In Review

No Salvation from Angst

By Mara Willard

With its similarly tragic sensibility of American bourgeois-intelligentsia life, Jeffrey Eugenides’ third book, The Marriage Plot (2011), joins the likes of Jonathan Franzen, Rick Moody, Jonathan Safran Foer, and David Foster Wallace in telling stories of young American men flailing in a surfeit of privilege. Their heroes, for all their talent, time, and whiteness, are nonetheless overwhelmed by the burdens that accompany existential and (relative) fiscal freedom. Perhaps most particular to this post-cold-war cohort, their characters are haunted by a self-consciousness so acute that day-to-day living is well-nigh unbearable.

The Marriage Plot and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom in particular read as parallel accounts of the same graduating class. (No surprise there: Eugenides graduated from Brown in 1983, and Franzen from Swarthmore in 1981.) In these two novels, each author poses a love triangle. Their male characters are brilliant, naïve, and self-absorbed, and, though the female characters are capable enough, they are primarily leggy and blond, ultimately caregivers lacking any compelling drive of their own. Similarly, too, although each protagonist is perpetually and inexorably drawn to the delusions and hypocrisy of adolescence, all are anxious to avoid the empty substitutions for genuine living that they perceive around them. Eugenides’ authorial stand-in, disdainful of the meaninglessness he perceives, but living a life of complicity, “thought about the people he knew, with their excellent young bodies, their summerhouses, their cool clothes, their potent drugs, their liberalism, their orgasms, their haircuts. Everything they did was either pleasurable in itself or engineered to bring pleasure down the line” (204).

Writing for The New York Times, David Brooks dismisses Freedom as “a brilliantly written book that is nonetheless trapped in an intellectual cul de sac—overly gimlet-eyed about American life and lacking an alternative vision of higher ground.” Pointedly, he objects, ““There’s almost no religion.” Whether or not the critique is fair—I am inclined to say that it is not—the challenge does pose a quandary. How, in this inherently skeptical subgenre, ruminating on the samsara of a fin de siècle world, can one credibly escape from the domination of ego and carnal desire?

Eugenides, in taking up the question of whether and how a deepened relationship with God might provide relief from such suffering, departs from his literary brethren, but is otherwise aligned with them in his character types, plot movement, and cultural milieu and critique. In particular, his protagonist Mitchell Grammaticus, who majored in religious studies, asks whether “mystical experiences” are possible in this world. He classifies such experiences, following St. Teresa’s Interior Castle and William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, as “significant only to the extent that they changed a person’s conception of reality, and if that changed conception led to a change in behavior and action, a loss of ego” (401).

When we are first introduced to him on the morning of commencement, Mitchell is experimenting with repetition of the Jesus Prayer, borrowed from J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. For Mitchell, as for many in a long Christian tradition, religion seems the only real path of escape from the obsessive and grim decadence of carnal desire. His summer reading follows the ancestry from Thomas Merton to St. John of the Cross to Meister Eckhart to The Imitation of Christ to Augustine’s Confessions. An omniscient narrator relays:

The more Mitchell read about religions, the world religions in general and Christianity in particular, the more he realized that the mystics were all saying the same thing. Enlightenment came from the extinction of desire. Desire didn’t bring fulfillment but only temporary satiety until the next temptation came along. And that was only if you were lucky enough to get what you wanted. If you didn’t, you spent your life in unrequited longing. (160)

In Mitchell, Eugenides creates a seeker like many throughout the ages, aspiring for release from the tyranny of desire and love of self through religious practice and a deepened relationship with God.

Here, Eugenides’ reflections on religious seeking are likely informed by his own experience: “I did take a lot of religious studies courses in college and got very interested in religion and thought about converting to Catholicism, even though I was brought up as a Greek Orthodox,” he has explained since the book’s publication. “I thought I wanted to become a scholar of religion,” he says in a Christian Science Monitor interview, “and I chose not to do that, and to pursue writing.”

The Marriage Plot, self-conscious in its late-twentieth-century American phrasing, also asks readers to consider what a religious search might look like for the Class of ’82. After graduation, Mitchell travels east, through Europe, North Africa, and Greece, on a pilgrimage that brings him to Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying in Calcutta.

Writing of pilgrimage, prayers, and lighting candles in the “dark, superstitious spaces” of Europe, Eugenides depicts Mitchell as barely able to tolerate the experimental movements of encounter or prayer. Religious practitioners and believers, when they do enter the narrative, are credulous and creepy. When asked at a crucial moment of his searching, “Are you a Christian?” Mitchell hesitates to answer, thinking to himself, “The worst thing about religion was religious people” (214).

