by Nathacha AppanahBuy at Powell’s »
March 16, 2012
1The Marriage Plot
Well, I didn’t like either of these books.
But I loved Middlesex, Eugenides’s last novel, so I had been looking forward to The Marriage Plot. The book follows three college students in a love triangle in the ’80s as they’re leaving Brown. In short, here’s what they do after graduation: the hot, moody guy (Leonard) studies biology at a prestigious lab on Cape Cod and has a mental breakdown; the charming, vaguely hippie-ish guy (Mitchell) backpacks around Europe and volunteers in India with Mother Teresa; and the girl (Madeleine) … is pretty, and she likes old books. She’s nice, too, and so is her family. But she’s dating Leonard (although Mitchell also wants to sleep with her), so because she’s in love and doesn’t have anything else to do, she goes to live with him in Cape Cod.
The book is almost like a secret Battle Royale-style “Fuck Marry Kill,” with Madeleine as the chooser. So she F’s Leonard, anyone would from the moment we meet him in a philosophy class:
The boy without eyebrows spoke up first. “Um, let’s see. I’m finding it hard to introduce myself, actually, because the whole idea of social introductions is so problematized. Like, if I tell you that my name is Thurston Meems and that I grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, will you know who I am? O.K. My name’s Thurston and I’m from Stamford, Connecticut. I’m taking this course because I read Of Grammatology last summer and it blew my mind.” When it was the turn of the boy next to Madeleine, he said in a quiet voice that he was a double major (biology and philosophy) and had never taken a semiotics course before, that his parents had named him Leonard, that it had always seemed pretty handy to have a name, especially when you were being called to dinner, and that if anyone wanted to call him Leonard he would answer to it.
(I’d do it: Leonard!) But Madeleine eventually sort of realizes that she should maybe M Mitchell, and then she looks around, almost but not quite realizing that someone has to get K’d, and that it’s her. Maybe?
Because unlike her counterparts, she’s not given an actual character (was Eugenides dissed by some hot girl in college?), and although she has a few funny quips, they come out sounding like Eugenides ventriloquizing one-liners to distract the reader from her flatness. It doesn’t work, though—Madeleine’s a drag, and reading this book is like being trapped across from someone terrible at an endless dinner party, where other people seem to be having a pretty good time at either end of the table, just out of earshot.
On the other hand, Leonard and Mitchell (who it’s impossible not to imagine as Muppet-Baby versions of David Foster Wallace and Eugenides himself, even though I know it’s not fair and I’m not supposed to, but the bandanna’d-tortured-manic-genius thing, and the cerebral, doofily-brilliant-Greek-from-Detroit thing were hard to get past), are far more interesting, to the point where it’s difficult to believe they’d enjoy spending time with Madeleine, either. They should’ve done stuff together and fallen in love. I can envision them in some kind of epilogue, or at post-novel cast party, sharing a joint and saying, “Thank God we don’t have to hang out with that chick anymore,” while Madeleine’s over by the craft service table eating melon balls and smiling at the wall. Boo. The Marriage Plot was, however, better than…
Green Girl, by Kate Zambreno.
Speaking of drags, the main character in this slim, delicate novel—Ruth, a self-absorbed, moony twenty-something ex-pat living in a dorm-style women’s apartment building and working in the perfume section at Harrod’s in London (or “Horrid’s,” her best attempt at a joke)—is an even wetter blanket. So although the two books are different in tone, Green Girl, which is more a poetic portrait in vignettes than a story with a beginning, middle, and end, has the same fundamental problem as The Marriage Plot: why would anyone want to share more than 10 pages with this woman? Although it seems Ruth is in London to start anew and have adventures, she comes across as a little dim, and doesn’t do much besides put on makeup, have bad sex, hang out with a girl she doesn’t like, and get a haircut. And think about her ex-boyfriend.
Suggested alternate title: It sucks to be humorless and heartbroken in London. Plus, she freaks fully the fuck out every single time she rides the subway, and yet she keeps taking it. For instance:
The car stops in darkness. She is in the corner in the back, pressed against the glass door. The train thick with passengers. Rows and rows. Bodies, bodies, more bodies. Her face grows hot. People pushing her, pressing against her. She feels herself swaying, swaying. I am going to be sick, she thinks. But she steels herself.
She closes her eyes and tries to die inside.
It isn’t part of some larger section where she has a claustrophobic crisis or anything—that’s just her daily commute. I get that these subway sequences probably have to do with the oppression of being an anonymous nobody, of being carried along on a horrible sea of other anonymous nobodies, of being touched and yet untouched, looked at and looked through—but still. It’s just the train! Hold the pole and read a magazine.
