Archive for the ‘Psychological Novel’ Category

Mid-book Report: Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

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.

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

I just finished Julian Barnes’s 2011 book The Sense of an Ending. I enjoyed it greatly.  It’s short (163 pages) and pithy.  Made me think.

I remember reading Barnes’s 2005 Arthur & George, and after checking a review to refresh my memory, I also remembered that I enjoyed it, too.

I hesitate to recommend to women a book written by a man from a man’s point of view.  I worry that what seems insightful and meaningful to me in such a work may seem obtuse and annoying to the opposite sex.  That said, I recognize without hesitation the excellence of Jane Austen and other women writers; and I have never thought for a moment that each sex should stick to writing from a correspondingly sexed viewpoint.

Even so, I felt I needed a reality check when it came to this book, so I asked the woman who leads the book discussion group of which my wife and I are members. She said the book was about to go back to the library. She had not read the whole thing, but she would give it another chance. Here’s what I wrote to her:

If you had already decided it wasn’t worth the candle, don’t feel obligated to suffer through any more of it for my sake.

I was thinking about why I thought it might not appeal to women, and I realized that it’s because of the way the author treats women. None of the women in the book is fully drawn, and none is portrayed in an appealing light.

We know even less about Veronica than Tony does, which probably means Barnes didn’t have a whole character in mind (I say that knowing full well how little of the background I hae developed for the characters in my screenplay actually makes it into the text). Veronica doesn’t seem to be a character anyone would want to get to know. She seems at all times to believe that anyone with half a brain will be able to understand where she’s coming from. She believes she is communicating clearly and when her expectation of understanding is disappointed, she reacts with anger, contempt, and silence.

Veronica’s mother isn’t characterized much beyond the frying of an egg.

Tony’s ex-wife is a stock ex-wife character who knows Tony better than he knows himself. At least she finally tells him he’s on his own.

So all that leaves is Barnes’s meditations on the perplexities of love, memory and regret. I found them comprehensible and well-observed even if the female characters of the book are not.

If I were a woman, I might find less than appealing the ramblings of a man who–when it comes to women–clearly just doesn’t get it.

That said, my wife enjoyed the book. So, it’s a definite maybe.