Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Marriage Plot: Time to change gears

I don't think there is anything more to say about this book and its failures. It is time, I think, to switch to the larger culture and its problems. A good place to start, I think, is with an insightful review at The Guardian. James Lasdun notes many of the same issues I have here.

He argues that the premise that the marriage plot no longer applies because of no-fault divorce and pre-nups doesn't do the 18th and 19th century novels justice.
It's a likably quixotic challenge; but I think it's premised on a misconception about those earlier books. What makes them great, surely, isn't just that marriage back then was a much higher-stakes game than it is now, but that their heroines are explored at such astounding emotional and moral depth, and articulated with such wit and precision, that just about anything that happens to them becomes rivetingly consequential. They would be no less interesting to us, I suspect, if the options of divorce and prenups were available to them. By the same token, I don't think the removal of those options would make Madeleine and her suitors any more interesting than they are, which is to say: moderately.
And that's right. 

I'd go further and say that it's a problem with post-modern art in any genre, we'd have a lot more respect for modern artist and writers "choosing" to do something different than what was done in the past if we honestly believed they could do the genres they are rejecting. Lasdun thinks that Eugenides has idiosyncratic strengths. I'm more inclined to think that he has avoided being seriously evaluated by writing oddball little tales that prevented his being assessed against a larger pool just as an athlete might compete in unicycle races so as to avoid being compared to more serious athletes in better known events. As long as Eugenides was writing about fairly freakish stuff such as group suicides and hermaphrodites, he didn't have to withstand comparison with the big girls of fiction that Madeleine enjoys reading so much. Now that he has put himself out there, his shortcomings as a novelist are painfully evident.

And it's not just as compared to the great writers of the past. I just finished reading Emily Giffin's Love the One You're With and find myself hard-pressed to say why the terribly serious Pulitzer-winning, capital-A-Art guy is entitled to more respect than the Chick Lit bestseller. Yes, Giffin has her weaknesses but so does Eugenides and when it comes to moral depth she wins comfortably.

Beyond that, I think our culture doesn't get the issues that apply in marriage. It's not enough to be "in love". Any two morons can fall in love.  What makes the Austen heroines in particular so impressive is their grasp of a whole raft or moral issues that come with just meeting and getting to know another person never mind marrying them. If you could somehow insert Elinor Dashwood into 2102 complete with birth control and fully updated about modern sexual mores, she might have casual sex but she would still be a lot more premeditated and  circumspect about whom she formed an attachment that might lead to marriage. The problem is not, as some conservatives argue, that we have easy hook ups now but that we've lost the ability to do more serious hook ups.

Nowhere is that more clear to me than when when I read this from Lasdun:
What we actually see of Madeleine seems rather ruthlessly uncomplicated, in fact, and furthermore the book as a whole seems to vindicate her chilly instinct to avoid "unstable people".  
Taking the points in reverse order, don't marry someone unstable. That's like building your house above a crumbling cliff. By all means take a moral interest in unstable people and support them where you can but don't marry them. The weird thing about Madeleine is that she suddenly stops being chilly with Leonard. With him she bizarrely drifts into a relationship that is at odds with everything she is. That she would have a one-night hook up with this creepy little guy would be understandable and would make for an interesting story as she tried to extract herself afterwards. That she falls in love with him is emotional and economic suicide. If she'd listened to the inner voice telling her to avoid relationships with unstable people, she would have saved herself a lot of grief.

To go back to the first point, being "ruthlessly uncomplicated" is a very good way to go about negotiating your way to marriage. There are very few characters as ruthlessly uncomplicated in their pursuit of a marriage partner than Elinor Dashwood or Fanny Price. And both would have made polite conversation with and then  instinctively avoided Leonard and Mitchell.

No comments:

Post a Comment