Magazine article The Spectator

Irony Is Everywhere

Magazine article The Spectator

Irony Is Everywhere

Article excerpt

The Marriage Plot

by Jeffrey Eugenides

Fourth Estate, £20, pp. 486,

ISBN 9780007441247

Jonathan Franzen. David Foster Wallace.

Jeffrey Eugenides. Giant, slow-moving, serious writers, notching up about a novel per decade, all with their sights set on The Big One, The Beast, The Great American Novel. Wallace pulled it off, undoubtedly, with Infinite Jest in 1996, before ending it all by suicide in 2008 - a tragic loss.

Franzen laid claim to fame - and earned himself the cover of Time magazine - with The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010). And now Eugenides, after The Virgin Suicides (1993) and Middlesex (2002), makes another attempt at literary immortality with The Marriage Plot.

And fair play to him, he throws absolutely everything at it. In comparison, The Virgin Suicides was merely audacious: a debut novel narrated in the first person plural, about the suicides of five sisters?

Pah! Sensationalism. As for Middlesex - a best-selling epic hermaphrodite memoir, drawing richly on Greek myth and the nature of race, history, identity, with an incest sub-plot? Peanuts. A trifle. A set of contrivances.

The Marriage Plot appears at first both simpler and more straightforward: it's a coming-of-age novel, an Ivy League soap opera, a campus romp. But it's also an attempt to do nothing less than update the 19thcentury romantic novel. 'What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later?' a character conveniently asks. 'How would Isabel Archer's marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? . . .

Where could you find the marriage plot nowadays?'

Right here, answers Eugenides. His starcrossed lovers are three students about to graduate from Brown University in the early Eighties. Madeleine Hanna, 22, is from Prettybrook, New Jersey, which if it doesn't exist, most certainly should. She's Emma. Or Elizabeth Bennet. Her parents are rich, well-meaning, and worried about Madeleine's future. She applies for grad school, and eventually decides to marry Leonard Bankhead, a brilliant polymath with a job lined up at a lab on Cape Cod.

Leonard is a hulking, tormented figure who suffers from bi-polar disorder. …

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