Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Marriage Plot: Wrapping it up (1)

Having finally finished it (I stopped enjoying the book around halfway through had to more or less force myself to read the final three chapters), I think there are two really important things going on in this book. I'll deal with one today and the other tomorrow (UPDATE: Make that Monday). The first important thing is the portrait it gives us of a certain character traits you find in a lot modern men.  Defining this character is something I want to hold off on so I will start with an anecdote.

About a decade ago now, the Lemon Girl (aka the Serpentine One) and I were watching a movie. I didn't notice any problems but the Lemon Girl was clearly getting more and more impatient with him during a scene in which the male and female leads were interacting and she said, "Come on, just f__ her already!"

That''s a crude way of making the point but some points need to be made crudely and this is one of them. Some men these days just won't come clean about what they want. We might put it a little bit more "correctly" by saying, "Come one, just let her know you want to f___ her already." We pretend to be interested in other things instead of honestly letting ourselves want a woman. We may think we are being sensitive to her needs or we may think we are being independent and strong but, either way, what we are really doing is chickening out on life. There are, as I've just hinted,  two equally frustrating ways this trait manifests itself and both are represented in this book.

There is the nice guy; the man whose answer to "What do you want to do?' is always, "What do you want to do?" This guy never pushes, never leads, never even asks a woman on a date never mind trying to seduce her. We might excuse him on the grounds that he is worried about being accused of date rape or sexual harassment except that he shows himself to be a hopeless pussy about at just about everything in life.

The guy who represents this type in the book is Mitchell. He travels all the way to India to volunteer at Mother Theresa's hospice but he turns into a mass of quivering jelly at the thought of performing simple nursing duties such as changing dressings, bathing patients and helping them with bed pans. He actually runs away from the hospital when faced with this!

The second type is the pseudo bad boy who is actually just a needy loser. He pulls women in by being ambiguous and distant. Music is really important in his life because he uses it like a drug to trigger the emotional responses he is incapable of having on his own. Rather than tell a woman how he feels, he'll put some music on (always some moody, alternative stuff and never a happy song or something you could dance to) and turn up the volume so he doesn't have to talk.  His answer to just about any attempt the woman in his life makes to find out what he wants is to sulk and walk away. Again, he won't actively pursue a woman but instead sends mixed messages alternating between having sex with her when he wants it and sulking alone in the corner and refusing to make eye contact any time she needs other kinds of love from him. He sells himself as some sort of sexual gunslinger but he is actually incapable of taking care of himself never mind any woman who enters into his life so she ends up alternatively servicing and mothering him.

The guy who represents that type in the book is Leonard. His portrait is complicated by the fact that he is bipolar but he is a guy who has succeeded at school largely because he has never needed to try. He takes this attitude to everything in life only showing any enthusiasm for the things he knows he can succeed at and crumpling like Sonny Liston in the face of anything that will involve any struggle on his part.

You probably recognize those traits. If you are a man, you've probably fallen into one or both of those patterns. If you are a woman, you've had to put up with them from men. I know I have done these things. I did the Leonard thing a few times when I was in my twenties and nowadays I sometimes catch myself doing the Mitchell thing. But if you are a man at all worthy of being called a man, you will recognize those traits as weak and despicable and will associate them with your lowest moments. And if you are a woman you may associate those traits with moments when you put up with a lot of crap you shouldn't have from some creep because you didn't have the confidence to tell him to go away.

The problem with the book is that I don't think Eugenides sees that these two guys are really weak and despicable. He seems to think they are pretty normal guys whose life struggles are worth following and not as a way to identify traits you should hate in yourself.

The credentialed class
That is perhaps not surprising Eugenides is a member of the credentialed class of university-educated upper-middle class whites who have thrived under a system that is called "meritocracy" but is really just a rigged game like all the other class systems in history. This class is driven by a combination of entitlement and and an impostor syndrome that they have in response to their entitlement.