Mitchell’s skepticism and searing self-consciousness yield a religious search chagrined by its eagerness. His search for God is embarrassing to himself and a secret to others, and he stashes the works of Christian mystics like pornography at the bottom of his backpack. For all his echoes of Augustine, then, Eugenides’ seekers are also distinctively post-Nietzschean. As he ducks into the naves of Europe’s great cathedrals, his furtiveness echoes his traveling companion’s trolling for sexual encounters, with neither one commenting on the other’s illicit desires. “Mitchell was perfectly aware of how strangely he was behaving,” the narrator observes:

But it didn’t matter because no one was around to notice. In stiff-backed pews, smelling candle wax, he closed his eyes and sat as still as possible, opening himself up to whatever was there that might be interested in him. Maybe there was nothing. But how would you ever know if you didn’t send out a signal? That’s what Mitchell was doing: he was sending out a signal to the home office. (202)

Eugenides is at pains to frame religious search with his characters’ rationalism and intelligence. Back at Brown, Mitchell has casually realized the fantasy of being singularly summoned by an esteemed professor. “I’ve taught at this college for twenty-two years,” the elder German man begins, as preface to a discussion of Mitchell’s paper for the course “Religion and Alienation.” “In all of that time, only once have I received a paper that displays the depth of insight and philosophical acumen that yours does . . .” (97). The professor proceeds to promise he would personally “see to it” that Mitchell would receive a full scholarship to Princeton Theological Seminary, “Or to Harvard or Yale Divinity School, if you so prefer.” All this for a paper on which Mitchell had “worked hard but effortlessly.”

For Leonard, Mitchell’s foil, intellectual work is similarly effortless. He is “the guy who could write a twenty-page paper on Spinoza with his left hand while playing chess with his right” (108). Yet, this genius, we find, as Eugenides’ cadences shift, is haunted not only by desire and self-consciousness, but also by the perils of bipolar disorder. Leonard finds his own mania delightful, ecstatic, lit by fabulous desire, and responsible for bringing him the experience of ostensible transcendence. Such mania, however, is destructive to both its host and those around him. Reduced to a grim, lithium-induced, animal-level of functioning between mania and depression, Leonard is stripped of desire, performance, and insight. This is a state of no-self that he finds unbearable, debasing, yet one to which he must learn to habituate himself in order to survive.

Leonard, in conversation with Mitchell late in the book, poignantly states: “This is the deal with me . . . I’m ready to make the Kierkegaardian leap. My heart’s ready. My brain’s ready. But my legs won’t budge. I can say ‘Jump’ all day long. Nothing happens” (401). Despite the sincerity of their desires to escape the claustrophobia of ego, Eugenides’ characters cannot overcome their habituated skepticism and rationality.

Eugenides, then, offers a better diagnosis than cure. One character, a Christian living abroad, poses the challenge that the author leaves unanswered. “It’s a funny thing,” the believer tells Mitchell:

You’re born in America. You grow up and what do they tell you? They tell you that you have a right to the pursuit of happiness. And that the way to be happy is to get a lot of nice stuff, right? I did all that. Had a house, a job, a boyfriend. But I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t happy because all I did every day was think about myself. I thought that the world revolved around me. But guess what? It doesn’t. (215)

If the world doesn’t revolve around “me,” what does the world revolve around? Eugenides does not seem to agree that, as this woman proposes, the answer is the Christian God or salvation through Jesus Christ.

When a still small voice does reach Mitchell, it is in leafy New Jersey, at a Quaker meeting of Prius drivers, and it is to deliver mundane news on vocation and the resolution of the marriage plot. The “voice also told Mitchell that, in addition to never living with Madeleine, he would never go to divinity school, either. It was unclear what he was going to do with his life, but he wasn’t going to be a monk, or a minister, or even a scholar. . . . But that was all the understanding the Light brought him” (405). This domestic mystical experience, born of weekly practice and received in community, is the only insight Mitchell is offered.

Eugenides offers a handful of characters who do escape the rule of attachment and longing. Yet, rather than moving fluidly into a mystical experience of greater reality, these figures have come to live a quotidian life of nonattachment. One eloquent ascetic life is that of the scientist MacGregor, who is amused rather than gratified by receiving the Nobel Prize. Focused instead on the satisfaction she receives from watching her dog run the length of the beach, MacGregor declares: “I don’t know why it makes me so happy to watch my dog run.” She further notes: ” ‘She’s not very attached to me. . . . She’ll go to anyone. If I died, she’d forget me in a second. Wouldn’t you?’ she said, calling the poodle over and scratching her vigorously under the chin. ‘‘Yes, you would. You would, you would’ ” (201).

In the end, for all the time, plot, and character rendition that Eugenides realizes through a discussion of religion, the authorial voice does not give much reflection to theology or metaphysics. Mitchell’s and Leonard’s world is not one in which God is present, but hidden or manifesting in glimpses of immanence. God is always elsewhere: not in Providence, and not in Detroit in the Greek Orthodoxy of Mitchell’s own family. The novel’s prose is not enriched by metaphorical use of religious language or imagery. Religious seeking becomes merely an idiosyncratic trope in a world of keg parties, graduate school admissions anxieties, American Express checks, and Riverside Drive real estate deals.

Thus, The Marriage Plot leaves us with an excellent bibliography, ranging from the medieval mystics to Tolstoy to eponymous Victorian plot writers to late-twentieth-century semioticians. But Eugenides himself, for all the wary integrity that he is willing to grant the religious pilgrimage into this late age, poses little escape from the drama and angst of the immanent frame. What he offers in counsel to his generation is less “Seek God” than “Get a dog.”


The Marriage Plot: A Novel, by Jeffrey Eugenides. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 416 pages, $28

Mara Willard, MDiv ’04, PhD ’11, is Lecturer on Religion and Society at Harvard Divinity School, 2012–13.

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