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.