It’s hard to imagine a more convenient setting for a coming-of-age novel than a college campus, that universe of old buildings and young people, full of ambition and vulnerability and alcohol. It’s a backdrop so closely associated with the American experience that it’s easily caricatured, set apart from the academy: a portrait of youth unencumbered by the weight of intellectualism.
The inability or unwillingness of even great writers to depict college as both social and cerebral (See: Wolfe, Tom, “I am Charlotte Simmons”) makes Jeffrey Eugenides’ new novel, “The Marriage Plot,” all the more impressive. Eugenides focuses on three Brown University undergraduates (Madeline, Leonard and Mitchell) who are as infatuated with Victorian literature, esoteric theology and evolutionary biology as they are with one another.
Their literary diets are more than signifiers. Dorm room bookshelves are themselves characters in a work that wrestles as much with the state of the academy as it does with the state of 1980s-era 22-year-olds.
Take the book’s first sentences about Madeline’s bookshelves:
“To start with, look at all the books. There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Bronte sisters.”
We know from the start, then, that this isn’t going to be a romp through the careless debauchery and hollow soul-searching too often associated with a liberal arts education. This is a book about books, and the young people who love them. Even more boldly, it’s a book about how the teaching of literature evolved over the second half of the 20th century--how literary criticism encroached upon, and then overtook, the reading of novels.
Eugenides doesn’t much care what this means for the future of the discipline (he’s not writing for the New Criterion). He cares what it means for young students, whose vulnerability and naked enthusiasm show primarily in their reverence for all things intellectual, whose reading of French literary theory might inform their opinions about God or love or death.
In “The Marriage Plot,” the books come first, and the search for self — earnest, naive and desperate — follows. And though the cultural references scattered throughout the novel will either sting the reader with nostalgia for an undergraduate semiotics course or collapse without meaning into the author’s own marriage plot — that’s just fine. Such insularity is at the heart of the academic romance, and in this case, the academic love triangle. Madeline loves that Leonard loves Roland Barthes. Instead of love notes, Mitchell scrawls “Ulysses” quotations on Madeline’s door.
Their immaturity is not manifested in the frat party transgressions of Charlotte Simmons, but in a wholehearted, even reckless, embrace of good writing, and writing about good writing. Eugenides’s characters are temporarily bound together by that obsession.
When it fades in the years after graduation, numbed by time outside the academy, we’re struck by two competing impulses.
We feel vindicated that Madeline, Leonard and Mitchell have discovered the disjunction between a liberal arts education and the world outside their campus gates. And we pity the three of them, because their love of learning, and of one another, will never again be so sweet and all-consuming.