We talk about a lot of things in writing programs (dead grandmas, childhood traumas, broken hearts of every stripe) but we rarely talk about literary success. We rarely discuss the mechanics of publishing a book, how book deals are made and paid, how to market oneself as an emerging writer, or just the business world of publishing in general—which might be why, when one of us hears of the kind of early success met by Téa Obreht or of the early and then continued success met by Gary Shteyngart, we bristle. I’m about two months away from turning 30, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t partially disappointed that my first book won’t have come out in my twenties, as it did for both Obreht and Shteyngart, and legions of other writers whose youth is a cause célèbre. Continue reading
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.
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.
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.
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.”
I said it in a previous post, but I’ll say it here again: I think Nicole Krauss’s most recent novel, Great House, is one of the top three novels I’ve read in the last year. Probably even the last five years. While writing these posts over the past few weeks, I’ve spent some time trying to figure out exactly why I responded to it so strongly. Yes, the sentences are lovely and yes, the story concept is rich, but there was something else I couldn’t quite pin down.
I returned to the notebook that her first novel helped me begin, and found part of an interview with her that I’d copied out. In response to the question, “Why do you write?” Krauss answers this:
Why does one begin to write? Because she feels misunderstood, I guess. Because it never comes out clearly enough when she tries to speak. Because she wants to rephrase the world, to take it in and give it back again differently, so that everything is used and nothing is lost. Because it’s something to do to pass the time until she is old enough to experience the things she writes about.
Back when I was applying to MFA programs, I kept returning to that quote when attempting to write personal statements for the applications. Why do you want to be in an MFA program? Why do you want to, of all things, write? I thought I’d never heard anyone say it better than she had—not just that you can’t help but write, but also because it is a way to live the life you can’t yet live, or the one you never will. It is a way to say the good things that happen and control the bad things that happen. It is a defense, and sometimes the only defense.
It strikes me now that Great House is really about writing. Yes, there are the four characters narrating their separate stories, but the fifth (and perhaps most important) character is the mysterious writing desk linking those narratives, which has served as witness to both low tragedies and exalted loves across generations and continents. The writing that happens at that desk is the way the characters withstand life’s pain. It is their defense. I think I responded to this novel so strongly because it is, in many ways, a love letter to the act of writing, of recording, of sitting down at a desk—made of veined wood, worn, sturdy, many-drawered—and rephrasing the world.
I think I’ve figured it out. This is a fine novel, a great novel. It is a novel for anyone interested in writing, and by that I mean anyone who tells themselves stories in order to survive.
In a 2005 New York Magazine interview with Nicole Krauss (click here to read), the interviewer asks to see some of Krauss’s poems, and Krauss declines, “having set aside what she describes as an impossible quest for poetic precision.” Of course, you can still listen to some of her poems here, at the Paris Review. And even these days–after the critically acclaimed Great House was a finalist for the National Book Award –she is often described in reviews and magazines as a “former poet” or someone who has abandoned poetry for the more suitable genre of prose. This might make sense considering that while her most recent novels are gorgeous tragedies, sprawling across time, with textured characters in vibrant settings, something of the poet in search of precision remains in her language.
In Great House, a novel weaving four separate narrative threads into a complex tapestry of sorrow, each voice carefully bears its specific tragedy in small, beautiful sentences. In the thread narrated by Arthur Bender, who is losing his wife to a slow dementia, he thinks this about the nature of their love at the end of their life togethe
The act of love is always a confession, Camus wrote. But so is the quiet closing of a door. A cry in the night. A fall down the stairs. A cough in the hall. All my life I had been trying to imagine myself into her skin. Imagine myself into her loss. Trying and failing. Only perhaps—how can I say this—perhaps I wanted to fail. Because it kept me going. My love for her was a failure of the imagination.
I thought Great House was one of the best books of last year, not only because the construction of it is a brave, multi-voiced beast of a story, but because inside that big structure are precise images and poetic confessions. The whole of Great House is made up of sentences like those above, and while you will be impressed by the structural feat, what will stay with you is the way the lyrical prose glimmered, making you feel as though each confession was only for you.
Toward the end of Great House, Arthur discusses his sadness by way of remembering the small things that represent the bigger, unspeakable loss:
We live, each of us, to preserve our fragment, in a state of perpetual regret and longing for a place we only know existed because we remember a keyhole, a tile, the way the threshold was worn under an open door.
In much the same way, what I remember most and appreciate most from Great House are the precise details and images that speak to something larger, but reverberate on the page all on their own. Perhaps Krauss’s inner poet has not been abandoned after all, but rather finally satisfied by the intricate assembly of poetic details into a grandly orchestrated novel.
In the summer of 2004 I was 22, poor, recently graduated, and bored at my Washington, D.C desk job. I was frantically checking books out of the Capitol Hill library, hoping something would make my life feel meaningful or tell me where to go next. Nicole Krauss’s Man Walks Into a Room was featured on a display table in the library, and I read it in my too-expensive, too-hot sublet off Constitution Avenue.
Man Walks Into a Room is – like much of Krauss’s work – about the nature of memory. Samson Greene, an English professor, develops a brain tumor and suddenly cannot remember anything past his childhood, and then deserts his wife to undergo memory replacement experiments with a Nevada doctor. It is a rich concept with unexpected turns, exceptionally well-written, and I ate it up. But when I got to the end, it became something more.
The short epilogue suddenly switches point of view to that of Anna, the long-suffering wife of Samson. I read it, and was so astonished by it that I sat down and copied it out, word-for-word, in the first page of a brand new notebook. Here is a passage from that epilogue:
We took a drive and stopped by a path on the side of the road. There was a No Trespassing sign, but we ignored it. The sound of a hunter’s gunshots broke the distance. We ducked into a silo—you could see the sky through the gaps in the tin roof, and there were birds up there. Everything, parts I couldn’t have imagined would care, ached for some physical remark of his love. His mouth was cold and tasted metallic, like the season itself, if that’s possible. To me he always seemed like that, autumnal. Painfully earnest, with an awkward swiftness to the way he moved, a physical remoteness like he was already receding. I don’t remember who kissed whom. It was one of those lucid days in which you can see your whole life like a promise before you.
The two fantastic novels Krauss has written since, 2005’s History of Love and last year’s Great House, also deal with the themes of memory and half-known love, and they bloom out big and fragrant. That the otherwise modest Man Walks into a Room ends where it does, with a mysterious suggestion towards the aching welt at the center of the story, makes sense considering what she would go on to write.
I spent two aimless years in D.C, volunteering for losing presidential campaigns and running out of happy hour money, but after returning to that notebook page where I had copied out the epilogue, I decided what I really I wanted to do was write sentences like those, which articulated what it was to want something inexplicable. It’s safe to say that the epilogue was what made me start something new, a writing program.
On the early autumn day I drove a UHaul away from D.C, it was beautiful: a clear sky trip through the rolling hills of the Blue Ridge, horse farms and vineyards in the distance, green everywhere, and I was alone. It was the only time I didn’t feel sad while moving. It was one of those days, just like I’d read about.