Lessons and The Marriage Plot

October 31, 2011, by

At Wednesday’s reading, Jeffrey Eugenides said he was genuinely surprised that he wrote a book that at all contained Jane Austen or George Eliot or the Victorians at all. Eugenides said that at Brown in the ‘80s, he was enamored with the modernists—Joyce, Proust, Faulkner—anyone or anything that was “taking apart consciousness.” But then, he said, he graduated and read Tolstoy (which exemplifies the kind of writing the modernists were reacting to) and discovered the “narrative drive and vividness of characters so compelling that they shouldn’t be left behind in the drive toward something new.” Thus, The Marriage Plot, in which deconstruction and tradition both have their place.

What Eugenides said in the post-reading interview with Alex Parsons really put the book in an articulate perspective for me. He said in writing this book he was interested in the moments in our lives when “our head and our heart are in conflict.” The head, in this case, is the sense-making deconstruction of Barthes and Derrida, the necessary acknowledgement that everything, even love, is a construct. The heart, then, is the passion Madeleine feels for Leonard, the dependence on the purity of feeling for truth. Of course, Leonard, a scientist with manic depression, is constantly negotiating head troubles and heart troubles. And Mitchell, a gifted philosopher in pursuit of religious purpose, is also grappling with head and heart, the known and the unknown.

Though many have criticized this novel for not being as epic in scope as Middlesex or as narratively risky as The Virgin Suicides, Eugenides’s comments on Wednesday gave words to why this book is still successful. In short, because it’s about—as many great novels are—the things that linger over our real selves for years and years after they take seed and ruin our graduation, or our trip across Europe, or our first love.

On Wednesday, Eugenides gave a bit of advice for first-time novelists: give yourself limitations. Don’t try to write the whole world your first time out. Sounds like excellent advice to me, but in a recent post over at
The Millions
, Eugenides articulates a slightly different lesson. He discussed why and how he sat down to write this novel, and tried to name what he learned from all of it. His lesson is the lesson I want to remember when I sit down to write mine:

But you don’t write a novel from an idea, or at least I don’t. You write a novel out of the emotional and psychological stuff that you can’t shake off, or don’t want to. For me, this had to do with memories with being young, bookish, concupiscent, and confused. Safely in my 40s, married and a father, I could look back on the terrifying ecstasy of college love, and try to re-live it, at a safe distance. It was deep winter in Chicago when all this happened. Every day I looked out my office window at snow swirling over Lake Michigan. After separating the two books, I put one in a drawer and kept the other on my desk. I ran off with The Marriage Plot and didn’t look back. I changed completely, became a different person, a different writer; I started a new life with a new love, and all without ever leaving home.

Boys Writing About Girls

October 25, 2011, by

The other day I was telling a friend that I thought maybe Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot was a kind of feminist novel. As a reminder: Madeleine, a senior at Brown University, is trying to reconcile her adoration of Victorian novels that employ the marriage plot (an antiquated courtship narrative) with the changing landscape of literary criticism. In the midst of her academic consternations, she gets involved in a love triangle of her own with the enigmatic but depressive scientist, Leonard, and the geeky but tender religious studies major, Mitchell. The beautiful heroine, Madeleine, must choose between a man of science and a man of faith (a familiar plot trope we’ve seen as recently as the television show, Lost). I don’t want to give anything away about the ending of the novel, but Madeleine releases herself from that love triangle with a surprising epiphany that feels more third wave feminism than anything else.

How nice, I thought when I read it and closed the book. A novel where the heroine “wins” in spite of the men who love her, though not at their expense.

So I was telling my friend this and she asked if I’d read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom last year. I haven’t, but I know what it’s about—the troubled girlhood and college life of the character of Patty, and the love triangle she’s a part of. My friend thought it was interesting that both Freedom and The Marriage Plot are both recent celebrated novels about young women finding their way through romance and contemporary life, but that both of them were written by men.

We wondered over our brunch if the same praise would be lauded if women had written those novels. In fact, Ann Beattie’s latest new work (the novella, Walks With Men) is a chronicle of the love life of the twenty something Jane in 1980s Manhattan, and tackles similar issues: how to be young, how to be in love, how to make sense of the world. But Beattie’s novella wasn’t given nearly the same attention. It was, however, given a bright pink and black cover bearing a photograph of a woman’s naked back.

I don’t mean to say I think The Marriage Plot is doing anything wrong. I think it’s doing so many things right. Not only did I enjoy reading it, but I also thought it was smart. Really smart, unashamedly, thrillingly smart. I’m excited that it exists. I’m also excited to see someone like Jean Thompson or Joy Williams or Mary Gaitskill write the same kind of novel and get the same kind of consideration.

