Contemporary Novels

THE MARRIAGE PLOT by Jeffery Eugenides

For a change of pace, I’m going to skip my usual format and focus on two moments in Jeffery Eugenides’ superb 2011 novel, THE MARRIAGE PLOT. The story starts as a somewhat conventional love triangle formed by three graduating seniors at Brown University in 1982. Madeleine is in love with literature, and the opening paragraphs catalogue the books in her bedroom. She’s also in love with Leonard, a brilliant but emotionally unstable biologist. And she is loved by Mitchell, who is finding himself increasingly drawn to a Dostoevskian religious mysticism.

The charms of the book are plentiful–clear prose with seductive rhythms; deeply imbedded narrative viewpoints; backstories and contradictions that make the characters rich and believable; carefully chosen details that bring the various settings to life. The book is full of unexpected twists without it ever turning into a suspense novel. The very setup is heartbreaking–I cared so much for all of these characters, but knew it was impossible for them all to get what they wanted.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.

THE MARRIAGE PLOT is a master class in using allusion, cultural references, and arcane information to deepen the reading experience. Consider the following moment, late in the book, as Madeleine and Leonard arrive by train at Penn Station. This is all from Madeleine’s viewpoint.

Madeleine led Leonard away from the packed escalators to a less trafficked stairwell, where they climbed up to the lobby. A few minutes later they stepped into the heat and light of Eighth Avenue. It was just after six.

As they joined the taxi line, Leonard eyed the nearby buildings, as though worried they were going to topple on him.

“New York,” he said. “Just like I pictured it.”

It was his last little joke. When they got in a cab and were heading uptown, Leonard asked the driver if he could please turn on the air conditioning. The driver said it was broken. Leonard rolled down the window, hanging his head out like a dog. For a moment, Madeleine regretted bringing him along. [p.370]

This is far from Leonard’s first trip to New York, so Madeleine interprets his acting like a rube as a “little joke,” as, probably, would most of Eugenides’ readers. However, if you, like me, consider the INNERVISIONS album by Stevie Wonder to be one of the masterpieces of the 20th century, you immediately recognized that quote from the dramatic interlude near the end of “Living for the City,” cut 3, side 1. And you know that the narrator who speaks those lines on the record is just about to step into a world of hurt.

I don’t believe Madeleine got the reference. I think if she had, she would have remarked on it. She might have even responded with the next line, “Skyscrapers and everything,” which is what I hope I would have done in the circumstances. And I don’t believe Leonard intended her to get it. He’s talking to himself, entertaining himself, isolating himself, as he has been doing increasingly, because by this point in the story Leonard is seriously mentally ill.

Eugenides could have had Madeleine recognize the quote, but that would have been out of character, and part of Leonard’s intention was to exclude her. Eugenides left this complex and fraught moment to carry its own weight, a gift for the readers who would appreciate it, letting them feel even greater empathy for Leonard because of a shared love of the song.

It’s a great trick–but it doesn’t always work. And that brings me to the second moment I want to talk about. (Warning: This is going to get very “inside baseball.”) Much earlier in the book, Madeleine and Leonard are driving to his new job on Cape Cod. Madeleine is again the viewpoint.

Madeleine had a Pure Prairie League tape that Leonard tolerated until they stopped at a gas station with a minimart, when he bought a cassette of Led Zeppelin’s Greatest Hits and played it the rest of the way over the Sagamore Bridge and onto the peninsula. [p. 172-3]

Now, many readers will know that Atlantic Records never released an album called Led Zeppelin’s Greatest Hits. For one thing, Zep was the quintessential FM radio band and rarely bothered to release songs on singles–thus they had almost no “hits” as traditionally defined. They didn’t even have a “best of” compilation until the 1990 eponymous 4-CD boxed set.

But wait. Eugenides makes a point that Leonard bought this cassette at a gas station. And in 1982 it was not unusual to find pirate tapes at gas stations. (There are three main types of illegal recordings. Bootlegs offer material that’s not available elsewhere. Counterfeits attempt to mimic content and packaging of an existing legitimate release. Pirate recordings typically come in generic packaging and use authentic content without paying for it, sometimes copying whole albums, sometimes putting together previously non-existent greatest hits packages.)

So did Eugenides erroneously assume there was an official Zep Greatest Hits album? Or does he perhaps own a copy of this very pirate cassette, which he bought at a gas station on 1982? It doesn’t really matter. This moment doesn’t work as well as the Wonder reference because it can pull the reader out of the narrative flow and make us start asking just those sorts of questions.

Had we been in Leonard’s viewpoint, he might well have put the word “pirate” in front of the word “cassette,” preempting any confusion. But this is Madeleine speaking, and so we’re left to guess. Which makes the Wonder reference that much more impressive, because Eugenides pulls that one off without Madeleine’s help.

Fortunately, THE MARRIAGE PLOT is full of stealth cleverness of the Wonder sort and few stumbles of the Zep variety. Because the characters themselves are so smart and so well read, it’s all the more impressive that Eugenides can keep up with them, showing their brilliance rather than having to tell us about it.

And if, every once in a while, I had to stop and mull something over, well, better to think twice than not at all.

Contemporary Novels

THE TURNOUT by Megan Abbott

Did Megan Abbott set out to ask why any woman would ever vote for Donald Trump? Maybe not, but it’s certainly one of the many ways to read this powerful, addictive, deeply disturbing book.

THE TURNOUT is her third novel set in the world of teenage female athletes, after DARE ME (cheerleaders) and YOU WILL KNOW MY NAME (gymnasts), and it’s as different from the two earlier books as they are from each other.

