November 17, 2012 by markstani
Seldom if ever has there been a writer whom I’ve understood less but loved more than Jeffrey Eugenides. Rooted in the high-minded, Ivy League academia so beloved of those heavyweight American peers with whom his work bears comparison – Roth, Mailer, Oates etc – Eugenides’ work is staggeringly researched, intricately detailed and often extraordinarily complex. But where Eugenides triumphs in all three of his novels to date is that beneath the thick veneer of intellectualism and the inherent seriousness of his subjects lies a story that is never anything less than compellingly human.
Eugenides’ 1993 debut, ‘The Virgin Suicides’ was, in my opinion, one of the most devastatingly brilliant breakdowns of the torture of adolescence that you’ll ever read. His follow-up over a decade later, the mighty, multi-generational ‘Middlesex’ – the tale of a hermaphrodite called Callie – carried off the Pulitzer Prize.
The Marriage Plot (pub. Fourth Estate) carries the reader deep into the heart of a love triangle at the centre of which is a literature student, Madeleine Hanna, who is writing her senior thesis on the works of classic romanticists such as Jane Austen and George Eliot. And in many respects that is exactly what ‘The Marriage Plot’ remains: a detailed examination of the age-old dilemma facing Madeleine as she is forced to choose between a charismatic but troubled science major, Leonard Bankhead, and Mitchell Grammaticus, a religious studies student whose sprawling quest to lend his life meaning leads him to the conclusion that his long-time platonic friend Madeleine is destined to end up his wife.
Of course, when you’re talking about a writer as ambitious in scope as Jeffrey Eugenides, it is always going to be rather more than that. The novel’s remarkable, multi-faceted back-stories steer us through more multi-generational strife, through the pertinence of centuries-old philosophies, through mutating yeast cells, Indian mysticism and, in what is arguably an already great book’s finest moment, a riveting account of a character’s descent into mental illness.
So far, so superb. But what really sets Eugenides apart – and I mean from almost everyone, including, in my opinion, those titans I’ve already mentioned above – is that his work is never cold, never clinical, never cynical. He writes with a warm and careful beauty rarely seen at such an elevated level of literature. He retains a real empathy for his characters and the predicaments they find themselves in. He aims at the centre of the human heart and hits the target every time, making the core of his work something with which we can all identify. In that sense, for all its fundamental complexities, Eugenides’ work is voraciously readable, and achingly real.
If his history is anything to go by, it will probably be another decade before Eugenides’ fourth novel emerges. He shows no sign of marking his ascent into the firmament of living novelists by becoming as prolific as, say, Oates. His greatest fans should celebrate the fact that his work arrives so sparingly. It is all the better for it, and unquestionably worth the wait.