How Did I Get Here?

October 24, 2011, by

I wrote about Madeleine in my last post, and since The Marriage Plot is really about a love triangle, I want to give some time to the two male characters. First we have Mitchell, the Detroit-bred Greek-American Tom Waits-lookalike who is so torn apart when Madeleine rejects him that he has to go on an aimless post-grad backpacking trip to forget her. Where Madeleine’s struggles are with the construction of love, Mitchell’s are in wrestling with faith. One semester, he writes such an impressive paper for a class called “Religion and Aleination in 20th Century Culture” that the professor all but promises him an in at Harvard Divinity School. Mitchell instead flees to holy grounds in Italy and India.

Mitchell’s mostly solitary storyline is treated tenderly, and his crisis is much less dramatic than Madeleine’s. Mitchell quietly realizes that his search is for faith in 1982–in the wake of ‘60s lit crit, the midst of materialism, and the onset of a recession—might not be quite as simple as it once was. At one point, he considers how the all the blither blathering done by the deconstructionists still don’t answer the questions put forth by the Talking Heads: “No one had an answer for the riddle of existence. It was like that Talking Heads song, ‘And you may ask yourself, ‘How did I get here?’…And you may tell yourself, ‘This is not my beautiful house. And you may tell yourself, ‘This is not my beautiful wife.’” Mitchell goes on to write his religious studies paper, “bending his answers toward their practical application,” but finding no real practical application when it comes to his own life.

Leonard, the character to whom many have drawn David Foster Wallace comparisons, is the enigmatic, bandana-wearing, manic depressive semi-genius that Madeleine is hopelessly in love with. He’s a scientist, but his explorations have very little to do with Mitchell’s riddle of existence or Madeleine’s myth of love. Toward the end of the novel, he tries to describe to Madeleine what it feels like to be depressed. He says, “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.” Leonard’s search is less for something to believe in than for just a way to be alive.

In a way, though, Madeleine is looking to be alive through love. Mitchell is looking for a way to be alive through faith. And Leonard is looking for a way out of madness, toward life. So we have the trifecta of love, faith, madness, and who’s to say what the difference is between any of them.

A Novel for Writers, and Everyone Else, Too

October 17, 2011, by

I once read an article by an editor of a literary magazine that predicted the death of fiction would be writers who navel-gaze, writers who write stories about writing, or writers, or academia, or domestic affairs, or love. I’ve always had a problem with that argument—the idea that inward-looking content can’t be important—and luckily it seems like Jeffrey Eugenides has ignored it altogether. His new novel, The Marriage Plot, is about writing, writers, academia, domestic affairs, and love, among other things. Mostly it’s about how to grow up, how to reconcile your way of seeing the world after the thrilling scaffolding of college vanishes. And, by being about all those things, it is anything but navel-gazing.

We met the heroine of the novel, Madeleine, hungover and full of regret on the morning of her graduation from Brown in 1982. But we meet her first via her bookshelf. “To start with, look at all the books,” Eugenides writes in the first line, before cataloging the novels she’s used to write her senior thesis on the marriage plot in the works of Austen, Eliot, and James. The traditional marriage plot, usually a three-way courtship dance between one maiden and two suitors, plays out in interesting ways with Madeleine, her hunky and manic depressive boyfriend Leonard, and her geeky best male friend, Mitchell.

Madeleine is perfectly preppy, from a well-to-do WASPy family in New Jersey, a fangirl of Victorian literature, and completely undone when she takes a class on semiotics and deconstruction. Though it critiques her beloved marriage plot, she becomes obsessed with Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse. When boyfriend Leonard swings between manic extremes, Madeleine turns to Barthes’s deconstruction of love: “And it was in this period that Madeleine fully understood how the lover’s discourse was of an extreme solitude…It was extreme because you felt it while in the company of the person you loved. It was extreme because it was in your head, the most solitary of places.”

In The Marriage Plot, books both illuminate and crumble the characters’ worldviews. Books allow them freedom, books give language to their limitations, and books keep them company. In my favorite passage from the book, Madeleine has first read A Lover’s Discourse and is immediately struck:

What made Madeleine sit up in bed was something closer to the reason she read books in the first place and had always loved them. Here was a sign that she wasn’t alone. Here was an articulation of what she had been so far mutely feeling. In bed on a Friday night, wearing sweatpants, her hair tied back, her glasses smudged, and eating peanut butter from a jar, Madeleine was in a state of extreme solitude.

