Friday, January 27, 2012

A Plot Just for Readers

Recently (and by "recently" I actually mean December, and last year is hardly all that recent), I was asked, "Don't you have a blog?" I told the individual that s/he must be confusing me with some other Patrick Henry.

And I realized that they were confusing me with somebody else: a Patrick Henry who possesses the wherewithal to actually update his blog. I vowed that I wouldn't make any excuses as to why I wasn't blogging, so I'll be entirely upfront about what impeded my semi-frequent virtual ramblings: I have no excuses, because I simply was not paying attention to the blog.

Living as close to New York as I do, I have realized that the epitome of "cool" is getting your blown-up image emblazoned on a billboard, with your photographed self's vest flapping casually in the wind as your image saunters, notebook in hand, toward the camera, and that people who do not have the dedication to work diligently for several years (yet alone to update their blogs) are unlikely to attain such popular deification. But somebody who does have this kind of cool working for him is Jeffrey Eugenides, the author of three novels (The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex, and his most recent The Marriage Plot), and Mr. Eugenides has had his sombre visage gracing a Times Square billboard.

The living titan treatment that The Marriage Plot has, via the billboard, garnered for Mr. Eugenides is a treatment that I feel would have been more apposite for Middlesex, a novel that presents a more cohesive and unified effect than The Marriage Plot. Middlesex is an accomplishment difficult to rival, and The Marriage Plot does not quite reach the gravity and beauty of Middlesex, for which Mr. Eugenides won the Pulitzer Prize. This most recent novel, however, still deserves a read on its own merits.

I could be snarky and tell you that this book should be read because its title does not contain a reference to large cats, the word "wife," or the threat of an explosion. That would be disingenuous, as the book offers its readers a valuable insight, often overlooked in contemporary fiction's attempts to use the fewest words possible to tell a story. The lesson: books bring people together and teach us how to love. Mr. Eugenides uses books—even the dense manifestos of the French, poststructuralist intelligentsia—to irrevocably entwine the novel's three central characters: Leonard, Madeleine, and Mitchell.

Any book, written soulfully enough, can teach us what we mean when we talk about love. Eugenides describes Madeleine's experience with Roland Barthes's A Lover's Discourse, the slender volume that instructs her on the gravity of her feelings for Leonard:
It wasn't only that this writing seemed beautiful to Madeleine. . . . It wasn't only the relief of recognizing that here, finally, was a book she might write her final paper on. 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. . . .
It had to do with Leonard. With how she felt about him and how she couldn't tell anyone. With how much she liked him and how little she knew about him. With how desperately she wanted to see him and how hard it was to do so. (49)

Books make us realize that we are not alone, but Mr. Eugenides gives us further reason to remain readers: Leonard's and Madeleine's relationship thrives only while they are both continuing to read, to use books as a medium to understand one another. Books remind us that we are not truly alone while providing us with a way of better understanding others. And it is Mitchell, the third figure in the love triangle that Mr. Eugenides creates, who continues to read and to seek that connection with Madeleine, whose affections elude him into the novel's final section.

Yes, The Marriage Plot is set in a simpler time, the 1980s, when people didn't gawp at you if you admitted to liking British synthpop such as "Tainted Love" (which, by the by, plays on page 11 of this novel). But the message is one increasingly relevant today, when we bury ourselves in the words of Internet articles, blogs, text messages, newspapers, e-mails, and their virtual ilk. Literature reminds us that we do not have to forge ahead alone. There are others out there, like us.

Odds are, some of them even enjoy the same books—and yes, even "Tainted Love."