Something broke open inside Madeleine.

I still can’t stop reading. I don’t know why. I am hoovering up literature, great and small.

I have just finished The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (2011). It is about Mitchell, who loves Madeleine, who loves Leonard. It is the early 80s and they all graduate from university and grow up, by going to India, getting married and going to a mental hospital, respectively.

I liked this novel a lot by the time I got to the end but there are two ways to not like it:

(1) All the characters are shallow and self-obsessed. They are about equally difficult to like. It’s hard to care about their brunches with their stupid parents and the tedious parties they go to. Mitchell is religious and a Mother Teresa fanboy, even after someone points out that she was friends with Pinochet. Madeleine is yet another spoilt, romantic English major who has a fetish for the 19th-century novel but who never thinks that critically about it. Leonard can’t help being nuts and is quite glamorous and exciting in his manic phases, but also is moodily sarcastic in a not very funny way, in the style of depressed people everywhere. This is the reason I started this novel on two or three previous occasions and failed to get off the ground with it. Mostly I just didn’t care about Madeleine’s vacuous conversations with her parents. She thinks she is smarter than they are, and she is, but not by much. This time around, I realised that these characters and their trivial preoccupations are intentional and are the point. These characters don’t have much insight. They mature, but only in limited ways. They are significantly trapped by the circumstances of their own lives, which means having brunch with people like Alton and Phyllida, and having to live inside their own heads and wondering who they are supposed to be married to.

(2) It is a literary joke which it is possible to regard as a bit heavy handed if you have encountered the same joke before. Is it a campus novel, yes, maybe, do we have enough of those already, perhaps. I was reminded of David Lodge’s Nice Work. Knowledge of semiotic theory, having read A Lover’s Discourse and Jonathan Culler on Derrida, as well as having read a bunch of 19th century classic novels, is not an essential requirement for being able to enjoy The Marriage Plot, but it certainly helps, as all these things are cited liberally in the text by an author who expects you to know what he is talking about.  It is a novel that questions whether the novel is a dead art form. It is a novel that takes the central plot device of the typical Victorian novel, which is tension over who the heroine should marry and who she will marry, and plays around with it. Madeleine herself, like a Victorian heroine, spends part of her time in a marriage that probably wasn’t a good idea, is fruitlessly adored by Mitchell and finally, unlike the Victorian heroine, realises that she’s supposed to take control of her own life. Here is Madeleine’s assessment of the opinion of one of her professors, which sums up the problem that Eugenides himself appears to be tackling:

In Saunders’s opinion, the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance. In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later? How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? As far as Saunders was concerned, marriage didn’t mean much any more, and neither did the novel. Where could you find the marriage plot nowadays? You couldn’t. You had to read historical fiction. You had to read non-Western novels involving traditional societies, Afghani novels, Indian novels. You had to go, literarily speaking, back in time.

Emma is, of course, Flaubert’s Emma Bovary and Isabel Archer is the creation of Henry James. So. Apparently some readers don’t like the in jokes, having semiotic theory shoved down their throats, or another contemporary heroine who obsesses over the romantic novels of the past. Which is fair enough, I suppose, but I thought it was interesting. I have read some of these authors, I understand the theory and I thought the problem of the contemporary novel, as viewed by Saunders, was worth discussing. It is not the first contemporary novel in which students of the 19th century romantic novel find their lives caught up in its constraints and complexities – I’m also reminded of AS Byatt’s Possession – it is not the first novel to go meta on the device of the novel using postmodern ideas. But it was nicely done, it was a nice example of the genre. In the end, I enjoyed it a lot more than the first few abortive attempts seemed to promise.

I was also reminded of Fifty Shades of Grey, which we read recently here at TLYW. Fifty is, of course, the worst novel of all time. Reading Eugenides, one can almost see the novel that EL James tried to write. Madeleine, heroine of The Marriage Plot, and Ana, heroine of Fifty, have things in common. They are English majors who are on the point of graduation. They love 19th century novels that feature romance and marriage plots. Ana mainly likes Thomas Hardy, Madeleine’s taste extends to Flaubert and Henry James, as we see above. They have annoying yet loving parents who want them to enjoy conventional success, including a suitable and secure partner. Oh yes, and their boyfriends spank them. I bring this up because EL James writes about sex as badly as she writes about everything else. Whenever Ana is spanked by Mr Grey, it reads like this. I paraphrase. “Splat! Mr Grey’s hand landed on my behind. Oh my! It felt so …. good! My inner goddess ran around the room and my insides turned to molten mush. Splat!! I wanted him to stop but it was so ….. hot! Oh my! I felt his hand reaching for my … down there!!”

Now, there is nothing wrong with being colloquial, okay. I don’t particularly want AS Byatt to describe sex either, because it would include 5 words that I don’t know, literary references that nobody knows and a long, allegorical poem where you can’t quite tell when the sex is happening. So I am all for a bit of plain speaking and not intellectualising too much when that’s not what the characters would do. But there are ways of handling these things. Ana perpetually sounds like she’s on the brink of needing to run to the toilet.

Here is Eugenides showing Madeleine, and Leonard, who becomes her husband, in the same situation.

The spirit of exploration that now dominated their bedroom had a strong effect on Madeleine. It led her, a little while later, to confess to Leonard one night, when he wanted to repeat the hairdresser scenario, that being pampered wasn’t really her secret fantasy. Her secret secret fantasy was something she’d never told anyone and could barely admit to herself. It was this: whenever Madeleine masturbated (this was hard in itself to confess to) she pictured herself as a little girl, being spanked. She didn’t know why she did this. She had no memory of being spanked as a girl. Her parents hadn’t believed in spanking. And it wasn’t really a fantasy of hers; that is, she didn’t want Leonard to spank her. But, for some reason, thinking about herself as a little girl being spanked had always helped her to have an orgasm when she was touching herself.

Well, there it was: the most embarrassing thing she could tell another person. A weird thing about herself that upset her if she thought about it much, which was why she didn’t. She had no control over it, but felt guilty about it nonetheless.

Leonard didn’t see it that way. He knew what to do with this information. First, he went to the kitchen and poured Madeleine a big glass of wine. He made her drink it. Next, he pulled off her clothes, turned her over on her stomach, and started having sex with her. While he did this, he spanked her, and she hated it. She kept telling him to stop. She said she didn’t like it. It was just something she thought about sometimes; she didn’t really want it to happen. Stop it! Now! But Leonard didn’t. He kept it up. He held Madeleine down, and spanked her again. He put his fingers in her and spanked her some more. She was furious with him now. She struggled to get up. And right then it happened. Something broke open inside her. Madeleine forgot who she was, and what was nice. She just started moaning, her face pressed into the pillow, and when she finally came she came harder than she’d ever come before, and cried out, spasms still running through her for minutes after.

She wouldn’t let him do it again. It didn’t become a habit. Whenever she thought about it later, she was scalded with shame. But the potential of doing it again was always there now. The expectation that Leonard would take over like that, and not listen to her, and do what he wanted, forcing her to admit what she really wanted – that was there now between them.

That is how you write about innocent people experimenting with sex, using ordinary language. He even used exclamation marks and got away with it. 1 Books point.


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