We see the entitlement, for example, in an offhand thought Mitchell has towards the end of the book.
He would come back to New York, and find a job, and see what happened.
He is imagining how things might work between him and Madeleine. She is now sort of free and they might pursue a relationship. And he thinks, "Yeah, I'll move to New York and get a job. That way I can be near her and we cans see what might transpire." What is so odd about that thought? To Mitchell, nothing is odd about it and that is why it is so significant because he thinks it in the middle of a recession. Unemployment was ten percent in the years this novel is set in and it was much higher for recent university graduates. And Mitchell just takes it for granted that he can just move to one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country and not worry because he'll be able to find a job.

And he isn't wrong. He is the member of such a class. I'm part of it myself, albeit much further down the ladder than Mitchell or Eugenides—if they are nobility, I'm part of the lesser gentry. But the types of despicable traits I am describing here are very much typical of university-educated white boys from the 1980s.

Similarly, while Leonard occasionally expresses concerns about his ability to make ends meet, he never acts like it's a real concern for him. When his life falls apart, he just goes back to Oregon and goes to live in a cabin in the woods with his buddy from high school. How exactly they are going to pay for groceries is never dealt with because people in the credentialed class never have to worry about this. They spend their entire life performing over a safety net. The big question in life for them is not, "Will I succeed?" but "Will I succeed well enough that I can be happy given my inflated sense of entitlement?"

The net effect of Eugenides writing about these characters without recognizing their flaws for what they are is to make them come off like dilettantes who are afraid of really living life and don't have to do anything about it because they are members of an elite credentialed class for whom everything will always turn out alright.

One of the ways these very male behaviour patterns show themselves in the book comes out regarding religion. And religion is absolutely central to this book. However, only male characters—if you accept Mother Theresa, who makes a cameo appearance—have any sort of real religious dimension.

Now we might wonder about this because if there is one thing that characterizes current religious life, it is that women are more likely to be religious than men. But the religion in the book is a weird religion. The central thing to this religion is a kind of experience and not a doctrine, belief system and, most emphatically, not a belief that we should live worthy lives as consequence of our religion. And this experience is very much an eastern thing: the two characters who pursue it value the experience because they believe it's going to bring about a loss of ego.

Madeleine, the lead female character has no religious dimension at all besides the fact that Mitchell craves her body because he accidentally saw her "Episcopalian breast". This is a troubling moment given that Mitchell is sexually attracted to Madeleine because she is a type he has a fetish for. Try imagining how this would read if he had wanted Madeleine because she was oriental or black and you might be able to see the problem more clearly.

To get back to my point, the weird sexist undercurrent running through the entire book is that the sought after religious experience is a male thing. Men are shown in a quest a quest for a certain kind of experience and that quest involves pilgrimage, suffering and loss.

The only woman to talk about religious experience at any length is a woman at a Quaker meeting in the last section of the book who babbles on foolishly about how her mother gave her butterscotch candies to keep her interested in going to meeting. Worse, this silly girly story harmonizes with, and is clearly meant to harmonize with, a thematic development wherein Madeleine deals with the loss and suffering she goes through because of the failure of her marriage by reverting to a girlhood. And not just girlhood, but a rather silly girlhood:
The only times Madeleine brightened were when an old girlfriend of hers came by the house. With her friends—and the earlier made and dippier they were, the better: she was fond of certain ex-Lawrenceville girls with names like Weezie—Madeleine seemed to be able to will herself back to girlhood. She went shopping with these friends. She spent hours trying things on. At the house, they lay by the pool, tanning and reading magazines, while Mitchell drew away to the shade of the porch, watching them from afar with desire and revulsion, exactly as he had done in high school.
The message seems to be that men deal with the dark, difficult challenges of adulthood by seeking religious experiences and women deal with the dark, difficult challenges of adulthood by reverting to adolescence.

At the same time, however, these men never stop being these hopeless jerks who just need someone go shake them out of their self-involved and self-indulgent uselessness. For all their interest in religion, the thing that Mitchell and Leonard seek never manifests itself in any thing outside themselves such as a change in behaviour.

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