Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Marriage Plot: Chick Lit

It isn't, for reasons I'll get to, but it's very much like it. You get things like this:
Ten hours earlier, when she'd borrowed the black Betsey Johnson dress from Olivia, Madeleine had thought it looked good on her.
Every song anyone listens to or is playing in the background gets named too.

But what difference does it make that it's a Betsey Johnson dress? In Chick Lit we get this sort of brand identification because it's a convention. It tells us something about the person who owns the brand. But note here that Madeleine doesn't own the dress. She only borrowed it. It might tell us something about Olivia but Olivia exists only as a foil in this novel.

One of the things that Chick Lit doesn't do, and I've read a fair amount of it, is dwell on a sense of place. Characters spend more time analyzing their moral situation than they do thinking about the buildings or cities they are in. When a location comes up in Chick Lit, it tends to be iconic: Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris. A Chick Lit heroine would never go to Brown, she'd go to Harvard or Yale or to some community college while her friends went to Harvard or Yale. It's a very male thing to try to evoke a unique location in a novel. (This goes all the way back to Austen with her settings in Bath or London or her country houses which never have a specific identity. The whole point was to make it easy for you to draw on your knowledge to create an image of the house rather than to encourage you to think of a special house the way, for example, Evelyn Waugh does with Brideshead.)

The creating a specific location is not exclusively male, of course (Annie Dillard does it and does it very well to take only the first name to come to mind). But Eugenides tends to write a male sort of novel elsewhere in this book. I can't help but think that the Chick Lit motifs are Eugenides attempts to get inside a female character. I mention that because, as I go on through the book, I am increasingly convinced that he isn't very good at getting inside the female character.

It starts so strong with Madeleine at the center and very much possessed of agency. But he can't maintain that and she comes to exist more and more for others. Male others.

The big mistake, I think, is that one of the two men that Madeleine is choosing between turns out to be bipolar and on lithium. Now, as interesting as that might be as a plot complication, it entirely changes the way she assesses him. When she didn't know this about him, her choices turned on an impulsiveness and romanticism she found attractive on the one hand and a lack of stability and filthy apartment she didn't on the other. That is a fairly common set of traits in men and something a woman might analyze in terms of moral strengths and weaknesses. The second she find out he is bipolar, however, she can't really criticize those things but simply must deal with them.

Okay, real people fall in love with others who turn out to be bipolar so what's wrong with that? Well, maybe nothing, except that Madeleine's agency is sharply reduced. Now she moves to take care of the guy in more of a mothering role. She loses control over the direction of her life. Meanwhile he goes from being a romantic choice to being more of a problem for her to manage.

And there is the other guy, which is the subject for another post. But he is in love with her and the interesting tension all revolved around her capacity to make a choice and his just having to live with it. Only now she is no longer that woman but rather a character who is pulled into a typical "womanly" part.

PS: It is one of the more bizarre fixations of serious literature for the last few decades to think including that a character who is bipolar or (oh the horror, the horror) autistic will make the story they are telling more interesting or challenging. I think it is a left over from the 1960s drug culture and it's whacked out notions of expanded consciousness. Serious writers think that telling the story through or around a mentally ill person will enable them to make profound points about human experience and consciousness. This is a little like thinking you can make profound points about colour by describing how someone born blind "experiences" colour.

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