- Jeffrey Eugenides insists his new novel is not a roman à clef. But it might have been: The writers of his generation had youths tangled enough for ten novels:
And when readers open Eugenides’s long-awaited and absorbing new novel, The Marriage Plot, published this week, they’ll find a character who looks very much like Wallace—bandanna, chewing tobacco, expertise in philosophy, struggle with mental illness. Another character looks a lot like Eugenides—a Greek-American from Detroit engaged in religious studies at Brown who takes a big trip abroad and ends up volunteering for Mother Teresa in India. In the book, the two are rivals, and while Eugenides insists the resemblance to Wallace is unintentional, The Marriage Plot is unmistakably a portrait of the author’s youth and of the loyalties and rivalries that so often arise among ambitious young friends. (Much of the early chatter surrounding the novel has been a who’s-who inside-baseball guessing game.) At once a love story, a campus novel, and a bildungsroman, The Marriage Plot is stocked with literary references and choreographed to provide the great page-turning pleasures of realistic fiction—very knowingly. It’s the latest salvo, that is, in the debate that has occupied Eugenides’s generation for 25 years, about what exactly fiction is for and how a crew of literary newcomers might revive the American novel, which seemed to many of them in danger of irrelevance. The Marriage Plot invites us back to that era when the author and his contemporaries were just starting to rewire their aspirations. What makes the backstory so intriguing is who this crowd was and who they came to be.