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Interview Tue Oct 18 2011

Interview: Jeffrey Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides would like to make one thing clear: his new novel, The Marriage Plot, is not itself an attempt at a marriage plot.

marriageplot.jpgThe story follows three young adults, all graduating from Brown in the early '80s, who try to figure out life and love. Madeleine Hanna finds herself loving Leonard Bankhead (exciting, unstable) and being loved by Mitchell Grammaticus (sensible, spiritual). Rather than simply give us a new spin on a Jane Austen novel, Eugenides wants to highlight just what it does to people to read such books. Madeleine, an English major who falls in love with Victorian literature at a time when semiotics tries to deconstruct the very idea of love, struggles when reality falls far short of the ideal.

"It wasn't a question of trying to write a marriage plot so much as to show how the marriage plot functions in people's heads," Eugenides said. "This book was very much about the extent to which what we've read and what we've read about love will influence our own choices in love and really determine a large part of our fate."

And influence it does. On page one we learn that Madeleine's book shelves are lined with Edith Wharton, Henry James, George Eliot and the "redoubtable" Brontë sisters. We soon hear about Mitchell's obsession with mystics Thomas Merton, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Because we read about love, we think it's this thing that we can obtain. Because we read about experiences of God, we think it's something we can achieve.

The power of language over what we can think and experience is largely what is at issue here, and while he may not come right out and say it, Eugenides gives his readers plenty of clues. In fact, he wrote The Marriage Plot in good faith - readers are smart, and you have to trust them.

"You have to give the reader the benefit of the doubt. You have to assume that the reader is smart, and I've learned from doing readings that [they are] and they pick up on things very quickly, very small details."

If Madeleine's attempts to navigate love are primed by her Victorian novels, Mitchell is equally steered by immersing himself in religious texts toward the path of the pilgrim. In his quest to be a good person he recites the Jesus Prayer, journeys to India to volunteer for Mother Teresa, and attends Quaker meetings. His expedition to experience the divine is something of a failure, however, and the only revelation he experiences, toward the end of the novel, is of the more mundane variety.

Strangely enough, it is here — on the issue of experiencing transcendence — that Mitchell and Leonard, rivals for Madeleine's affection, meet. Leonard, who suffers from manic-depression, lives under the stigma of abnormality, instability, and having "issues". Mitchell, for all his mystic fervor, is pegged as so normal as to be unexciting.

It's Leonard, however, who escapes his skin and experiences the ultimate connection. It's Leonard who, perhaps, glimpses God.

Where you draw the line between mania and mysticism is, of course, a question that can't be answered — and Eugenides doesn't try. But through Mitchell's reading of William James, we get a pragmatist's interpretation of whether we may deem an experience "religious".

Photo credit: Karen Yamauchi
"[Leonard and Mitchell discussing religion] was one of the last scenes I wrote in the novel," Eugenides said. "I thought it was important for Mitchell to be the arbiter. In a way he's kind of a little bit odd through the book in his religious search, he has a kind of practicality about it. He says, 'The only way to judge a mystical experience is if it changes your behavior' - it's not just smoke and mirrors or fireworks - it has to have an actual effect on your life and your moral decisions. So it's not unconnected that after having that discussion with Mitchell, Leonard does what I think is his most heroic [act]."

Eugenides will be speaking at the next of the Tribune's Author Talks events this Friday, Oct. 21 at the Murphy Auditorium (50 E. Erie Street) at 6:30pm. Admission is $30 — which includes a copy of The Marriage Plot, his much-anticipated follow-up to Middlesex.

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