On Peeps, Soap Operas, and (Yawn) Mental Illness

ImageI wanted to like Jeffrey Eugenides’ most recent book, The Marriage Plot.  I really did.  I actually enjoyed reading it, most of the time, but it was like eating Peeps: you put them in your mouth, they taste sweet, but there’s nothing there.  And then you want another one.

To be clear: I don’t want to read another book like this.  But I found it hard to put down, even though I didn’t really like it and was often thinking about all the things that were wrong with it while I was reading (intellectual multitasking I learned in grad school).  Then I started thinking about why I couldn’t stop reading it even though I didn’t really like it: what else could I compare it to?  Well, Peeps, obviously.  But the best cultural equivalent I could think of was the soap opera.  The Marriage Plot is a literary soap opera.  A soap opera set in 1982, whose characters are over-privileged recent college graduates (from Brown, Eugenides’ alma mater, natch), and therefore have a lot of sex, do a lot of drugs, and narcissistically obsess about who they are.

The twist, or the plot point that Eugenides must have thought would make this into a serious novel, is that one of the characters is mentally ill.  Much of the novel is devoted to how he and those who care about him (well, only one person, really, because his mother is painted as an unremittingly narcissistic alcoholic bitch, and his sister and father are basically absent) try to cope with his mental illness.  I understand why that is the big Serious Thing here, and in 1982 I’m sure bipolar disorder (the mental illness in question) was a much bigger deal than it is now, in the age of XanaxProzacZoloftCymbaltaEtc, but the truth is it’s just not that interesting.  It’s probable that this lack of interestingness is Eugenides’ fault, and not the fault of mental illness, which, it seems to me, could potentially offer something in the way of complicated and fascinating character studies.  There’s just no real exploration of the illness or what it means, other than medication side effects (boring!), relationship problems (boring!), and a brief and pretty sketchy moment from the perspective of the bipolar character (not totally boring, but pretty much what you would have predicted or could have gleaned from any first-person account of mental illness you’ve read, and the fact that I know you’ve read some points to one of the problems with this book right there).

I also found the novel’s treatment of the inevitable class and social differences between its Ivy-League-educated characters predictable and tiresome, as well as (see above) insufficiently explored.  Maybe it’s because I went to an Ivy-League school as a Midwestern public-school graduate who didn’t learn that “summer” was a verb until my first year in college, but my basic feeling about these supposed anxieties on the part of the characters from modest backgrounds was: get over it.  You just graduated from one of the most highly regarded universities in the U.S., you’re basically set up for life, so please stop fretting over how uncultured your parents are or the fact that you grew up in a (huge, beautiful) house where the last inhabitant was murdered in the hallway just because that’s all your dad could afford (seriously – I did not make that up).  The whole thing rang false to me, and I ended up disliking the characters for it, each in their own particular way.

I really liked Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides, both as different from each other as they are from The Marriage Plot, but on thinking about Jeffrey Eugenides’ trajectory as a whole, I have come to the unfortunate conclusion that it’s probably sliding slowly downhill.  I will not much look forward to his next book (sometime next decade, at this rate), but I’ll hope to be proven wrong.

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