“Please Tell Me”

Ian McEwan just wrote me about the new book and said, ‘People say there’s not a class system in America,'” Jeffrey Eugenides tells the Paris Review. “‘Now I know there is, and I can tell them what to read if they don’t know.’ I didn’t know The Marriage Plot was that much about the class system, but I guess it is.”

It isn’t. Or, more precisely, it’s a disservice to say it’s solely about that. But Eugenides doesn’t ignore the subject, and it makes a difference. A novelist who writes about people trying to make their way in the world fresh out of college has an easier time focusing on matters of love or work, and you couldn’t blame an author for avoiding such characters entirely, for fear of generating a batch of solipsistic kids. (Exhibit A here, at least for novels in recent memory, is Keith Gessen‘s All the Sad Young Literary Men.) Dave Eggers once recommended skipping the parts of his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, “which concern the lives of people in their early twenties…. [T]hose lives are very difficult to make interesting, even when they seemed interesting to those living them at the time.” Rightly so.

But Eugenides isn’t only interested in what his characters feel about themselves, or how they feel about others—he wants clarify where they fit in, classwise, and how that guides their motivations. That issue isn’t so pronounced in the case of Madeleine, a young WASP. She worries about what she’ll do after Brown, but not with whether she’ll succeed at whatever she does; when she decides to be a Victorianist, she treats it as a fait accompli, with her failure to get into Yale for graduate school more an irritating roadblock than a firm judgment on her talents. Mental illness is the biggest concern for Leonard, the man she falls for, but even in the midst of his despair he’s attuned to where he stands in the relationship. He knows he won’t quite measure up to the demands of his girlfriend’s parents:

Leonard didn’t believe for a minute that Madeleine’s mother’s objection to him had only to do with his manic depression. The manic depression was just the more allowable of her prejudices. She couldn’t have been thrilled that, instead of being Old Money, he was just Old Portland, or that he looked to her like someone in a motorcycle gang, or that he smelled of cheap gas station cigars.

The class issue is most pronounced, though, in Mitchell, the third leg of the novel’s triangle. His emotional and spiritual awakening is the most powerful story The Marriage Plot has to tell—he’s the only character of the three who could carry his own book, and much of his character is driven by his eagerness to rise above his provincial childhood. After college he heads to Europe with Larry Pleshette, a friend to whom he’s not especially close but who has a lot to teach him:

Since coming east to college, Mitchell had been trying to wash the Midwest off himself. Sitting around in Larry’s room, drinking the muddy espresso Larry made and hearing him talk about “the theater of the absurd,” seemed like a good way to start…. The Pleshettes’ refrigerator was the first place Mitchell had encountered gourmet ice cream. He still remembered the thrill of it: coming down to the kitchen one morning, the majestic Hudson visible in the window, and opening the freezer to see the small round tub of exotically named ice cream. Not a greedy half gallon, as they had at Mitchell’s house in Michigan, not cheap ice milk, not vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry but a flavor he had never dreamed of before, with a name as lyrical as the Berryman poems he was reading for his American poetry class: rum raisin. Ice cream that was also a drink! In a precious pint-size container. Six of these lined up next to six bags of dark French roast Zabar’s coffee. What was Zabars? How did you get there? What was lox? Why was it orange? Did the Pleshettes really eat fish for breakfast? Who was Diaghliev? What was a gouache, a pentimento, a rugelach? Please tell me, Mitchell’s face silently pleaded throughout his visits.

There’s a lot to love in that passage, not least the way it encapsulates how class anxiety often works—Mitchell is confronted with something unfamiliar but ostensibly high-class, and a whole avalanche of concerns that have nothing to do with a tiny tub of ice cream pile in. (“Who was Diaghliev?”) The other thing about the passage—and it’s part of a much longer one on the subject—is that Mitchell’s aspiration to a higher cultural station doesn’t mean he’s entirely dismissing where he’s from. Mitchell’s parents’ “artistic enthusiasms ran to Ethel Merman and Andrew Wyeth,” Eugenides writes, and their half-gallons of ice cream might be “greedy,” but the Eugenides’ (and Mitchell’s) judgment is a mild one.

Mitchell wants to wash the Midwest off himself, yes. But he doesn’t want to throw off his past so much as know more about the parts of the world he doesn’t yet understand. Eugenides understands that class anxiety doesn’t always breed resentment. If Mitchell were simply resentful, he’d spend a lot of time fuming in Providence in a much duller novel. Sometimes what class anxiety does is propel movement—it pushes Mitchell to do the spiritual seeking that helps The Marriage Plot earn its bulk.

4 thoughts on ““Please Tell Me”

  1. From everything I’ve read about the book, here and otherwise, it seems like the book’s only class distinction is between upper middle class and upper class – not that big of a jump. (In current parlance, it’s striving to move from the 2% to the 1%.) To me, that’s not enough of a distinction to make it a true discussion of social class. Of course I realize that discussing class probably wasn’t Eugenides’ intent, and I admit I haven’t read the book so maybe I’ m presumptuous in my conclusions.

  2. It’s true, that was an interesting aspect of the book, particularly as I and my siblings started out lower middle class (working class grandparents, though maternal university degrees going back to around 1900) and ended up in college with the upper classes in about the same historical period. It’s true though (Pete), I don’t see much literature that reflects my own family background and experience. Eugenides is the first author I’ve seen reflecting on class and religion in a while. I don’t know when I last saw a novel contemplate liberal religious experience seriously. Too bad about the characters, in the end…

  3. Another great post-college book is The Slide by Kyle Beachy, which takes a different angle on the subject. Your bit about Mitchell and the escape from the Midwest kind of reminds me of Jonathan Franzen, who has been taking a massive dump on his hometown of St. Louis for about 15 years now.

    @Pete – Leonard is lower-middle class at best, Mitchell appears to be solidly middle class and Madeleine is upper class. So they kind of cover the spectrum.

  4. It’s a nice passage, but it’s also a tribute to Eugenides’ teacher, Gilbert Sorrentino, who in his story of a (banally) doomed “love affair” between a working class gentile boy and a wealthy Jewish girl, “The Moon in its Flight,” writes, “Did she have to go to the Museum of Modern Art? The Met? Where were these places? What is the University of Miami? Who is Brooklyn Law? What sort of god borrows a Chrysler and goes to the Latin Quarter? What is a supper club? What does Benedictine cost?…Who is Conrad Aiken? What is Bronx Science? Who is Berlioz? What is a Stravinsky?…”

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