Saturday, November 12, 2011

Two Reviews: Eugenides and Bolano

The Marriage Plot and the Soap Opera Plot

With The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides moves into the self-reflexive mode of late 20th/early 21st century novelists who write books about readers. My favourite contemporary fiction writer, Roberto Bolano, started this game with his two big novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666. It was one of the things that enabled me to read those books when I had all but given up on contemporary fiction. To read about readers is, for a reader, a guilty pleasure. The Marriage Plot starts with the sentence, “To start with, look at all the books,” referring to the library of the heroine, Madeleine Hanna, an English major about to graduate from Brown University. I ate up that sentence, and the rest of the talk of books, greedily, and sped through the 400-page novel in a mere week (a weekend off and odd moments on weekdays). That's much faster than I ever read a novel these days, including Bolano's. Instead I tend to start reading five other books while intermittently going back to the big one until it's finished.

As this (originally literary) blog records, Bolano made literature, and the novel in particular, seem like an event to me again, and it was with this borrowed excitement that I read the new Eugenides, after his last novel, Middlesex, won the Pulitzer, and now that he was explicitly taking on the question of whether the social novel (that is, what we usually mean when we say “the novel”: the modern British novel, practised in American only by Henry James and his admirer, Edith Wharton) can still be written now that marriage, having lost its economic centrality during the 20th century, has lost its symbolic potency. It is the question of an English major, which I am (Wikipedia doesn't say what Eugenides' undergrad major was at Brown); in fact, a version of the question played a role in the Film Studies Ph.D. research proposal I drew up for a funding agency before I decided not to pursue further studies. I was talking about the impact of the depletion of marriage's symbolic potency on the dramatic structure and content of the studio-era Hollywood comedy, but it was the same ballpark, and so it was with somewhat of an academic interest that I devoured The Marriage Plot.

That doesn't mean I liked it. Before The Marriage Plot, I'd read one novel each from the all-male triad of American novelists who've garnered the attention of critics and the reading public for their attempts to revive the tradition of the big fat 19th century realist novel, to salvage it from accusations of being “middlebrow” from critics and writers who believe postmodernism killed it some time ago, and to make it relevant to a public who, unlike its 19th century one, has various electronic entertainments vying for its attention. I read The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen (born 1959); The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon (born 1963); and Eugenides' debut, The Virgin Suicides (Eugenides was born in 1960). The three form a generation, much like Mailer (1923), Capote (1924), Vidal (1925); or Fitzgerald (1869), Faulkner (1897), and Hemingway (1899). American male novelists who capture the public imagination seem to come in threes; America hasn't produced a female novelist who's done so on a comparable scale since Toni Morrison (born 1931), who belongs roughly to the same generation as British doyenne of the novel, A. S. Byatt (1936). In Canada, we've got Margaret Atwood (1939). Women novelists of renown come in ones.

I read The Corrections in the only undergraduate course I took that featured any contemporary fiction. (There were others, but I avoided them, thinking I could read contemporary literature on my own; but I wasn't moved to.) I was excited by the prospect of reading a “19th century novel” that was, at last, about me and the people I knew. Of finally seeing my own life, my own world, set in fiction – in great fiction. But The Corrections faded for me. Eventually I realized why I had trouble with contemporary realist fiction: I was schooled as a novel-reader in 19th century fiction, meaning that “reading,” for me, was about metaphorically identifying with characters and metaphorically applying their social situations to my own life. Contemporary realist fiction, on the other hand, demanded that I ask whether the novelist was accurately portraying contemporary life. And of course, the novelist could only come up short. (Here I'm unlike many readers: I know one English professor, anyway, who loves the 19th century realist novel as much as I do and thinks Franzen's a worthy heir of it. So my metaphorical method must not be how everyone experiences the 19th century novel; or they're able to switch reading modes more easily than I am.) When Franzen's Freedom was released, I knew I had no wish to read about the troubles of an affluent middle-class marriage. These people were not the kind of people I wanted to know more about or be; their choices were not my choices. (I am neither affluent nor married.)

