madeleine's heart ends up in the hands of the brooding bad boy.


Except that Leonard is a manic depressive whose deterioration physically manifests itself to the point where he cannot control his bowels when he takes his medication and is prone to bouts of psychosis when he doesn't. Mitchell, in an attempt to forge his identity, heads to India where his fixation with religion leads him to work in Calcutta with Mother Teresa. In this mire, Madeleine's aspirations are suffocated by her attempt to save Leonard from his self. "It's heroic but also a doomed pursuit," Eugenides says.

But don't dislike 20-something Madeleine for her questionable decisions in life.

"She's a young person with ambition, but she's not sure how things are going to work out for her professionally or romantically.

"There's certainly a great amount of fragility and indecision. That's actually how I remember my 20s. It's not a statement about her being a woman, but the experience of once you leave college and not knowing where your life is headed. I remember it being a time of great anxiety."

And so, with lashings of semiotic theory and heavy doses of literature, the story of their patchy lives is told as intimately as if they themselves were whispering their own secrets.

"With this book, the chief goal I was trying to achieve was to create complex characters whose mental processes are ... minutely mapped. This was a book where I went as deeply into character as I can," says Eugenides, who is of Greek and Irish descent and lives in New Jersey.

He does use his own memories to frame the characters – he's a lover of 19th century fiction and also went on pilgrimage to Calcutta – but he had to do a great deal of "imagining" when it came to Leonard's disease.

"That's what my job is, to try to imagine how people live who are not myself. If I can't do that, I better hang up my gloves."

He won't have to. A volume of short stories is in the works and Eugenides is also deciding on whether he wants to write the script for The Marriage Plot, the rights for which have been – ironically – snapped up by Hollywood producer Scott Rudin (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

It's the second time one of his works have been adapted to the big screen. The Virgin Suicides was turned into an award-winning film by Sofia Coppola.

"Of all my books, I think The Marriage Plot is best suited to adaptation to the big screen because it's slightly more traditional in its structure.

"If it is faithfully adapted in that way, then I'll be excited."

Jeffrey Eugenides appears at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival talking about The Future of the Novel with Emily Perkins on Saturday, May 12, at 11.30am and in An Hour with Jeffrey Eugenides with Kate De Goldi on Sunday, May 13, at 10am.

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