Mid-book Report: Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot

My Kindle tells me I’ve now read 55% of The Marriage Plot.  I’ve realized that the title of the book is really a self-characterization.  The plot of The Marriage Plot is a marriage plot.  I only figured that out after reading about a third of the way through.  Doh!  I feel like I wasn’t paying attention.

But then, not paying attention to the mechanics is actually a compliment to the novelist.  If you pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, it’s because other things are more interesting.  So what happened to make me start paying more attention to the mechanics and less to the content.  I guess it’s because the content has become a bit predictable.

Sure, it’s a surprise that Leonard is clinically manic-depressive, but where can you go with that?  He’s much less interesting now that he’s pathological, which as a practical matter is a significant part of what it means to exhibit a mental pathology–it’s only interesting to the sufferer; it’s just annoying (truth to tell) to bystanders, especially to involved  bystanders (like Madeleine, in this case).

We’ve known from Madeleine that Mitchell has at the very least a crush on her.  It doesn’t add much to get inside Mitchell’s head to learn about it.  TMI.  (Too Much Information).  I don’t think I care about Mitchell’s flirtation with religiosity (although I did get a chuckle from his encounter with Little-Miss-Let-Jesus-Into-Your-Heart, having just worked such an encounter into my “Talking with God” story).

I don’t mind the author displaying his erudition and his interest in the Victorian novel, postmodern criticism (whatever that is), and the new feminism.  Those seem to be part of the self-referential context of the story.  (Did I really write that?)  The religiosity stuff just feels forced.

This all brings me back to the Victorian novel and the marriage plot (and its subsequent elaborations and variations).  What makes the great Victorian novels great, say I, is that we care about what happens, not just to the protagonist, but to those around him or her.  What happens is interesting.  It’s not sufficient to slather the reader with facts (even when the facts are obtained by an omniscient third person narrator) about a character just because they are facts about that character.

It’s what my friend Peter calls the tooth-brushing problem: just because the character brushes his or her teeth doesn’t make the event worthy of inclusion in the text, much less capable of moving the story along in a compelling way.

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