I talk a lot about identification in novels. Every time I see an article about reader empathy or perspective or consciousness, I get irrationally excited—and if anyone ever shares a study on the subject, I usually want to show them a different article about the same study just because it’s SO AJALJFLSDKJF COOL AND FINALLY SOMEONE UNDERSTANDS ME!
(As it turns out, usually, they don’t. They’re just enabling my unhealthy obsession.)
And still I love it. I buy dense literary theory for light reading in my spare time because it might mention the mental transition from a reader to a character. In short, this is my white whale. So I was understandably excited to read Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. English Major finds herself (and love?) while struggling to navigate the post-graduate slump—and authored by the guy who single-handedly convinced me to become an English major because I couldn’t stop thinking about all the CONNECTIONS between The Virgin Suicides and The House of Mirth? Hellz to the yeah; my body is ready.
Let me just share the opening passage with you:
To start with, look at all the books. There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Brontë sisters…. There was the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeline had surreptitiously dipped into back in sixth grade and which she was using now to provide textual support in her English honors thesis on the marriage plot. There was, in short, this mid-size but still portable library representing pretty much everything Madeline had read in college, a collection of texts, seemingly chose and random, whose focus slowly narrowed, like a personality test, a sophisticated one you couldn’t trick by anticipating the implications of its questions and finally got so lost in that your only recourse was to answer the simple truth. And then you waited for the result, hoping for “Artistic,” or “Passionate,” thinking you could live with “Sensitive,” secretly fearing “Narcissistic” and “Domestic,” but finally being presented with an outcome that cut both ways and made you feel different depending on the day, the hour, or the guy you happened to be dating: “Incurably Romantic.”
It would be ridiculously easy to identify with this character. Not only is she a recently graduated English major who reads the classics and trashy romance with equal enthusiasm, cut off her inevitably brown hair in a superficial attempt to distinguish her identity from her younger self, reads theory by Roland Barthes and Derrida’s Of Grammatology without entirely understanding them in order to impress her professors, but one of her best male friends is a Religious Studies major. Seriously? Seriously?!
And yet, instead of accepting this (arguably seamless) identification, I am constantly resisting it. But even still, every point of rejection is entirely superficial: Well, I wasn’t hungover for graduation. I was excited for my parents to be there. My college mentor is definitely not balding, so…there.
I’m tempted to call this a kind of preservation—I embraced The Magicians wholeheartedly and its sordid tale of post-graduate malaise was thoroughly unappealing. But I trust this author. Eugenides, as I mentioned, wrote that strange and compelling book I read in the first English class of my first semester at college. He basically convinced me that an English degree was worth pursuing, so it’s certainly worth a bit of trust that his rendition of post-graduate life won’t be completely offensive or pretentious.
This book feels like that double-edged sword Eugenides mentions in his first paragraph: a ring of truth you’re not entirely comfortable with, a mirror you didn’t necessarily want to see into. And it’s all the worse because, as a postmodern author once suggested, the book is a whore. It cares naught who reads it, or why, or how. It is available to anyone and everyone, and my reading of it—no matter how special or unique—means nothing to it. So my feeling uncomfortably exposed is merely a side-effect—it has nothing to do with me, personally. And, damn it, how dare you! You have nothing to do with me personally, book, and I refuse to let you characterize me so easily!
I’m afraid this is starting to sound a bit more negative than I was intending. I love—and have always loved—the way Eugenides puts words together: “she’d become an English Major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read.” He’s not pandering because he’s not romanticizing; it’s very—almost cruelly—fair. One of the things I most disliked about The Magicians was the impression I had that Lev Grossman was not an insider. Oh, he was able to recognize how obsessive fans can be and how important a childhood-defining book can be to one’s adulthood. But he felt like an outsider, a literary critic immune from his own critique.
I have no idea whether this is fair or not, (and his recent article in Time makes me think it’s not) but regardless, it’s how I felt. I grew resentful of his gaze: you don’t know my world, buddy. Back off. At the time, it was far easier to couch the feeling in terms of “oh, ugh, what an awful description of post graduate blah blah blah, can you believe how pretentious it is!”
“Pretentious” seems to have become this scathing diatribe to charge any literary-type work that doesn’t resonate with you. I leveled it against The Magicians, many people on Goodreads level it against The Marriage Plot. But writing about pretension is different from being pretentious. Although Euginedes does have some snarky critique, he also brings to it a wry sort of humor: “College wasn’t like the real world. In the real world people dropped names based on their renown. In college, people dropped names based on their obscurity,” and “‘English 450A: Hawthorne and James’ filled Madeline with an expectation of sinful hours in bed not unlike what Olivia got from wearing a Lycra skirt and leather blazer to Danceteria.”
With The Marriage Plot, it feels like Eugenides is definitely an insider. He’s been there. He is, for better or worse, part of the group. And that’s why, despite the discomfort, I want to keep reading.