Abbott’s viewpoint character is Dara Durant, who owns a ballet studio with her husband Charlie and her one-year-younger sister Marie–all three of them former dancers. Fragile, traumatized Marie has slowly been coming apart for months. When a fire badly damages the school, Marie’s behavior becomes even more erratic and self-destructive. Her timing couldn’t be worse, as they have just started rehearsals for THE NUTCRACKER, the annual make-it-or-break-it event for the struggling business.

Tension escalates when they bring in a highly recommended contractor to make the repairs. Derek is physically huge and intimidating, boorish, narcissistic, crudely sexual, and an unapologetic misogynist. He’s also a lousy contractor.

This is not the book you buy for your 6-year-old niece who just landed her first stage role as a Snowflake. Aside from the graphic sex, violence, and language, Abbott is determined to rip away every last shred of romance about the dancer’s life. Charlie, who had the most promise of the three of them, is now in constant pain and taking huge doses of muscle relaxants. Dara’s bones creak and pop when she gets out of bed in the morning.

But Abbott saves her most gruesome descriptions for the dancer’s feet–or “hooves” as she calls them at one point: “Blood blisters, soles like red onions, feet that peeled fully tip to toe every month or so, calluses thick as canvas, toes curled sideways, necrotic, ulcerated toes, their nails dropping off, clattering to the floor.”

The teenage dancers starve themselves and hate the sight of themselves in the mirror. They cut each other with words and occasionally with razor blades. They will stop at nothing to advance their careers–which have barely begun and yet are nearly over.

THE TURNOUT is much more than a locker-room exposé, more than a study of toxic masculinity. It deals with the long, often multi-generational fallout of dysfunctional families; it illuminates sexual power games; and, every once in a while, it shows the transcendent joy of dancing and surrendering yourself to music.

However, this is a Megan Abbott novel, which means it is also relentlessly suspenseful. There are family secrets (of course) and plot twists, a few of which I saw coming and most of which opened trap doors under my feet. Kudus to Abbott for taking the my-parents-died-in-a-car-wreck-when-I-was-a-kid chestnut–so often a lazy writer’s way of avoiding complex relationships–and making it integral to the story.

As to despots, Abbott’s message is clear–once you let them in, they can be nearly impossible to get rid of. As recent history has shown.

Contemporary Novels


How do you write about unbearable suffering without your writing becoming insufferable or unbearable?

If you’re Carolyn Ferrell, you do it with a combination of dazzling pyrotechnics and sucker punches to the gut. Imagine a three-way collaboration between Thomas Harris, Vladimir Nabokov, and Richard Pryor. And if you think that sounds nuts, wait till halfway through the book when Ferrell starts flashing forward to the year 2039.

The plot deals with the kidnapping of three barely pubescent girls in 1999 by a psychopath who calls himself Boss Man. They are raped, starved, and tortured. For ten years.

Let that sink in for a minute.

When the cops finally show up, one of the three “girls”–now women–is missing, and in her place is her infant daughter. All three will spend the next thirty years–and presumably more–trying to make sense of what happened to them.

You can feel Farrell’s glee as she smashes the Rules of Fiction as if they were plate-glass windows. The novel careens through time and space, from character to character to documents and photographs and poems. Here it wanders into the weeds to read a 31-page transcription of one character’s answers to a 26-part questionnaire (we never see the questions). Elsewhere it swoops into the consciousness of the titular Miss Metropolitan, advice columnist long past her relevance, who just happened to live across the street from the abandoned building where the girls were kept chained up.

And speaking of Miss Metropolitan, she gives voice to one of the many entirely serious questions that Farrell raises. How, she wonders, could she have walked past those girls every day for ten years? (As, of course, all of us unknowingly walk past women being tortured everywhere.)

And so, in her bumbling attempt to make up for her inaction, Miss Metropolitan becomes the apotheosis of all the well- (and not so well) meaning do-gooders who are drawn irresistibly to the victims. Like “TV’s Dr. Ezra”–unfailingly referred to by that tripartite designation–who shows up in the wake of the ambulance, looking for a ratings boost. Or the genuinely kind, and over-aptly named social worker, Ms. Refuge.

Everyone was trying to communicate. Doctors from other hospitals. Nurses with girls at home like us. Firemen who’d taken up a collection. An elementary school in Bayside that had written a bag of letters. A school in the Bronx, one in Alphabet City. More doctors. Police officers with girls at home like us. One or two retired school teachers. Pastors. Rabbis. General Rabble of God. But also people that didn’t believe in God. People that blamed God. Everyone trying to impart something. A lesson, a hope, a regret, a condemnation. What are they saying, Gwinnie whispered, her eyes as wide as proverbial flying saucers. We’d been in the picnic chair hospital for just over fourteen Mickey Mouse calendar days. Try listening, I said back. They’re forming words. We can learn their language if we try.

The first sentence, repeated over and over: What he did, girls, was wrong.

Second sentence: You are the real victims here, no matter what.

Good lord, Gwinnie said. I thought they were saying something new.

I’m not going to recommend DEAR MISS METROPOLITAN to everyone. Some might feel that its moments of zany humor trivialize the seriousness of the characters’ suffering. We never learn Boss Man’s origin story, or his eventual fate. The central “mystery” of the missing third victim is never fully tied up. In short, the more you want this book to resemble a conventional suspense novel, the more disappointed you’re likely to be.

On the other hand, if you can handle sitting in the passenger seat while a novelist drunk on her own brilliance rams the gas pedal through the floorboards, DEAR MISS METROPOLITAN might be just what you didn’t know you were looking for.