So The Marriage Plot comes out tomorrow, and reviews have already begun to pop up. One of the first was this messily positive one from Laura Miller on Salon. “Eugenides’ full-court-press attempt to prove it wrong is as gloriously sunny, harmonious and rational as a Handel suite,” she says. Basketball! Weather! Music! Mixed similes aside, she weirdly insists that—despite being a full-court press for marriage-plotted novels—the book has nothing to prove. But clearly it’s making an argument on its own behalf (wait til the last page) and on behalf of a genre—The Marriage Plot and the marriage plot.
Miller quotes a scene depicting main character Madeleine retreating to the library to read some 19th-century novels—“How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative!”—and adds, “Exquisite guilt and wicked enjoyment are more or less what Eugenides intends the readers of The Marriage Plot to experience, too.” But as Miller knows (“Who feels guilty about their reading choices anymore (unless, perhaps, it’s the Twilight series)?”), no one feels guilty about reading satisfying, well-wrought realistic fiction. It’s the big books that readers of every brow read: See Freedom*, see The Art of Fielding**, see A Visit from the Goon Squad, a realistic novel on shuffle. (I can’t be the first person to call it that?) Eugenides—who did not win a Pulitzer for his achievement in beards, didn’t end up with a billboard in Times Square (!) for nothing—knows this. So for him to position his book as some kind of sinful treat…well, wait, what sin? And if it’s a defense of the regular novel (and it’s clearly trying to be) a defense against whom? The book asks for a too-easy sympathy for readers of regular novels from readers of regular novels, camaraderie in a made-up crisis. It doesn’t exactly feel like love.
*Also it’s worth noting that The Corrections feels born of some serious intellectual wrestling on Franzen’s part—-Is it okay to feel okay about this?—-where Marriage Plot just takes it for granted, winking the whole time. The Corrections felt harder won, and more enjoyable for it.
**A book that is ostensibly less “about” books, but nevertheless manages to feel more profoundly informed by them, both on a superficial plot level and an allusive intellectual one.