Jeffrey Eugenides – The Marriage Plot

Mitchell loves Madeleine. Madeleine loves Leonard. Things blur, stuff happens, a novel ensues – but the reason for reviewing it here, is the fact that one of the main characters is manic depressive. (The word bipolar never appears. It’s the 80s.)

“My God!” Leonard said. “A noun! I’ve never even dreamed of being a noun.”

“What would Bankheadian mean?”

Leonard thought for a second. “‘Of or related to Leonard Bankhead (American, born 1959), characterized by excessive introspection or worry. Gloomy, depressive. See basket case.’”

We meet Leonard as a college hottie with a deep soul and a shiny mind. His neurobiological disorder (ahem) is introduced as the plot in general thickens. It’s portrayed in respectful, simplistic, but frequently poetic fashion and it doesn’t put a foot wrong.

For a while, the Disease—which was still nameless at the time—cooed to him. It said, Come closer. It flattered Leonard that he felt more than most people; he was more sensitive,

You know how in some books, the research is as visible as Bridget Jones panty line? In this book, only the manic depression has that characteristic. It gives a good overview in a blatant way. It diminished my empathy for Leonard a bit, unfortunately. He came across as sulky and his alleged dark depths seemed contrived to me.

“What’s the matter with you, Leonard?” Rita asked.

Anger flared in him. For a moment, it felt like old times. “Well, let’s see. First of all, my parents are alcoholics. One of them is probably manic-depressive herself, only undiagnosed. I inherited my condition from her. We both suffer from the same form of the illness. We’re not rapid cyclers. We don’t go from high to low in a few hours. We ride these long waves of mania or depression. My brain’s chemically starved for the neurotransmitters it needs to regulate my moods and then sometimes it’s oversupplied with them. I’m messed up biologically because of my genetics and psychologically because of my parents, is what’s the matter with me, Mom.”

As the plot thickens further, the dynamics become more complex and interesting. Other people’s reactions to Leonard’s manic depression are eerily accurate. Once the intro to the disorder is over with, it’s much easier to just get into the story.

Leonard stood rooted to the floor. His eyes were filling, but if he kept blinking fast enough, no tears fell. As much as he hated his lithium, here it was his friend. Leonard could feel the huge tide of sadness waiting to rush over him. But there was an invisible barrier keeping the full reality of it from touching him. It was like squeezing a baggie full of water and feeling all the properties of the liquid without getting wet. So there was at least that to be grateful for. The life that was ruined wasn’t entirely his.

The Leonard/Madeleine segments of the novel become a tragedy of manners, as issues beyond manic depression begin to show.

Eugenides keeps getting it right:

Leonard understood why psychiatrists did what they did. Their imperative, when confronted with a manic-depressive patient, was to nuke the symptoms out of existence. Given the high suicidality of manic-depressives, that was the prudent course of action. Leonard agreed with it. Where he differed was in managing the illness. Doctors counseled patience. They insisted that the body would adjust. And, to an extent, it did. After a while, you’d been on the drugs so long that you couldn’t remember what it felt like to be normal. That was how you adjusted.

It’s right, but somehow unsympathetic; it’s all too superficial. Eugenides is not bipolar.

The Guardian‘s comprehensive review sums up the disorder’s (clunky) role in the plot well:

He also turns out to be clinically bipolar (Eugenides’s one concession to his old interest in pathological conditions) but Madeleine marries him all the same, and therein lies the book’s main source of tension: how is “positive, privileged, sheltered, exemplary” Madeleine, who “instinctively avoided unstable people”, going to acquit herself, having chosen this loose cannon for her mate? Will she stay the course? Will the long-suffering Mitchell, trying out various forms of religion and do-gooding (including a stint with Mother Teresa in India) while he endures his rejection, begin to look more tempting when Leonard goes off his meds and starts cracking up?

What do you reckon? Does the manic depressive get a happy ending? Will you care?

I’d like to recommend that you read Juliann Garey’s Too Bright To Hear Too Loud To See instead. And apologies if I got that title arse-about-face yet again.

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