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.