This is my favorite passage because though it’s 1982, and it’s Brown, and it’s a rich girl, and it’s an erudite book, it’s also what happens to a lot of us. It’s what we wish to happen every time we crack open a new book: complete transportation, revelation, communion.

The Marriage Plot isn’t just for English majors or MFA students or academics. It’s for people who have ever felt the slight echo of something they’ve read when they’ve fallen in love, or fallen out of love, or pined for love. This book doesn’t want you to ask yourself what you know about semiotics and the marriage plot in Austen novels. This book wants you to ask yourself how much of what you know about love—how much of the way you love—is affected by what you’ve read. I’ll leave it to Eugenidies’ epigraph from French writer Francois de La Rochefoucauld to explain why this book is important: “People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about.”

An Interesting Stranger

October 11, 2011, by

In his reading at the UH Moore’s Opera House last night, Michael Ondaatje deftly collaged a variety of scenes and moments from his most recent novel,The Cat’s Table, to take us on a voyage across the oceans, through time and space. Before reading, Ondaatje addressed the question of the mix of autobiography and fiction in the book. While both he and the main character (also named Michael) took a journey on a boat called the Oronsay from Ceylon/Sri Lanka to England in the fifties when they were both 11 years old, he mentioned that in fact all he remembered of the voyage was the ping-pong table on the ship. Paradoxically, for him, this lack of memory freed him up to invent a new story, to create something more wild, more meaningful and more thrilling than reality could ever possibly have been. As he said, quoting Ornette Coleman about music, “What you begin with is the territory, what follows is the adventure.”

And adventure we did, as he began with the boys’ youthful highjinks on board then lead into a description of a proper Sri Lankan man, Dr. Fonseca, on his way to England. Ondaatje described him as “tentative and languid” with “a serenity that came with the choice of the life he wanted to live”—this serenity that the narrator had seen “only among those who have the armour of books close by” (and I couldn’t help but see a bit of the author himself here). Then Ondaatje skillfully took us to the deck of the ship during a storm, through the Suez Canal and then on to London years later as he attempts to reconnect with Cassius, one of his co-conspirators on the Oronsay. Ondaatje’s voice was surprisingly soft and gentle, a soothing monotone with clipped consonants and rapid flow. His tale was ethereal, carefully paced and surprisingly comforting. It turns out that Ondaatje’s focus in The Cat’s Table is not only crossing from Ceylon/Sri Lanka to London, but also traversing the smaller lines drawn across the ship itself, like the border he mentioned between the First Class and Tourist Class or like the silences between the characters themselves.

In the question and answer section with writer and UH professor Chitra Divakaruni, Ondaatje alternated between serious reflections on writing and quite funny anecdotes. A question from Divakaruni about the melding of non-fiction and fiction yielded the funniest one-liner of the night, as Ondaatje quoted famed Texas gadabout Kinky Friedman saying, “There’s a fine line between fiction and non-fiction, and I think I snorted it in 1976.”

On a more serious note, he also declared that, beyond jazz, the greatest artistic invention of the twentieth century was the collage. Its impact, he said has been felt across the arts from film to painting, from literature to music, and he spoke insightfully about his own process of writing his first book The Collected Works of Billy the Kid as a collagist approach. First, he wrote fifty poems, then the prose pieces and finally worked to collage them all together, creating connections between the different texts on the page, adding photographs and writing fake interviews with Billy himself. He contrasted that collagist writing with his more recent approach to The Cat’s Table, which, despite its chronological ebb and flow, was largely written straight from the beginning to the end.

There’s an evocative line in The Cat’s Table that seemed to sum up the evening for me: “We came to understand … our lives could be large with interesting strangers who could pass us without any personal involvement.” Hopefully, you had a chance to witness this particular interesting stranger last night. And if not, the armor of his books are a wonderful substitute.

At Home in Transit: The Cat’s Table

October 10, 2011, by

In Michael Ondaatje’s most recent novel The Cat’s Table, Ondaatje returns to the space he’s perhaps most at home. Several reviewers of the book have said this home is the island of Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, where the author grew up. Yet in fact, the novel does not really take place in the island nation, but rather in the space between Ceylon and London on a ship called the Oronsay making its slow three-week journey from East to West. There is an element of autobiography to the story; however, much like Francisco Goldman’s insistence on the word novel to describe his work, Ondaatje also steadfastly affirms the book as a novel, not as memoir. And this despite the fact that the main character and the author have a lot in common: both are named Michael, both leave Sri Lanka to go to England at the age of 11 and both eventually wind up as globally recognized authors. While perhaps frustrating for some, this mixing of fiction and non-fiction does not bother this reader in the least; in my case, I’ve always enjoyed this sort of wild intermingling of fact and fiction (that ultimately ends up questioning the very existence of fact). So in this novel, Ondaatje returns to his home of perpetual transit, writing about the small world that comes to life onboard the Oronsay.

