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[519] The Marriage Plot – Jeffrey Eugenides

” She was desperately in love with a boy who’d been hospitalized, twice, for manic depression. For the last four months, instead of focusing on her ‘career,’ she’d been nursing Leonard back to health, cooking his meals and cleaning his clothes, calming his anxieties and cheering him out of his frequent low moods. She’d been putting up with the serious side effects brought on by his new, higher dosage of lithium. . . . The last thing she felt herself to be was sensible or reasonable. She had just started living like a grown-up and she’d never felt more vulnerable, frightened, or confused in her life. ” (66)

The Marriage Plot, set in 1982, begins on the day Madeleine Hanna, Mitchell Grammaticus, and Leonard Bankhead graduate from Brown. Madeleine is a privileged, charming English major whose senior thesis focuses on a subject matter that is a relic from the past—the marriage plot, one centered exclusively on the courtship rituals between a man and a woman and the obstacles that faced the potential couple on its way to the nuptial payoff. It’s a popular source of entertainment during Jane Austen’s time. and thus lies at the heart of some of the greatest English novels. As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, she, too, is entwined with two very different guys.

Every lover is mad, we are told. But can we imagine a madman in love.” (122)

The novel follows the life of the trio for a year after graduation. Madeleine has to decide between the two guys who both woo and mistreat her by turns. Leonard is smart and intense, always panics about his failures that might have foredoomed him to a life of ever-diminishing returns. He has a dysfunctional childhood, raised by alcoholic parents, but despite an unruly household, he manages to achieve late-breaking academic success. As much as Madeleine being the centrality, The Marriage Plot makes so little of her professional future but rather elaborates on Leonard’s mental illness that asserts itself from early on. She follows him to Pilgrims Lake, where Leonard takes up a fellowship position in a genetics lab.

There comes a moment, when you get lost in the woods, when the woods begin to feel like home. The further Leonard receded from other people, the more he relied on Madeleine, and the more he relied on her, the deeper she was willing to follow. (344)

Mitchell takes on a diametrically opposite tangent. Jarred by his failed relationship with Madeleine, who would not fall in love with him precisely because of his eligibility, he looks into the extinction of desire. Craving for a spiritual awakening, he embarks on a backpacking trip through Europe that ultimately deposits him into the slum of Calcutta. Aspired to perform the good work exemplified by Mother Teresa, he finds himself in charity but never gets over his squeamishness of the sick and dying. His quest for the riddle of existence comes to no avail. His religious exploration, for all that he invests in and for all of its genuine grounding of his soul, is ultimately dismissed as a sublimation of his desire for Madeleine.

He despised himself. He decided that his believing that Madeleine would marry him stemmed from the same credulity that had led him to think he could live a saintly life, tending the sick and dying in Calcutta . . . His dreaminess, his swooning—his intelligent stupidity—were responsible for everything that was idiotic about him, for his fantasy of marrying Madeleine and for the self-renunciation that hedged against the fantasy’s not coming true. (392)

Switching between perspectives of the three, Eugenides edges the plot forward slightly as he fills the back story. Despite the slow pace, I enjoy the many bookish references throughout the book. The story itself is wry, engaging and beautifully constructed. It’s more about coming of age—finding the foothold in the world and making decision that would affect one’s life, without knowing at the moment. So each will foray into adulthood at the expense of pain. Madeleine seems to recede behind the screens of Leonard’s needs, and her discovery of a vocation as a scholar in Victorian literature is not developed. Neither Leonard nor Mitchell has any evident direction into grown-up life. The novel, which is nothing like Middlesex or The Virgin Suicides, is more a close, introspective look at relationships in time. I had to plow through this book in the beginning, but it gets better and better that I was enthralled that I’m grateful for the earlier dull stretch.

406 pp. Picador. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[420] The Virgin Suicides – Jeffrey Eugenides

” It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together. ” (5,248)

Set in the Michigan suburbia in 1970s, The Virgin Suicides seems to be another American small-town tragedy, but Eugenides, with his contemplative style, transforms it into a unique masterpiece. It tells the story of the Lisbon family from the point of view of a collective narrator, “we”, a group of young men who, infatuated with the Lisbon daughters, speak in one voice. The story begins exactly a year ago, when 13-year-old Cecilia Lisbon succeeded on her second attempt of suicide. A haunted quality persists about the Lisbon house after her gruesome death. Not only does the Lisbon house decline with growing shabbiness and creeping disrepair, so do the people who live in it, as a slow disintegration eats them from the inside. Everyone in town also dates the demise of the neighborhood from that suicide.

Our surveillance had been so focused we missed nothing but a simple returned gaze. Who else did they have to turn to? Not their parents. Nor the neighborhood. Inside their house they were prisoners; outside, lepers. And so they hid from the world, waiting for someone—for us—to save them. (4,199)

The book is a retrospective quest as the anonymous narrator(s) recall the odd family, whose daughters, battling with the loss of their youngest sister, refusing to accept the world as it was handed down to them, take their lives exactly on the first anniversary of Cecilia’s passing. But plausible as it seems, the post-trauma theory is no more than a speculation, a hypothesis. As Eugenides reassembles the events of the “year of suicides,” we never have a full grasp of what really happens to the Lisbon girls other than their unfortunate demise. Nor do the people who tell the story. One never gets to know the sisters, maybe, other than Lux’s promiscuity. They are all from one mold. Neither readers nor narrators understand why Mrs Lisbon imposes a strict regime on the girls. The authority’s nonchalance toward their absence in school is also questioned.