As for the other two, The Virgin Suicides was a sort of poetic novella and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay a novel about recent American history. I thought the latter, which won the Pulitzer, was a lame soap opera, but I liked the former. The Virgin Suicides at least dealt with the topic of obsession, unusual for an American realist writer, though it fell just short of convincing me that the author was obsessed. It seemed too much like an English major's postmodernist essay on Victorian ideas about female sexuality (hysteria, green sickness, claustrophobia, narcissism) transposed into fiction that was dutifully feverish and hallucinatory. Nevertheless, the very fact that Eugenides was willing to do the politically incorrect thing of portraying adolescent female sexuality as morbid, and portraying adolescent males as voyeuristically fascinated with this negative “feminine mystique” was intriguing and promising. However, I threw out Eugenides' follow-up, Middlesex (another Pulitzer winner), after reading about ten pages, despite my excitement over its hermaphrodite protagonist. (Gender identity was the zeitgeist: I had just written a play with a transsexual main character.) I didn't like the voice of the protagonist, which was strangely lacking in colour, and the flashback to the 1920s seemed like pure kitsch. Therefore I was relieved to see William Deresiewicz, in his New York Times review of The Marriage Plot, spend a paragraph demolishing Middlesex, despite that novel's reputation.

In the same review, Deresiewicz suggests that The Marriage Plot is a better novel than Middlesex because it returns to Eugenides' theme in The Virgin Suicides of “the drama of coming of age.” This line of thought, however, leads him to an ominous conclusion: “Among the major male writers of his generation – he was born in 1960, the year after Jonathan Franzen and two years before David Foster Wallace – becoming an adult is possible to imagine happening, at best, at excruciating cost, and often not at all. Which makes them pretty representative.” (DFW, whom I've never read, throws a monkey wrench in my notion of triads of male novelists, even as Deresiewicz confirms my sense that we think of male novelists in groups, separate from female novelists, and as generations. Got no idea what it means, but it seems to be true.) The novel has been responsible for its own demise: I wrote earlier on this blog about the theory of Marxist critic Franco Moretti that the Bildungsroman (which is to say, coming-of-age novel), a glorious product of bourgeois capitalism, put all of its dramatic weight and artistic energy on the side of youth and becoming rather than maturity and being, although the latter was its goal. But now we can't even pretend that we're reaching for the latter, which casts a great shadow of anxiety over the former. Coming of age is the whole drama; after, nothing of interest can happen.

But this seems particularly true of the Anglo-American world, which is obsessed with youth and at the same time anxiously aware of the need to mature (or achieve), so it's instructive to compare Bolano's coming-of-age novel, The Savage Detectives, with its framing story of a teenage poet's sexual and literary adventures, to The Marriage Plot. Whether you prefer Bolano's Romantic vagabonds on a postmodern quest for an obscure experimental poet or Eugenides' young Americans on a post-graduation quest for their identities (or neither) may be a matter of personal taste. For me, despite his palpable naivety, Bolano's 17-year-old poet seems more adult than Eugenides' early 20s characters because he's less “responsible.” In the world Eugenides depicts, being a vagabond means not washing your sheets on a weekly basis (Madeleine's one suitor, the manic-depressive Leonard) or dabbling in tending to the homeless dying in India (Leonard's rival, author avatar Mitchell).

For one thing, the young poets of The Savage Detectives are living their own interior and exterior lives, even on parental premises, in a way that reminded me of what being a teenager in the late 20th century was actually like. It struck me as deeply telling that during the dramatic crisis of The Marriage Plot, in which the heroine must choose between her suitors (one of whom she's recently married), she is surrounded by her parents, who articulate and arbitrate her options. In the 19th century novel, parents have no impact on the heroine's romantic decisions: that's the point. Elizabeth Bennet and Dorothea Brooke must live with their parents until they marry (there's no testing of the waters of independence in university), but in their early 20s they are already far beyond consulting their parents on any matters touching their interior lives or their intentions for their future (except, in Elizabeth's case, to have her father formally excuse her from marrying a man they both loathe). Dorothea makes the wrong choice of partner, but there's no sense that her father could have advised her better.

Conceived under the influence of Protestant notions of private conscience – and consciousness – the 19th century heroine is young, naive, and often mistaken (her mistakes make up the drama of the novel of marriage), but she is an adult and an individual who consults only her own desires and ideas. If she does fall under the sway of adult persuasion (as in Austen's last novel), that too is a mistake of youth (although the argument of Persuasion is that for a young person to not sufficiently know her own mind is a lesser error than knowing it too well). Now, although officially they have no say in whom we marry, parents are too much with us. There is no hint of the pathological, suffocating parental protectiveness that destroys the girls in The Virgin Suicides in The Marriage Plot, but there is still too much interfering parental presence for these supposed adults, and the heroine in particular, to seem adult.

