Jeffrey Eugenides, a Pulitzer Prize-winner for 2002’s richly rewarding Middlesex, sets his latest novel on a university campus at the beginning of the 1980s, an infernally confusing place and time for young hearts and minds. The momentous social upheavals of the previous two decades weighed heavily on students’ innocent sensibilities. They longed to fall in love but the rules of sexual relationships were in furious ferment. They wanted to study the classics of literature but the texts they loved were being clinically dismantled by opaque critical theorists with crazed political agendas. Nothing seemed to make sense. And when everything is up for grabs, it is hard to grab on to any one thing.
Madeleine Hanna, the English major at Brown who is one of the three protagonists of The Marriage Plot, is a traditional kind of student. She adores Jane Austen, George Eliot and all the rest, and is deeply influenced by a teacher who contends that the novel reached its apogee with the twists and travails of the marriage plot. Since then, it had been all downhill: “Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely.” Madeleine’s senior thesis would be based on a Trollope epigraph – “The way of true love never works out, except at the end of an English novel” – even as she determined to disprove it in her life.
But then she hears some sinister continental names whispered round campus: “Derrida”, “Baudrillard”, “Lyotard”. She is persuaded to take Semiotics 211 and is plunged into a conspiracy of deconstructive strategies that aim to demote her beloved novels into mere “texts”, contingent, indeterminate, open-ended. As if the intellectual confusion were not enough, she finds herself weirdly intrigued by Leonard, the quiet student with the hipster gait and gnomic remarks, who is far more interesting to her than her friend Mitchell, who wants to be more than a friend but whose earnest entreaties are a turn-off.
So there we have it: the classic love triangle, the will-she, won’t-she antics of an attractive and eligible young woman, who must determine her romantic priorities in a world that derides romance and is shuffling its priorities before her very eyes. Eugenides’s meta-narrative tease is almost as engrossing as his plot: can we update those complex, emotionally absorbing classic novels for the contemporary era? Or have we been forever diverted by the conceits of literary modernism and its attendant disruptions of narrative form?
It is a bold stab, rather than an unqualified triumph. The early part of the novel, on campus life at Brown, an institution torn between its conservative instincts and the radicalisation of the student body, is funny, and its satirical barbs clearly heartfelt (Eugenides was there himself during the period in question). We can sense the author’s contempt when he quotes verbatim from Derrida: “In that sense, it is the Aufhebung of other writings, particularly of hieroglyphic script and of the Leibnizian characteristic that had been criticised previously through one and the same gesture”. Why wouldn’t you turn in a sweat to Jane Austen’s limpid prose?
Yet it has been done before, and more scathingly, by the likes of David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury. As the novel’s tone darkens, Eugenides takes on grander themes. Leonard, who gets the girl, turns out to be a manic-depressive. He is a gifted scientist whose only hope lies in science as he juggles with the correct dosages of the drugs that keep him in precarious emotional balance. Madeleine copes as well as she can, passive and powerless in the face of a turbulence she has yet to experience.
Mitchell in the meantime, smarting from not getting the girl, takes off on a world tour with his friend Larry. He travels eastwards, becoming increasingly spiritualised as he proceeds (including an interval in Athens, on which the half-Greek Eugenides cannot resist a waspish and resonant aside: “In coffee houses everyone had an informed opinion, and no one could get anything done”). He ends up in India, pushing his newly found sense of altruism to appallingly distressing limits.
In the final shakedown, the respective quests for scientific rigour and spiritual awakening are frustrated. Life is more complicated, even than those two highly complicated spheres of human activity. It really does come down to who gets the girl. There is a messy climax in a New York apartment. Yet it is somehow unsatisfying. Just when we expect Madeleine, who is overshadowed throughout by her suitors, to bloom with hard-won self-knowledge, she seems to shrink.
More uncomfortably still, her affluent and worldly wise parents take centre stage to dispense compassion and sound judgment in a way that doesn’t feel at all like the early 1980s, but very like the 19th century. Does Eugenides go too far in his little game of period transposition? The resolution is not neat but neither is it profound. Likeable as it is, there is a reason why the novels of 2011 do not centre around marriage proposals and tragically unopened letters. We really have moved on.
Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer
The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, Fourth Estate, RRP£20, 416 pages