The doors to the girls’ shared bedrooms were not completely closed. Breathings and murmurings issued from them. He listened to the sounds as though they could tell him what the girls were feeling and how to comfort them. (3,61)

Since The Virgin Suicides is cobbled together through heresay, interviews, diary entries, personal contact, and avid surveillance, the answers to many questions remain unanswered, only assumed. In the end, we have pieces of the puzzle, but gaps remain no matter how we put the pieces together. The heart of the matter is only known to the dead. The narrator’s obsession, combined with the mystery surrounding the girls, makes the novel very riveting. Added to the surreal quality is the community’s nonchalance toward the final suicides, as if they expect them to happen. In between the lines, with such shocking and elegiac sadness, Eugenides implies the emotional abuse suffered by the girls, revealing everything they don’t know how to tell the world. The Virgin Suicides is about the poignancy of adolescence, specifically when the version of the world their parents render for them is not one these adults believe in. The cluelessness of the school and callous indifference of the neighbors are the most chilling reality. The hypnotic narrative voice transports readers to a mythic realm where fate holds sway. By turns lyrical and portentous and elegiac, the novel insinuates itself into our minds as a powerful drama even though the questions remain unanswered.

249 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[322] Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

” She began to watch her children closely . . . She kept waiting for something to happen, some disease, some abnormality, fearing that the punishment of her crime was going to be taken out in the most devastating way possible: not on her own soul but in the bodies of her children. ” [Part 2, 157]

Middlesex is a family saga that begins in Smyrna, a village in Asia Minor in 1922. Fleeing their home disguised as French nationals when war broke out between Greece and Turkey, Desdemona and Lefty boarded an America-bound ship on which they consummated their relationship, an incestuous one, for they were more than third cousins—they were brother and sister. In Detroit the Stephanides became assimilated into the American society. Both of their children, Milton and Zoe were healthy. They were raised during a period characterized by Prohibition and xenophobic anti-immigration legislation, making the American Dream a delusion that had already disappeared before they knew it.

Desdemona recalled her mother telling stories about strange infants born in the village. They came very few generations, babies who were sick in some way. Desdemona couldn’t remember how exactly—her mother had been vague. [Part 2, 117]

Biology is an inevitable tragedy waiting to happen. Desdemona and Left’s violation of an invincible taboo—consanguinity (inter-marrying)—manifests in the rarest form of deformity, in their grandchild. The narrator, Cal (Callie) Stephanides, is an intersexed man with a condition known as 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, which causes him to be a hermophroditic. Cal was the victim of a mutated gene that finally struck after two generations. Raised as a girl (but with male brain and more male hormone), Cal viewed himself as a girl who liked other girls, until he discovered that he could have been raised as a boy. Taking great length to hide his body, one without period and developed breasts during puberty, he renounced his female gender and recognized his chosen sexual identity as a male.

From my birth when they went undetected, to my baptism where they upstaged the priest, to my troubled adolescence when they didn’t do much of anything and then did everything at once, my genitals have been the most significant thing that ever happened to me. Some people inherit houses; others paintings or highly insured violin bows. Still others get a Japanese tansu or a famous name. I got a recessive gene on my fifth chromosome and some very rare family jewels indeed. [Part 4, 401]

Written in an ironic and sardonic tone, Middlesex reads like a memoir but with shifting perspectives. Genetic dissertations are often highlighted by the shift from first person to third person in the middle of the prose where Cal researches hermaphroditism. He also narrates in third person to dissociate, to detach himself from Callie when he discusses her. The novel at large is about a family’s migration from Greece and assimilation in America. As it progresses it shifts into a social novel about Detroit, incorporating Detroit race riot that granted the family a windfall after their diner burned down and discussing the seclusion of living in a 1970s suburb.

Milton, on the other hand, didn’t waste time reevaluating the evidence. On hotel stationery Callie had proclaimed, ‘I am not a girl.’ But Callie was just a kid. What did she know? Kids said all kinds of crazy things. My father didn’t understand what had made me flee my surgery. He couldn’t fathom why I wouldn’t want to be fixed, cured. [Part 4, 466]

The immigrant predicament is both a metaphor and a synecdoche for Callie’s hermaphroditic condition, because her grandparents become Americanized through amalgamation of elements of history, heredity, cultural metamorphoses, and probability. The Stephanides’s career through Depression, World War II, the cataclysmic Detroit Race Riot, the counterculture, and Watergate—they were all parts of Callie’s identity and story. Like the immigrant experience, Callie has to renounce her old self and adopts a new identity, one that is within reason. and is meant to be at birth. Middlesex is soundly constructed with motifs (Greek myths and allusions) and characters weaving through the novel’s various episodes. At the end, the notion of gender identity, which Eugenides subtly de-emphasizes by keeping the narrative voices of Callie and Cal unchanged, becomes so blank-slate, as the doctor strives to drag Cal under the knife to defend his theory of normality.