Deresiewicz also notes the failure of Madeleine as a heroine. He calls her “reactive,” which seems a kind, or vague, way of saying what I noticed: that every male character in the novel is more interesting – quirkier, more colourful, with more ideas and more interests – than she is. Both Mitchell and Leonard are on spiritual quests of sorts, Leonard's supplied by his manic-depression (the mental illness presently known as “bipolar disorder”: the novel begins in 1982.) Mitchell's post-graduation spiritual crisis seems modelled on Levin's in Anna Karenina, Leonard's vocation as a biologist on Lydgate's in Middlemarch, but Eugenides does not come up to Tolstoy or Eliot, the writers who touched the heights of the 19th century social novel. For a few moments, while Leonard's tedious job as a research fellow performing dull tasks with yeast closes in on him on one side, his mental illness on the other, Eugenides reminded me of Dreiser in the factory scenes of An American Tragedy, as Clyde is pushed towards his fatal affair with Roberta; while the India scenes with Mitchell made me wonder if this was what reading The Razor's Edge is like.

Eugenides' failure with Madeleine is a disappointment not only because she's a main character (and the centre of a love triangle) or because I'm a female reader hoping to identify with the heroine of a love story, but because the heroines of the 19th century novel were its chief glory. They are exceptional women, one and all, for one reason or another, and their male authors are in love with them (Richardson with Clarissa, Tolstoy with Anna, James with Isabel) while their female authors admire them (Austen with Elizabeth, Eliot with Dorothea). Austen and Eliot also invented heroines to criticize, and perhaps Eugenides thinks that WASP princess Madeleine, with her Katharine Hepburn cheekbones (as we're informed early on), is in the vein of rich, handsome, and clever Emma Woodhouse or haughty, narcissistic, pampered Gwendolen Harleth (Madeleine is reading Daniel Deronda on a train late in the novel). Unfortunately, Eugenides doesn't criticize her. Unlike other types of social novel, the novel of marriage requires a female protagonist. A Balzac or Dickens Bildungsroman might focus on a male protagonist who sets out in the world to make his fortune in order to win the woman of his desires (and the fortune of his desires). But the marriage plot turns on the heroine's choice among suitors. Thinking he's writing this type of novel, Eugenides must enter the consciousness of a heroine who essentially serves the role of Daisy Buchanan or Estella Havisham, and there's no there there. Madeleine is an erotic ideal for whom, at bottom, Eugenides (like Mitchell) appears to have contempt. She is complacency personified.

Eugenides hasn't written a novel of marriage, though: he's written a love triangle story, which has never gone out of fashion, and which can be found at every cultural level. The greatest love triangle story of them all is, of course, Gone With the Wind. The Portrait of a Lady is a sudsy love triangle novel with a tragic existential marriage plot superimposed on it, and in which the heroine isn't in love with either option (Goodwood or Osmond). She is, however, powerfully drawn to both of them, and the reader believes either could psychologically obliterate her. Madeleine doesn't seem especially drawn to either Leonard (after her discovery of his mental illness draws them back together) or Mitchell. The most that can be said is that she's sexually attracted to Leonard and not sexually attracted to Mitchell. That's all we've got to go on in the early 21st century: who we're sexually attracted to, and God forbid they should have to take lithium and put on weight.

The thing about the love triangle plot is that the triangle has to be resolved. In From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, Molly Haskell rather deliciously compared the suspense during this part of the plot to a whodunnit. The suspense tends to operate regardless of whether you have any strong emotional attachment to the characters or not, and so it did for me. SPOILERS AHOY.

First Leonard disappears from Madeleine's life in a Stella Dallas-type move: the life of the WASP princess must not be beclouded by the inconvenience of marriage to a manic-depressive! Madeleine is complicit in this, and knows it. It's like when Gwendolen allows her odious aristocratic husband, Grandcourt, to die by drowning, except that this husband has jumped in the water for her (it actually looked like he was going to pull an Anna Karenina by subway for a second), Titanic-style.

