The Marriage Plot reviewed: Jeffrey Eugenides on love in the Ivy League.

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 10 2011 7:15 AM

Love in the Ivy League

Jeffrey Eugenides explores real depression, not just preppy romance.

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Eugenides presents Leonard's case history from Leonard's own perspective. He takes on the imaginative challenge of what it would be like live inside the head of an ambitious manic genius—"a giant comet cruising at a low altitude through the space the rest of us inhabit" as someone said of David Foster Wallace. This section is still written in third person—no Joycean pyrotechnics here—but it turns out that, in Eugenides' hands, classic realism remains a trusty tool for nailing down mental states, such as mania: "His mind felt like it was fizzing over. Words became other words inside his head, like patterns in a kaleidoscope. He kept making puns. No one understood what he was talking about." Eugenides also drives home the physical pain of depression: 

Let me tell you what happens when a person's clinically depressed . . . What happens is that the brain sends out a signal that it's dying. The depressed brain sends out this signal, and the body receives it, and after a while, the body thinks it's dying too. And then it begins to shut down. That's why depression hurts, Madeleine.

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And Eugenides supplies the key insight when Leonard tries to self-regulate his dosage of Lithium and outsmart his therapists, even while being cognizant of his doom: "The smarter you were, the worse it was. The sharper your brain, the more it cut you up." Intelligence blocks all the easy roads to normalcy. He's always gauging what the patients and doctors are thinking and then recalibrating his own statements based on what he knows their next action is likely to be. And then he further recalibrates his behavior based on the knowledge that the doctor and patients probably know that he, Leonard, knows what they are thinking. Leonard plots four moves ahead yet remains stuck, a tortuous feedback loop of frustration.

Meanwhile, Mitchell is helping out Mother Teresa in Calcutta, pining for Madeleine in his free time. I expect my fellow critics will give a sharp elbow to these sections of the book, but I like how Eugenides portrays the Christians, seekers, surly French medical students, and some dude from Florida, all of whom help themselves by helping lepers. It is a feat to evoke the scriptless nature of trying to "find yourself," and his touch is comic yet exact. The hardest part isn't really bathing an old man's diseased body but establishing a conception of yourself outside of college, the town that you came from, who you parents are and what they expect you to be. The Mitchell episodes read like a buoyant pop song—recreating the romantic time in a young man's life when you feel destined to marry a particular girl and a Thomas Merton passage can knock you over.

Count me as someone who was taken in by The Marriage Plot. I enjoyed spending time with these familiar people, with their familiar cultural references, and discovering some dark unfamiliarity, too. In the best possible way, it's like reading a long, detailed, acutely observed Alumni Notes in the back of some Ivy college monthly. Ahhh, so that's what happened to that person, that's why they landed the way they did, that's where the story is going. It's only half-true of course, but very entertaining.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.