This novel, as lyrical as it is splendid, takes reader through a roller coaster of emotions. On top of human experiences marked by polar opposites, the novel ponders at life when it is deemed outside of normal existence by society’s standard. It explores nature vs. nurture, rebirth, and how one comes to terms to his/her own human identity.

529 pp. Trade paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Reading Notes: Middlesex

Middlesex is the kind of book that appeals to your emotions, that makes you feel, and that forces you to put it down despite how eagerly you want to know what happens next. It possesses that power to

Emotions, in my experience aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in “sadness,” “joy,” or “regret.” … I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic traincar constructions like, say, “the happiness that attends disaster.” Or: “the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.” … I’d like to have a word for “the sadness inspired by failing restaurants” as well as for “the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.” I’ve never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I’ve entered my story, I need them more than ever.

On top of the personal reflection aside from the reading, what delays the book is one that is intentional. I resist finishing it–putting it aside for an hour or two, or maybe overnight–just so that my time with Cal/Callie is not coming to a close so soon. In other words, I don’t want this wondrous, magical novel might never end.

hermaphrodite1. One having the sex organs and many of the secondary sex characteristics of both male and female. 2. Anything comprised of a combination of diverse or contradictory elements. See synonyms at MONSTER.
And that is where I stopped. And looked up, to see if anyone was watching. The vast Reading Room thrummed with silent energy: people thinking, writing. The painted ceiling bellied overhead like a sail, and down below the green desk lamps glowed, illuminating faces bent over books. I was stooping over mine, my hair falling onto the pages, covering up the definition of myself. My lime green coat was hanging open. I had an appointment with Lace later in the day and my hair was washed, my underpants fresh. My bladder was full and I crossed my legs, putting off a trip to the bathroom. Fear was stabbing me. I longed to be held, caressed, and that was impossible. I laid my hand on the dictionary and looked at at. Slender, leaf-shaped, it had a braided rope ring on one finger, a gift from the Object. The rope was getting dirty. I looked at my pretty hand and then pulled it away and faced the word again. There it was, monster, in black and white, in a battered dictionary in a great city library.

Which reminds me twenty some years ago, sitting in a library, looking up the word homosexuality. Puberty is always a personal matter that nobody spoke about. Parents also avoided any talk of bodily matters. Reproductive organs and sexuality have been society’s taboo, let alone homosexuality. A similar dictionary, like the one Callie consulted, defined homosexuality as being some abnormal, perverted form of desire and proclivity. I couldn’t remember the exact words, but which imbue any comfort other than fear.

So much for the tenderness of the prose, I don’t want the book to end. I’m rationing now.

Read Out of Inner Obligation

This novel, written in a voice that is both humorous and ominous, is so rich in social, cultural, and medical texture. One great passage after another in the family saga. This is what came alive in the watch patch of morning sun over coffee this morning:

It was the combination of Milton’s disgust at the antiwar movement and Tessie’s sense of uselessness that led them to begin reading the entire one-hundred-and-fifteen-volume set of the Great Books series. Uncle Pete had been touting these books for a long time, not to mention quoting from them liberally to score points in Sunday debates. … The Great Books arrived in ten boxes stamped with their contents. Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates in one; Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, and Virgil in another. As we shelved the books in the built-in stacks on Middlesex, we read the names, many familiar (Shakespeare), others not (Boethius). Canon-bashing wasn’t in vogue yet, and besides, the Great Books began with names not unlike our own (Thucydides), so we felt included. “Here’s a good one,” said Milton, holding up Milton. The only thing that disappointed him was that the series didn’t contain a book by Ayn Rand. Nevertheless, that evening after dinner, Milton began reading aloud to Tessie. [Middlesex, p.302]

As much as whims dictate my reading choices, I am aware of my literary short-comings. I have read very little poetry and know absolutely nothing about it other than its structure. The Greek and Roman classics that the narrator mentioned I haven’t touched since college (I minored in classics). While I’m not a fan of Ayn Rand, I have always been curious about The Fountainhead. Between my favorite authors and subject matters, I shall at least impart some of these elements into my readings, which I believe is conducive to being a well-rounded reader. As much as I enjoy bathing in the curlicues of sentences in literary fiction, I crave a good detective story and philosophy lesson of the ancient Greeks. A common frustration is that these books can get hard going, so I’ll put them down when I cannot concentrate. It’s better to read them in portions. To wrap up Reading Deliberately challenge for this year, Aristotle, Socrates or Cicero would fit in the classical text category. How often do you read out of obligation?

When the Plato got to be hard going, Milton suggested skipping ahead to Machiavelli. After a few days of that, Tessie asked for Thomas Hardy, but an hour later Milton put the book down, unimpressed. “Too many heaths,” he complained. “Heath this and heath that.” Then they read The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, which they enjoyed, and then they gave the project up. [Middlesex, p.302]

What would you go when the reading becomes too hard going? William Faulkner and Herman Melville belong to this category for me. What does that inner voice tell you to read?