The interbreeding of Middlemarch and Barthes

I reviewed Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, which I enjoyed but had hoped and expected to admire more than I did. Here’s an excerpt.

Jeffrey Eugenides has always sought to infuse his fiction with the pleasures of “old-fashioned” storytelling. He strives for a “Classical shape,” a “pleasing and elegant form,” for “something that seizes you, that grabs your attention and gives you a ride through a book.” Yet his stories are also highly self-conscious, given to “postmodern play” (but not “the continuing sense of relativism that I got so tired of”); the narration invariably calls attention to itself in one way or another. The Virgin Suicides, for instance, issues forth from the perspective of a mesmerizing but inconsistent communal “we.” And Middlesex, the captivating story of a Greek-American family that begets a girl named Callie who becomes a boy named Cal, combines what Eugenides has called a third-person heroic epic with a coming-of-age tale, fusing the two with a film-reel chattiness (which hasn’t aged well).

Compared with the sweep and whimsy of these earlier stories, his latest, The Marriage Plot, is tighter, more sober, and surprisingly message-driven. The book does live and breathe, but through its characters, not through its agenda, which is to prove that the romantic preoccupations of the nineteenth century are as relevant in our day as they were then, that love and spirituality are still our most important problems, and that the question whether and whom to marry is not passé but as fraught and as vexing as it ever was. At its best The Marriage Plot conjures the heat and confusion of young, troubled love in all its dreadful complexity. At times, though, the story is so constricted and pedagogical, it feels like a controlled experiment involving the interbreeding of Middlemarch and the criticism of Roland Barthes.

My full reaction is over at B&N Review. See also: Laura Miller in Salon, calling The Marriage Plot “a headlong, openhearted, shameless embrace (make that a bear hug) of the old-fashioned novel, by which I mean the kind written before 1900)”; Carolyn Kellogg in The Los Angeles Times, comparing The Marriage Plot with Freedom and saying that “Eugenides benefits by the comparison: This book is sweeter, kinder, with a more generous heart”; and Christopher Beha in The London Review of Books, arguing among other things (and I recommend paying to read this excellent, extremely critical review) that “It would be more sporting if at least one campus theorist could be seen acting in good faith. Instead, experimentalism is only ever a fashionable gesture.” The New Yorker ran an excerpt, and Eugenides spoke with his editor, Jonathan Galassi, about the novel last year.

Image of Times Square Eugenides billboard taken from The Village Voice.


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