Then, as at the end of The Portrait of a Lady, the marriage hangs in the balance, and the heroine may decide to turn to her ever-waiting backup suitor. There should be a death at this point, as there is in Portrait of a Lady and Gone With the Wind, where the deaths of the most loveable characters, Ralph and Melanie, lend gravity to the great interior emotional crisis of the heroine: James and (Margaret) Mitchell had the novelistic instincts for this, but Eugenides isn't in their class either. For a while, all the passages Eugenides devotes to Mitchell's new (intellectually and aesthetically sound, the surprised reader learns) interest in Quakerism makes it seem like Madeleine and Mitchell might settle for an asexual New Age quietism. This is actually quite an interesting possibility for anyone who's read Lionel Trilling's essay on the rejection of modernity in Austen's Mansfield Park, which I assume Eugenides has (Mitchell as Fanny, Madeleine as Edmund, and Leonard as Mary Crawford).

Instead, however, Mitchell draws on his Jamesian reserves of renunciation and erases himself from Madeleine's life, just like Leonard. Does anyone really want this woman after all? (I didn't think so.) The neatly thematic, meta-fictional, spectacularly unmoving speech in which he states that Madeleine has “more important things to do with her life” than get married rings hollow: if this is supposed to be feminism, it's too little too late considering that we were told early on that Madeleine is not as intelligent as her two male suitors (this is what she thinks, and Eugenides never proves otherwise) and Eugenides has spent the novel demonstrating that she's not as interesting. Mitchell and Leonard had important plans, although they've failed at them (Leonard perhaps temporarily): to become a saint and a scientific luminary, respectively. No offence to Victorianists (I nearly became an English academic myself, and might be one now if the job market was better), but what exactly is so important about becoming one, and why couldn't it be combined with marriage?

While true to the feminist era, the insight that Madeleine does not have to marry either man (that Mitchell is the one who's been framing her options this way) has been done before, and better: in the romantic comedy Broadcast News (1987), with a love triangle formed by Holly Hunter, William Hurt, and Albert Brooks. Hurt plays the Daisy Buchanan figure for Hunter, which at least permits her to be interesting (she's also believably dedicated to her work), although probable author avatar Brooks as the “smart, sexless friend” steals the show (as Mitchell does The Marriage Plot, at least for me). No, we can't write the marriage plot anymore, now that marriage is not the necessary end goal of a woman's (or man's) life. The love triangle can always be written, but it's not easy to make it transcend soap opera, and it should perhaps be left to writers whose work has got some kind of archetypal pop energy, like Stephenie Meyer. How love and romantic relationships can be serious subjects for fiction now, and how one can write a traditional realist novel without them, are good questions, but Eugenides has not provided the answers in The Marriage Plot.

Fascinating Fascism Redux: Nazi Literature in the Americas

Of course, Bolano's work, especially The Savage Detectives, is full of love and relationships, but they are just experiences among others. Nazi Literature in the Americas is one of the strangest works of literature I've ever read: all of the inscrutable privacy and inventive weirdness of Jane Bowles's Two Serious Ladies combined with a fascination with evil out of the 19th century decadents. Not one review – professional, blog, or customer – I've read on the net even comes close to plausibly accounting for what Bolano is doing in this fauxcyclopedia series of vignettes. The best explanation I've heard is a friend who suggested it was a depository for ideas that were too weird to make into novels. And Bolano's novels are pretty weird.

Nazi Literature in the Americas is not a satire of right-wing lunacy or the banality of evil (although there's plenty of lunacy, banality, and evil on display). “Irony” seems applicable in that you can't tell the author's attitude towards anything he's writing about, although the source and purpose of this irony is obscure. The only thing that rises above the irony is the ideal of art, and in the (relatively) long final section, in which Bolano appears as a character, he seems to take the idea of the serial killer as artistic visionary and prophet seriously. How seriously the reader can take this is another question.

Luckily, Bolano never fully commits to the idea (or any other), keeping things enigmatic. His collection of desperate outsiders and fringe figures, united only by their obsession with writing and their various connections with fascism, is bizarre enough to illuminate certain facets of early 21st century reality beyond the reach of the social novel. Everywhere I look now, I see the Bolanoesque: Anders Breivik, the Tea Party, and especially outsider artist Royal Robertson, schizophrenic African-American sign painter turned misogynous prophet of a sci-fi apocalypse (Blake meets American junk culture) when his wife of twenty years left him and took their children. (I found out about him through Sufjan Stevens's hipster indie electro album, The Age of Adz.)

The early 20th century was Kafkaesque. We thought that was scary. The early 21st century is Bolanoesque. Now you can be scared.

