Love in the Ivy League

Jeffrey Eugenides explores real depression, not just preppy romance.

Jeffrey Kent Eugenides.
Jeffrey Eugenides, author of The Marriage Plot

Photograph by Karen Yamuachi/Wikipedia.

For a certain class of readers along the Eastern seaboard, the new Jeffrey Eugenides novel, The Marriage Plot, will offer the same pleasures and discomforts as looking into the mirror. The three main characters—Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard—are white liberal arts majors at Brown in the early 1980s. Derrida figures largely, as does Cape Cod. The book opens on graduation day, in the manner of St. Elmo’s Fire, with our protagonists wrapped in the drama of their own becoming: what to do next with their lives, and how to resolve the bizarre love triangle they’ve created.

Eugenides last book was the acclaimed Middlesex, which appeared nine years ago. I expected him to return and take another whack at the Great American Novel, but The Marriage Plot is not a swing-for-the-fences book. It’s sort of the opposite. The character of Madeleine is an exquisitely cheekboned, squash-playing preppy who nerds out on Victorian literature. (A rare bird.) In the book’s first section, she stumbles into a lit theory class, where the other students roll their own cigarettes, quote Of Grammatology, and work hard to be epicene. Eugenides uses the rise of lit crit on campus as a foil for the type of novel he’s writing in The Marriage Plot: “Almost overnight it became laughable to read writers like Cheever or Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about anally deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France.”

Eugenides, who attended Brown, writes of lit crit with the cunning details of a former convert. Instead of the “blinky people in her Beowulf seminar,” Madeleine finds herself among a hipper, more jaded set—the semioticians. Lit crit offers a bookish radicalism, but Madeleine becomes a reactionary. She doesn’t understand what’s so wrong with straight-ahead stories, or the act of simply writing about your mother’s suicide, instead of writing about your mother’s suicide in a way that attempts to reinvigorate the tired trope of suicide by treating it without emotion (as Peter Handke does in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams). In other words, what’s so wrong with writing about young, attractive people searching for love and truth in the manner of early Updike and early Cheever?

It would be easy to recommend The Marriage Plot as a pleasurable but shallow book—a well-produced, HD nostalgia trip. The character of Mitchell, who goes on a post-college spiritual quest to India, and who shares many biographical details with Eugenides, is pleasant but predictable. Some of the scenes feel like photos from a J. Crew catalog brought to life. It’s the character of Leonard who complicates this judgment. Madeleine encounters Leonard in the lit crit seminar. He’s a hulking, attractive guy who alternates between silence and bursts of intellectual virtuosity. He chews tobacco. He wears a bandanna. He’s David Foster Wallace.

How weird. Why would Eugenides so glaringly place a young version of David Foster Wallace in his own novel that champions traditional storytelling? (Eugenides, by the way, denies that character was based on Wallace.) DFW’s fiction was an experimental, full-brain attempt to capture the totality of American life. The DFW character invites an unflattering comparison: Compared to Infinite Jest, The Marriage Plot reads as a two-dimensional homage to a dated style. But Eugenides, more than any other writer so far, helps answer the question that pains fans of DFW: Why did he kill himself? Why was someone so smart unable to think himself out of depression? Why couldn’t he escape?

By giving us a graspable DFW character, Eugenides saves his book and trumpets the merits of his realistic style. Of course there’s no real answer to why DFW committed suicide. And those who have suffered depression probably feel there’s not a lot to discuss. Depression crushes a person. But as someone who has “felt depressed” but never been actually depressed, I found the character of Leonard fascinating and sad. It gives a little of the plot away to say that after graduation Leonard and Madeleine decide to live together on Cape Cod, where Leonard has a prestigious science fellowship. There, Madeleine, who has always dwelled within the peppy brightness of the upper-middle-class, directly confronts what it’s like to love a manic-depressive. When manic, Leonard is the ultimate boyfriend—a more than capable lover, a delightful risktaker. The worst part of his depression, for her, is agonizing about how to bring that side of him back.

Eugenides presents Leonard’s case history from Leonard’s own perspective. He takes on the imaginative challenge of what it would be like live inside the head of an ambitious manic genius—“a giant comet cruising at a low altitude through the space the rest of us inhabit” as someone said of David Foster Wallace. This section is still written in third person—no Joycean pyrotechnics here—but it turns out that, in Eugenides’ hands, classic realism remains a trusty tool for nailing down mental states, such as mania: “His mind felt like it was fizzing over. Words became other words inside his head, like patterns in a kaleidoscope. He kept making puns. No one understood what he was talking about.” Eugenides also drives home the physical pain of depression: 

Let me tell you what happens when a person’s clinically depressed … What happens is that the brain sends out a signal that it’s dying. The depressed brain sends out this signal, and the body receives it, and after a while, the body thinks it’s dying too. And then it begins to shut down. That’s why depression hurts, Madeleine.

And Eugenides supplies the key insight when Leonard tries to self-regulate his dosage of Lithium and outsmart his therapists, even while being cognizant of his doom: “The smarter you were, the worse it was. The sharper your brain, the more it cut you up.” Intelligence blocks all the easy roads to normalcy. He’s always gauging what the patients and doctors are thinking and then recalibrating his own statements based on what he knows their next action is likely to be. And then he further recalibrates his behavior based on the knowledge that the doctor and patients probably know that he, Leonard, knows what they are thinking. Leonard plots four moves ahead yet remains stuck, a tortuous feedback loop of frustration.

Meanwhile, Mitchell is helping out Mother Teresa in Calcutta, pining for Madeleine in his free time. I expect my fellow critics will give a sharp elbow to these sections of the book, but I like how Eugenides portrays the Christians, seekers, surly French medical students, and some dude from Florida, all of whom help themselves by helping lepers. It is a feat to evoke the scriptless nature of trying to “find yourself,” and his touch is comic yet exact. The hardest part isn’t really bathing an old man’s diseased body but establishing a conception of yourself outside of college, the town that you came from, who you parents are and what they expect you to be. The Mitchell episodes read like a buoyant pop song—recreating the romantic time in a young man’s life when you feel destined to marry a particular girl and a Thomas Merton passage can knock you over.

Count me as someone who was taken in by The Marriage Plot. I enjoyed spending time with these familiar people, with their familiar cultural references, and discovering some dark unfamiliarity, too. In the best possible way, it’s like reading a long, detailed, acutely observed Alumni Notes in the back of some Ivy college monthly. Ahhh, so that’s what happened to that person, that’s why they landed the way they did, that’s where the story is going. It’s only half-true of course, but very entertaining.