Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Marriage Plot: Talking 'bout my generation

I am thinking less and less of the book as I move through it. The upside is that it may just inspire me to finally buckle down and write a novel myself as I think this is a great subject that could be handled better.

I'm beginning to think that the really important question here is not, "Are these three likeable?" (although I haven't see a whole lot to like) but are they marriageable? You might or might not like them enough to let yourself fall in love with them but it would be morally iresponsible to marry any of the three principal characters.

[Warning: spoilers ahead] This is from the beginning but it really struck me. Madeleine is thinking about playing tennis against her father, whom she calls by his first name "Alton".
Madeleine had been trying to beat Alton her entire life life without success. This was even more infuriating because she was better than he was, at this point. But whenever she took a set from Alton he started intimidating her, acting mean, disputing calls, and her game fell apart.
You know, if you've never managed to beat someone despite "being better than they are", then you aren't better than they are. And that is the telling thing about two of the three main characters in this book: nothing is ever their fault. Madeleine is beautiful, sexually desirable and sexually responsive, she is interested and interesting, but she seems utterly unaware that other people have feelings too. They exist entirely as opportunities for her to exercise her emotions.

Fittingly, she falls in love with a guy who may well be the only human being on the planet even more self-involved than she is.

Later in the story, this guy, his name is Leonard, will have a major breakdown because he chooses to stop taking the medication that controls his bipolar swings. When contemplating the ensuing (100 percent predictable) break down he blames pretty much everyone and everything except himself.

By the way, he stopped taking his medication immediately after Madeleine dumps him, a move even he admits was justified on her part. But look how he analyzes the thing:
... the power had shifted in his relationship with Madeleine. Early on, Madeleine had been the needy one. She got jealous when Leonard talked to other girls at parties. She flashed warning signs of insecurity. Finally, she'd thrown in the towel completely and told him, "I love you." In response, Leonard had acted cool and cerebral, figuring that by keeping Madeleine in doubt he could bind her to him more closely. But Madeleine surprised him. She broke up with him on the spot.
So Leonard goes to see a therapist and gets this out of it:
And though Bryce's analysis of the situation—that Leonard was frightened of intimacy and so had self-protectively made fun of Madeleine's avowal—was pretty much on the mark, that didn't bring Madeleine back.
The problem is that this analysis is a great steaming pile of it. It's just an appalling cliché—men are afraid of intimacy—bad enough to be in an eighties movie trying to pass itself off as wisdom. Nowhere does Leonard seem to grasp that the real problem is that he is manipulative little narcissist. Look at how he thinks: "Leonard had acted cool and cerebral, figuring that by keeping Madeleine in doubt he could bind her to him more closely". And then when he gets into therapy, his only interest is in getting something that will make Madeleine come back to him.

But while he is keenly interested in "making" Madeleine do things, that is, while he is interested in morally manipulating her to do the things he ants her to do, it didn't occur to him to pick up his phone and apologize to her.

I'll get to the third main character tomorrow. But for now, it strikes me that this book presents an inaccurate portrayal of my generation. And it has to be such a portrait because the conceit is that it is saying something about the possibility of marriage for the generation that came of age in the 1980s. A story about three people with problems unique to them who never managed to get married wouldn't make any general point. This is a book about a specific generation and, in that sense, I think it fails.

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