Many disclaimers precede Jeffrey Eugenides's much-anticipated new novel, The Marriage Plot, a big bath of a book that revives the conventions of the great Victorian novel in order to serve a thoroughly contemporary story about three bright college graduates stumbling blindly into adulthood during the early 1980s.
Only his third published novel and his first since Middlesex, published nine years ago, The Marriage Plot has arrived in stores with a thud recalling if not quite matching that which marked the arrival of last year's Great American Novel, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. So the heat is on.
First, Eugenides makes clear, The Marriage Plot is not autobiographical – a denial made necessary by the many overt similarities between his own life and that of Mitchell Grammaticus, one of the three points of the love triangle that structures the book. Mitchell shares the author's age, ethnic background and home town, his choice of university (Brown) and his religious quests, even his affectations.
Denying autobiographical inspiration is a routine Eugenides practised to perfection when quizzed about similar coincidences in Middlesex. He tried to cover his tracks in early drafts of what became The Marriage Plot, Eugenides says on the phone from his home in Princeton, N.J. "But finally I thought, 'Oh, what's the use of that? I remember what it was like.' " he says. "It's hard enough to write a novel without also having to change details just for the hell of it."
This time around, the 51-year-old author is also being forced to respond to early readers who claim that his new novel's second male lead, the brilliant and depressive Leonard Bankhead, is based closely on the late literary celebrity David Foster Wallace.
Since Eugenides denied the connection in an interview with The Wall Street Journal last month, a lively scavenger hunt for contrary evidence has erupted on the Internet, the most recent find being a statement made by Leonard – "Do you have my saliva? Because I can't find mine right now" – that closely matches one made by Wallace in a 1996 New York Times profile.
In response, the author suggests the hunters "spend too much time on the Internet."
More emphatically, Eugenides disclaims any suggestion that he has somehow gone native – as in Victorian – with The Marriage Plot, which focuses on an ardent but confused young woman's struggle to choose between two unsuitable suitors in an explicitly acknowledged variation on the classic "marriage plot" of the 19th-century novel.
The echoes are amplified by the fact that the young heroine, Madeleine Hanna, is herself a budding Victorianist who has chosen the marriage plot as the subject of her graduate thesis.
"I didn't sit down to try to recreate a Jane Austen novel," Eugenides explains. "I would only want to write a contemporary novel." And such novels can neither revel in a propitious marriage nor, in light of easy divorce, can they dwell on a tragic one. "My intention was to see how one could write a marriage plot that would be true to the conditions in which we live today," Eugenides says, "and especially the conditions in which women live today."
Women, moreover, whose expectations of romance have been deeply conditioned by what they have read. The "guiding principle of the book," according to the author, resides in an epigraph taken from La Rochefoucauld: "People would never fall in love if they hadn't heard love talked about."
In true postmodern fashion, Eugenides both indulges in and comments on a traditional form. "You can read my book in a sly, postmodern, semiotic way, or you can read it as a traditional love story," he says. "I'm earnest about the love story. I'm not making fun of it or doing it as a pastiche. People still do fall in love and make disastrous decisions."
Eugenides employs the same two-handedness in treating his traditionally minded heroine's encounter with semiotics, veering between bitingly satirical and earnestly appreciative of the academic craze "that crashed on American shores in the late seventies" and decimated the tweedy literary establishment of Madeleine's Ivy League.
"It had the intensity of a cult, so there was a kind of inherent comedy to it," the author says, "and the writing is famously obscure and easy to make fun of. But then there are people like Roland Barthes who are beautiful writers and interesting thinkers. I was both attracted to it and repelled by it, stultified and edified by it at the same time."
With her literary loyalties divided as they are between Mrs. Gaskell and Barthes, Madeleine's emotional life is whipsawed between the Jekyll and Hyde personalities of her charismatic lover, Leonard, who like David Foster Wallace chews tobacco and wears a bandana tied around his head.
"From the beginning of writing about her, I knew she had a boyfriend with manic depression," Eugenides says. "What interested me was that such people can be the most entertaining, energetic, charming people in the world – and they can also be the neediest and the gloomiest."
Neither medical research nor literary friendship guided his exploration of Leonard's psychology, according to Eugenides. "I was just in my imagination trying to feel what it would be like to have this disease come on you," he says. He drew more directly on his own experience in describing Mitchell's tragicomic quest for religious enlightenment in Mother Teresa's Calcutta. But none of the main characters is anything less than fully imagined.
It is "the depth of the characterization and the very strong pull of those narratives" that keep 19th-century literature alive today, according to Eugenides, and in those vital respects The Marriage Plot is proudly imitative, combining both to create the "shock of recognition" that only classically realistic novels can provide.
"When realistic novels work, they work like nothing else," Eugenides says. The great tradition remains intact. "I can't imagine it's going to perish."
Certainly not as long as such knowing writers as him are plying the trade. No disclaimers are necessary.