Early in Jeffrey Eugenides' new book, The Marriage Plot, an English professor declares that gender equality ruined the modern novel.
He lectures that the rise of sexual liberation and divorce led to the elimination of the very plot device that made the Victorian novel, well, Victorian: whether or not the main characters were going to get married.
Yet set against this thesis, Eugenides does precisely what the book says is no longer possible — he writes a story that keeps you wondering whom the heroine will end up with.
Set in 1982, The Marriage Plot revolves around three characters who are caught in a kind of love triangle. Madeleine Hanna is an ambitious and beautiful English major; Mitchell Grammaticus is a Greek-American kid from Detroit who studies religion; and Leonard Bankhead is a brilliant but troubled science and philosophy student. We meet them just as they are about to graduate from Brown University.
An 'Inborn Love Of Narrative'
Eugenides tells NPR's Guy Raz that when he first started work on The Marriage Plot in the '90s, he had a very different story in mind — a story about a rich family preparing to throw a debutante party.
"One of the daughters in that family was Madeleine," Eugenides says. "And as I began to write her section, which I had envisaged would only be three or four pages, I kept going with her and started writing about semiotics, her boyfriend trouble, and little by little I realized I had another novel on my hands."
Madeleine's character evolved into an English major studying at Brown at a time when French literary theory was all the rage. Eugenides, who also attended Brown in the '80s, paints a picture of English majors walking around campus with dog-eared copies of books by Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes, discussing the irrelevancy of the 19th century narrative novel.
"That was what it was like," he says of his own experience. "French theory was crashing on American shores in the late '70s and '80s and a lot of my professors were kind of smitten with it. And you would have two different kinds of professors; the old New Critics who were against it and then the new semioticians."
Eugenides says he was a bit more into semiotics — the philosophical theory of signs and symbols — than Madeleine turned out to be. But he says that while he read all the theory, he didn't quite buy into the teachings that the author was dead or that it was impossible to write narrative anymore.
"I had a more conservative or romantic view of literature," he says. "I've been trying in my career to reconcile both ... the theoretical side and ... a kind of inborn love of narrative and storytelling."
A Striking Resemblance
Being Greek-American and a native of Detroit, Eugenides also has a lot in common with the character of Mitchell, the good kid who can't quite seem to win Madeleine's affection. Both, for example, spent time in India working for Mother Teresa after college.
Eugenides says such similarities are inevitable.
"When you write a novel you divide yourself into two or three different parts, and each of these people has many of my experiences and many of my thoughts," he says. "But on the surface, unquestionably, Mitchell Grammaticus resembles me. I could have done things to disguise it — made him blond, Italian or something — but it seemed beside the point."
Still, there is a limit to the autobiographical likenesses that permeate the novel.
"I left out the fact that Mother Teresa and I briefly dated," Eugenides jokes. "So if I was actually going to tell the real autobiographical story, it would be somewhat different."
Post-Modern Or Traditional?
Finally, there's Leonard, the troubled kid from Portland, Ore., whom Madeleine actually falls for. When Madeleine first tells Leonard she loves him, Leonard picks up Madeleine's copy of Roland Barthes' A Lover's Discourse and points her to a passage about the meaninglessness of that expression.
I Love You
je-t'aime / I-love-you
As she read these words, Madeleine was flooded with happiness. She glanced up at Leonard, smiling. With his finger he motioned for her to keep going. The figure refers not to the declaration of love, to the avowal, but to the repeated utterance of the love cry. Suddenly, Madeleine's happiness diminished, usurped by the feeling of peril. She wished she weren't naked. She narrowed her shoulders and covered herself with the bedsheet as she obediently read on.
Once the first avowal has been made, "I love you" has no meaning whatever...
Leonard, squatting, had a smirk on his face.
It was then that Madeleine threw the book at his head.
With that, Madaleine sets off a chain of events that takes the reader through much of the book, a work that Eugenides says can be read in two ways.
"You can read it as a deconstruction of the marriage plot and as a post-modern novel," he says, "but you can also read it as a traditional realistic novel."
Ask the author which of those he actually meant for it to be, and his answer betrays his more romantic inclinations.
"It's actually a very sincere American novel."