The book does have moments of loveliness, though, and Ruth is pretty and emotionally naked. (And there’s always something appealing about hanging out around pretty people: what do they do? Are their clothes dirty? Do they have diarrhea at work? Yes.) But she has so little going on upstairs that you just want to shake her. To be fair, while I was writing this, someone emailed me out of the blue asking if I’d heard of this wonderful new book called Green Girl, because it was one of the most beautiful things she’d ever read, so there you go.
Winner: The Marriage Plot, because it was a livelier read, Eugenides seems to have more fun writing, and it allowed me to participate in Marriage Plot-themed conversations/debates.
By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner
John: Seven contests into the tournament and this is the first where the judge doesn’t care all that much for either book. I could check, but instead I’ll act like a real-life color-commentator, talk out of my ass, and just declare that it’s a record.
I loved Edith Zimmerman’s commentary on The Marriage Plot, which perhaps illustrates why less-flattering takes on books are so fun to read—particularly when you tend to agree with the opinion, which I do in this case. I think I enjoyed reading The Marriage Plot more than Judge Zimmerman, but I’ll now never be able to shake the image of Leonard and Mitchell as “Muppet Baby” versions of David Foster Wallace and Jeffrey Eugenides.
In my mind, they’re breaking into song as they battle over Madeline’s affections.
Mitchell: Foucalt me! Foucalt you!
Leonard: I Derrida you to say that again!
That’s all I got. There’s a lot of these things to write.
In an interview, ToB favorite Carolyn Kellogg asked Jeffrey Eugenides about writing novels after postmodernism, and he said this:
Schoenberg said it’s still possible to write music in C major, and that’s coming from Mister Experimental himself. That strikes a chord in me; I think with the novel, at a certain point you realize it’s still possible to write in C major and have some kind of narrative content. And meaningful characters that readers can, you know it’s an old-fashioned term, but people can fall in love with the characters and become caught up in their lives. If you don’t have that, you cease to have the kind of novel that can be compelling.
This doesn’t seem like a remotely debatable proposition, given 95 percent of all commercially published novels are still written in C major. Even in our own tournament, which strives for some measure of diversity, maybe 10 or 11 or more out of 16 meet the definition, and if you pay even casual attention to major book-reviewing outlets, they’re almost all C major all the time, with the occasional token experimental writer (Ben Marcus) or living legend of postmodernism (Don DeLillo) thrown in. It’s strange that Eugenides would feel any kind of compunction to defend his own creative impulses, even when asked directly. Usually it’s those of us who step outside of C-major territory that have to do that song and dance.
And it’s not like Eugenides could write a bad book because, let’s face it, he’s an awesome writer, but The Marriage Plot, even as a fairly long novel taking on some big themes (love, identity, postmodern literary theory, God) feels very, very slight, like Eugenides never got past the stretching and calisthenics and into the game. You know the athleticism is there, but you never get to see it put to its best use.
That said, I also don’t think that writers like Jeffrey Eugenides should feel obligated to top themselves each time out of the gate, that they should be free to write what Graham Greene called “entertainments.” I don’t say this to slight Jeffrey Eugenides, whose vest has more Twitter followers than I do, but to try to frame where I think this book sits in the larger literary firmament.
I’m sad that Green Girl didn’t get more judging love because I think it’s a very tough and penetrating work that is decidedly not written in C major that demands attention. In a “self interview” at The Nervous Breakdown, Kate Zambreno declares her intentions for her work and that she’s interested in “literature that is cruel, that interrogates, that makes the reader uncomfortable at times. Exposing easy narratives.”
I dig that.
Both of these books are novels of ideas with young women at their centers, but only one of them, Green Girl, puts the ideas in the foreground, lifting the material out of C major. The intrusive narrator/author interrogating both herself and our green girl Ruth and the epigraphs taken from other stories of green girls ask us to balance our notions of femaleness and character and narrative, even as Ruth’s story unfolds. I understand how and why this balancing act can be less enjoyable and pleasurable to most readers, particularly because the unpalatable parts of Ruth may be the kinds of things that most people don’t want to admit about themselves.
For me, though, the exploration of being young and female and lost is far richer in Green Girl than The Marriage Plot, but there’s a reason why Jeffrey Eugenides gets a Times Square billboard and Kate Zambreno comes to us from an exciting but small independent press. As Zambreno asks/tells herself in the same self-interview, in the final exchange:
Although I enjoyed the book, this all sounds a bit too postmodern and self-aware for my tastes.
Is that a question?
No, I’m directly quoting from an agent’s rejection letter.
I thought it sounded familiar.
Kevin: When Eugenides made those comments to Carolyn Kellogg, I think he was obviously speaking to a particular audience of critics and readers who would knock points off The Marriage Plot for being so easily digestible. Even as you wondered why it was necessary for him to even defend the relevance of the mainstream commercial literary novel, you were downgrading this one as lesser Eugenides. You and I talk about books all the time and, without giving anything away, I’m already looking ahead to a future match-up where I know I’m going to have to defend my personal preference for a particular novel simply because I enjoyed reading it more. That seems like an obvious proposition, but I know (because we’ve already had this conversation) that you’re going to come back at me and say that as enjoyable a read as novel A might be, novel B is a superior book.
