Jeffrey Eugenides, who gained accolades and a movie sale for his first novel, The Virgin Suicides, was awarded the Pulitzer for his 2003 novel, Middlesex, which concerned the possession of a penis and was excerpted so intriguingly in The New Yorker.
His 2011 novel, The Marriage Plot, has had a marketing push worthy of the second coming, including a much-larger-than-life depiction of the author on a billboard above Times Square, with the headline “Swoon-worthy!” hovering over him. The image has been described as a nerdy version of the Marlboro Man—or Indiana Jones with a seriously receded hairline.
Okay. I’m all for publishers shelling out money to support the sale of novels. A huge Yes to that from me. But this is truly a one-percent situation. The other ninety-nine percent of novelists, in these lean and mean days of publishing, are expected to sink or swim solely through their own efforts and expenditure, blogging till they’re blue in the face and underwriting their own book tours. Their publishers don’t pay for ads, to say nothing of billboards.
Jonathan Franzen has been given similar star treatment—including the cover of Time Magazine. As has the late David Foster Wallace, who was part of the same friendly and competitive cohort of Midwestern novelists that includes Franzen and Eugenides. Wallace, who suffered from clinical depression as well as the usual professional insecurities, one-upped his up-and-coming friends by committing suicide in 2008 and thus assuring his place in the literary pantheon.
Or perhaps not.
In 1944, the critic Edmund Wilson wrote that the most striking thing about the generation of writers that included F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway was its failure to reach full development. The best writers of the 1920s, he wrote, were canonized too soon: “men of still-maturing abilities, on the verge of more important things, have turned up suddenly in the role of old masters with the best of their achievement behind them.”
I suspect that both Franzen and Eugenides would both cringe with recognition of the relevance of this assessment if applied to their own prematurely stellar careers.
Don’t get me wrong. The Marriage Plot is not a bad novel. Eugenides is obviously very intelligent and very well read. He has an urge toward goodness. And he writes well.
But his descriptions of place seem like movie sets rather than windows onto a living, breathing world. He gives us smugness where we long for something more nuanced and mysterious. And he doesn’t dig deeply enough for his main characters, three recent graduates of Brown University enmeshed in a very conventional love triangle. The heroine, an upper-crust literature major named Madeleine, is just one step above cardboard. One of the two guys in love with her is clearly based on Eugenides himself, trying to make peace with his own nerdiness. Madeleine’s other boyfriend, later husband, is an overly researched, exhaustively described, and ultimately obnoxious genius in the mold of David Foster Wallace.
The character modeled on the author is the most interesting of the three. The novel is all about Mitchell, the Eugenides stand-in, trying to feel good about himself. I think Madeleine’s characterization is so shallow, because Mitchell needs to feel okay at the end about Madeleine’s rejection of him. If she’s not all that great and really not all that interesting, well then, it’s no great loss for Mitchell and he can go on to better things. A Pulitzer Prize, anyone?
In the end, all three characters seem tiresome rather than tragic, hopelessly self-absorbed and somehow unconvincing in their humanity. Try as I might to care about them, I simply couldn’t.
There were all too many passages where it seemed that Eugenides was simply showing off how well read he is. One could cull a terrific reading list for a Great Books curriculum from the works referenced in the pages of this novel.
No, alas, Jeffrey Eugenides is not another Tolstoy, any more than his friend Jonathan Franzen. Nor is The Marriage Plot a great novel, despite the floodtide of money and hype.
But I think what is happening with these writers reveals something profound about the literary world in twenty-first-century America.
We are wrestling with that old fear that the greatest artistic achievements of our civilization are behind us. It is too painful to think that there may never be another writer with the genius and humanity of Tolstoy. And so we hopefully and hysterically anoint new Tolstoy wannabes every ten years or so.
I believe that the writer’s job is to do his or her best work—and to leave it to posterity to judge whether the work will withstand the test of time. To quote Jonathan Franzen’s speech at David Foster Wallace’s memorial, it is the writer’s job “to give love, not just create from the part that wants to be loved.”
Which gets me back to the subject of penises and the Pulitzer Prize.
The entertainment industry—which now includes the literary establishment—is in the business of trying to suss out what people long for. What we want, it would seem, is the literary equivalent of comfort food, as retro as “Mad Men” or the cover of The Marriage Plot, which hearkens graphically back to a more confident and hopeful time for America.
This is a particularly difficult time to be a writer or an artist of any kind—to feel comfortable taking risks, to write what comes from the deepest places inside us, without reference to what we are told will sell.
It’s a really tricky thing for even the best, most talented writers, to live in a society where literary worth is based on – size: of one’s advance, the font used for one’s name on the cover, the ad in the New York Times Book Review. And now, the billboard above Times Square.
Size, I guess, really does matter.
I wrote and recorded this for KRCB's radio program, "A Novel Idea." You can hear the broadcast at http://krcb.org/featured-radio-shows/a-novel-idea
Fast-forward to the 50-minute mark to hear my review!