As in many of Ondaatje’s novels, his focus is not on the powerful, but rather on those individuals whose lives are affected by larger world battles and happenings, but who have little control over the outcome. In this novel, Ondaatje focuses in on the lives of three young boys—Michael himself (nicknamed “Mynah”), the daredevil Cassius and the pensive, sickly Ramadhin—as they explore the ship and its motley assortment of adult passengers. The boys all sit at the Cat’s Table, the least prestigious portion of the ship’s dining room, far removed from the Captain’s table. But as always, Ondaatje is interested in what happens at the margins; as he says, “What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power. Nothing much of lasting value ever happens at the head table, held together by a familiar rhetoric. Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves.”

The fun of the book, its verve and power is derived from the adventures of these three boys as they voyage across the Indian Ocean, through the port of Aden, up the Red Sea, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean and off to England. None of the boys will be the same after the voyage and the perils and precarious situations they live through will leave them forever altered.

Remember you’ll have an opportunity to hear Ondaatje read and answer questions this evening at 7:30pm at the Moores Opera House, University of Houston. Get your tickets now.

A Sri Lankan-Born Cowboy Comes Down to Houston

October 5, 2011, by

Some years ago, I was lent a copy of Michael Ondaatje’s book The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by a friend who knew of a project I was working on mixing prose, poetry and images. Unfortunately, as we’ve all experienced, sometimes a friend’s book recommendation can be entirely off, but in this case, it was the perfect book to read at that moment in my life. Ondaatje’s combination of poetic adventurousness and archive was invigorating.  At first, his investment in this deeply Western story seemed odd for this Sri Lankan-born, Canadian resident.  And yet, it shouldn’t have seemed strange at all, as artists are forever exploring, never confined to that which they have experienced or known (for contemporary examples, see Lars Von Trier’s American movie epics or Jorge Volpi’s Eastern European novels.) Unsurprisingly somehow, Ondaatje’s work on Billy the Kid is grounded in the childhood cowboy games he played while living in Sri Lanka.  In fact, Ondaatje says he was obsessed with Westerns ever since he was eight or nine years old. Even in Colombo, the myth of the American West had quietly taken root.

His obsession with the Western as a form and with Billy the Kid (and his raucous, violent twenty-one year long life) continued over the years as he moved from Sri Lanka to Britain and to Canada. Eventually he began to piece together this book, spending more time with Billy the Kid and his own imagination as he invented details of his life. He says in an Afterward to the book that he couldn’t afford to visit the West or Texas at  the time, so, ever the fan of writing in situ, Ondaatje drafted much of the book in an abandoned barn, and its locale⎯ “the dry smell of past animals, the cobwebs on my pencils…became important.” There were rats, he writes, in the stalls nearby and so that afternoon rats came into the novel. (Ondaatje has spoken in interviews about his predilection for writing in the locales where his novels are set⎯in Italy for The English Patient, in Sri Lanka for Anil’s Ghost, etc.) Eventually, in crafting the book’s final appearance, Ondaatje worked with a designer to include the fictional photography and images (as well as ample white space) that builds an airtight substructure for the book.

I’ve gone into all this detail about Billy the Kid for a few reasons.  First, because it shows that Ondaatje’s visit to Houston next week is a kind of imaginative home-coming, a chance to visit the Texas he never got to see while writing his book (though 2011 Houston arguably has even less to do with Billy the Kid than that Canadian barn where he wrote much of the book).  It’s also a chance to recognize a non-Texan author for what I consider one of the best lines ever written about the state; it’s become a kind of mantra for me: “The blood came down like river ride / long as Texas down his side.”

Also, I wanted to initially introduce Ondaatje as a poet.  He’s written far more books of poetry than of fiction, and yet he’ll forever be recognized as the author of the novel The English Patient, later made into the award-winning movie of the same name.  Despite his novelist fame, Ondaatje strikes me as a poet living and writing in a novelist’s world.  He has a poet’s love of language, forming it and deforming it, attentive to the most minute details of his artistic material.

Don’t miss your chance to see this Sri Lankan-born poet cowboy next Monday evening at 7:30pm at the Moores Opera House, University of Houston.