Friday, February 3, 2012

Guest Blogger, Linnea West: "Swoon-worthy" Eugenides?

So many questions come to mind when I think about the author Jeffrey Eugenides, who recently published The Marriage Plot, won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel Middlesex, and has many fans familiar with at least the screen adaptation of The Virgin Suicides. For instance, why does he have a billboard in Times Square? Possible answers I tossed around include:
  • Because for a cult-like following, Eugenides is remarkably mainstream, and thus worth the promotional dollars.
  • Because the author is a bigger selling point than the book itself.
  • Because the book publishing industry is suddenly flush with cash.

I tend to think the correct answer is the first option. However, as I will come to later, the middle option has turned out to be true at least by my reading of things. The third answer is categorically incorrect, and reeks of wishful thinking.

I was very much looking forward to his newest book, The Marriage Plot, after finishing Middlesex (Note: I have not read The Virgin Suicides), which might be why it doesn’t nearly measure up. After all, it is COMPLETELY different. They both deal with coming-of-age but that is the only commonality. How does Eugenides manage to write novels that sound like they come from different people? [Answer: I have no idea. It’s remarkable.]

In case you aren’t familiar, Middlesex is the story of Cal, formerly Calliope, as he navigates growing up in Detroit and discovering that he is a hermaphrodite against the epic backdrop of his Greek origins and family lore. The Marriage Plot is a love triangle composed of three 1980s-era Brown University graduatesMadeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard—and follows them as they graduate and enter the real world.

The two books differ in some key respects:


The Marriage Plot

Exuberant and mannered narrative voice.

Matter-of-fact narrative voice, almost lack of style.

Unusual, strange, and epic story.

Common, relatable, and realistic story.

One protagonist, who the reader loses sight of at times amid family history and tangents.

Three protagonists always at the forefront and driving the plot

But in terms of reading experience, at least my personal reading experience, they also differed:


The Marriage Plot

Sympathetic and identifiable characters, even though much of the family the reader knows only superficially and, statistically, the reader is not likely to be a hermaphrodite.

Unimpressive-to-unlikeable characters, though the reader gets to know the three central characters ad naseum.

Interesting, despite long-winded descriptions and stories unrelated to the central plot.

Boring, despite more focused narrative (and not even because of the long philosophical excerpts from Barthes!)

Another remarkable thing is that for all intents and purposes, The Marriage Plot is the easy book of the two to write. He’s basically pulling together ordinary characters from his own life experiences and giving them a predictable narrative enacted by thousands of people. This could be your life; it could be mine. It could be a Lifetime Made-for-TV movie. But what Eugenides fails to do is take this raw material and transform it into something more, something that is art. How odd that Middlesex, a story about things he’d never experienced or even interviewed people about, came so trippingly off his tongue, and The Marriage Plot, for all its knowable ease, is such an unimaginative, unsuccessful quagmire of words in which the reader gets stuck again and again? Perhaps the fantastical is easier to write.

Another question that torments fans of the author’s work is the long lag time between books. Eugenides is no James Patterson. The Virgin Suicides came out in 1993, Middlesex was published in 2002, and it was only this October, 2011, that The Marriage Plot entered the world. Why does he take a decade to write one book? He’s probably not a lazy fat cat living off the wealth of movie rights, although I couldn’t say for sure. In the case of The Marriage Plot, this decade-long wait occurred at least in part because he was midway through a different novel before deciding he was writing the wrong story and beginning anew. I don’t know what he was working on, but this seems like an error in judgment.

For all the hoopla, Middlesex is the novel that deserves the billboard, less so the dull and lifeless Marriage Plot.

About the blogger: Linnea West writes about art and culture and a little bit of everything else on her blog Art Ravels. You can also follow her on twitter at @linnea_west.

1 comment:

  1. You are too funny!!! I saw the billboard too and thought the book must be the next "chick lit" it book. Yep, it could have been my life too but alas, my life was much more interesting in the 80s than these 3 dull characters.