So I understand Mr. Eugenides’s defensiveness.
Kevin: Green Girl and books like it exist specifically as a response to novels like The Marriage Plot, and in that way it’s a kind of attack. The Marriage Plot is the host species to Green Girl’s remora. Green Girl isn’t really a threat to The Marriage Plot commercially, and yet it thrives as a necessary counterpoint. One can’t write a transgressive novel unless there’s something normative to get all transgressy over.
If the bestseller list were filled with experimental fiction, then the writer of conventional narrative would have the hip cred of the transgressor, and Kate Zambreno would be defending her work against the literary daggers of that risk-taking indie darling, Mitch Albom.
John: I’m going to cop to being guilty of some cake-and-eat-it-too-ism. I’m committing the same violation I flagged in Laura Miller regarding her comments on the National Book Award list, namely thinking that public tastes should adhere more closely to my own. Judging from some of the reader comments on our pre-game preview, Green Girl was not striking many fancies. I’m sure I objected to Miller’s comments because they were championing the literary fiction one percent while I feel like I’m with the remaining 99 percent.
But even that divide is phony, built around marketing budgets and platforms, rather than the books themselves, so I’m going to stand against myself on that front as well. (I contain multitudes, though don’t we all.)
Because truthfully, I’m weary of thinking about books as categories, or figuring out the ways they divide us. It makes me think of Jonathan Franzen’s famous New Yorker essay on William Gaddis, “Mr. Difficult.” In the essay, Franzen identifies what he thinks are two strains of contemporary American writer: Contract and Status. The status writer is, supposedly, unconcerned with the reader, and more focused on creating a work of “art,” and is therefore to be measured by the work’s degree of “genius” and “art-historical importance.”
Contract writing, on the other hand, “entails a balancing of self-expression and communication within a group.” In Franzen’s words, “the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness; and so a novel deserves a reader’s attention only as long as the author sustains the reader’s trust.”
Franzen’s implication is that Status novels are read not for pleasure, or that sensation of connectedness, but as a kind of cultural medicine, a rigorous brain workout. He backs this up with his decision to abandon Gaddis’ JR midway, that he no longer sought the status of reading difficult books and therefore he shouldn’t feel obligated to continue.
I understand the impulse behind Franzen’s taxonomy since I think anyone who is going to write books has to decide what you’re for, and part of deciding what you’re for is figuring out what you’re against, but from a reader’s perspective, I thought that Franzen’s Status/Contract divide was bullshit that moment I read it, and only feel this more strongly having written and published my own novel. All novels are Contract novels. All art is Contract art—otherwise it isn’t art. Yes, some novels/art may gather smaller groups around them than others, but I’m not aware of any reason to read/experience art other than the experience of connection. To the extent that some books transgress, I believe it’s always in service of this goal. Art sends out a frequency. Some frequencies are broader than others, and depending on the time and place you encounter the frequency, you may or may not hear it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
Quite a few years ago, I was walking through the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., meandering through the rooms, when I came upon a Jackson Pollock, Lavender Mist. Previous to this moment, I was of the “any grade-schooler could do that” school when it came to abstract expressionism, but also up to that time, my only experience with Pollock and his ilk was from slides in an auditorium, or quarter-page displays in a textbook. But here was the real thing, big, seven feet by 10 feet, and vibrant, filled with shadings of color. It pulsed with energy. I looked at the painting and tears started to roll down my cheeks. I felt art’s presence very, very strongly, and for me, part of the contract I look for in books is that sense.
It might be mysterious, but it isn’t difficult.
Kevin: I had the almost the exact same reaction the first time I stood in front of a Pollock in person. I then sought out a documentary where there was some footage of Pollock working, so carefully and deliberately dripping paint onto the floor, and I rewound that stuff over and over trying to deconstruct on some intellectual level how he did it. How could he know what he was doing? How could he know I would react like that?
But that was stupid. Because there wasn’t anything intellectual about my response, either.
Novels become art when the reader meets the author somewhere in the middle. They each bring something to the endeavor and there is either an emotional connection or there’s not. When we get that magic I think we give the author a little too much credit, and when we don’t, I think we hand him a little too much blame. Either way, we tend to discount our own strengths and deficiencies.
What do we have on Monday? It’s Chad Harbach’s debut sensation The Art of Fielding against the celebrated PEN/Hemingway winner Open City by Teju Cole. We’ll also get our first peek at the leading Zombie contenders so far.
I’m predicting some fireworks no matter how this decision goes down.