The Future of the Novel (Besides Movie Adaptations)

It seems odd that American authors should be trying to revive the European social novel, a non-native form whose only successful American practitioners were James and Wharton. In 2011, I feel less like the novel is dead than I have during my lifetime, with Murakami's 1Q84 following upon 2666: as long as epic ambition and formal experimentation are found in our world novelists (and those novelists have enough popular appeal to be read outside their own countries and languages) the novel lives as much as it did in the day of Tolstoy and George Eliot or Proust and Joyce. 

If I see anything worth “saving” of the 19th century social novel, it's the realist character; for me, the exploration of psychology and human nature remain primary reasons to read and write. But I cannot give a flying saucer of milk about the contemporary heteronormative white middle class. The novel has to press forward, press further: there are no further insights to be mined here. We know too much for that now. Even those of us who, like me, are white, heteronormativish, and raised middle class. I want to read novels that know more than I do about humans who are alive now, not less.

I wasn't surprised to learn that the movie rights to The Marriage Plot have already been sold. As I read the (entertaining) section where Leonard goes on a manic gambling spree on his honeymoon, all I could do was wonder what the movie version would be like, because it was already written like the big dramatic section in a glossy entertainment, maybe directed by Scorsese (I guess I'm thinking of Casino). In other words, it was there for dramatic pleasure, for spectacle of a sort, not truth-to-character (or truth to his mental illness). The novel's dialogue, too, was taken from movies, not life (or even books): a mixture of screenplay-bland and, occasionally, stageplay-clever, but always ringing false. But put it in a movie (an average, naturalist Hollywood movie) and it'll all sound fine, because that's how people talk in them.

A final thing I noticed about the novel that seemed to speak to the difficulty of writing realism now was the absence of strong emotion at crucial dramatic points. Eugenides's informal rhetoric (like Bolano, he even uses exclamation points in the prose, which seems more out-of-place in the absence of other experimentation) can't allow for it. The climax of the 19th century novel tends to deal in some kind of great epiphany or catharsis, whether it's Dorothea Brooke's extension of empathy to the Lydgates or the deathbed scene with Ralph and Isabel. But all emotional climaxes are muted here: “realism” now means quiet and small. (Only if a character has a manic episode do we get some good old-fashioned melodrama. He even wears a cape, like a proper entertaining crazy person.) It's impossible to feel much when Leonard abandons Madeleine, when the author won't go into her feelings about it in any depth; or when Mitchell renounces Madeleine, when he's so philosophical about it. 

But the example that really stands out is the climax of Mitchell's episode working in Mother Theresa's hospice. Mitchell finally gets up his nerve to give a sick old man a bath, and gets to see the massive, disgusting tumour on his genitals. After that he's out of there like a bat out of hell. I'm still not sure what to make of this episode. Are we supposed to identify with Mitchell's failure of idealism, faced with brute physical fact? It's the sort of thing about which one might lazily say, “I couldn't deal with it either.” Much like Madeleine's inability to deal with her boyfriend's mental illness. But that doesn't necessarily make it “real.” I know people in happy long-term relationships and marriages who are bipolar or schizophrenic (surely everybody does nowadays?), and although I can imagine feeling sympathy for a character who does not feel they can cope with having a mentally ill partner, the author would have to work a little harder to make me feel that, rather than taking it for the normal and obvious reaction.

I don't mean to single out Eugenides for these faults: they seem endemic to our present expectations of realist writing. The contemporary personal style is casual and unemotive, and we believe we are selfish, with no hope of overcoming it. These things constitute “realism” for us. There's a certain masochistic satisfaction in admitting that the average person could never deal with anything a bit difficult. No, we just throw up our hands and run off. No wonder we're not the marrying kind anymore. This opinion of ourselves isn't true (nor does it have to be to be “realism,” a convention): I don't think the average person is more selfish now than they've ever been, based on seeing what people around me do all the time when tragedy strikes in the course of life, as it regularly does. But I can't cope with these low expectations of literary characters. Reading the 19th century novel is a moral experience: characters either rise to the occasion, morally; or if they don't, that is their tragedy. “Yeah, I'd do the same thing” is no replacement, as part of the reading experience, for “I hope/fear I would do the same thing.” In fact the former is not what I understand as “the reading experience” (or experience of drama, since "I fear I would do the same thing" is the emotion of tragedy) at all. 

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