The Short Version: Brown University, 1982. Madeleine Hanna is dating Leonard Bankhead, a large and mercurial oaf with a mind like a rocketship, while Mitchell Grammaticus pines away for her. They graduate and find themselves thrust into that terrifying post-graduate year – coming to terms with ‘the real world’ and finding oneself and dealing with all of the mistakes that come with that terrifying new territory.
The Short Version: From sentence one, I felt like Eugenides wrote this book for me. “To start with, look at all the books.” begins the novel and Madeleine Hanna immediately popped, fully formed, into my head as the sort of girl I wanted to date but never quite found in college. I dated girls similar to Mad, but no one quite the same. To be honest, I don’t think girls like her exist in the real world: she’s incredibly well-read and has a thing for Austen and the Regency and the Victorians and I certainly know plenty of women who fit that mold but there’s something else about her, a certain level of authorial wishful thinking perhaps. Eugenides has the opportunity to create a character who is the dream that can never be attained – but also clearly show why the real life versions are so much better. Madeleine’s scene with Mitchell at the end of the book – and Mitchell’s realizations a page later – hit entirely too close to home for me and it made me uncomfortable. It made me say “fuck you, Eugenides, for writing this book for me. So what if she drinks Forntum & Mason tea – this is too much.”
Because I’m currently able to see my collection of various F&M teas – one of my many vices.
But anyway. This is the post-college book that I wish had been out a year and half ago but that I’m also so thrilled that I can read more than a year after graduating – because I think that reading it a year ago, even six months ago, would’ve been too raw. Because this book is, at its very core, about three people finding themselves once they’ve been removed from that amazing cocoon that is college. In college, you can do things like read books and then write about them. Then you can go get drunk and make bad decisions and that’s what it’s all about! That’s what it is meant to be and the one thing it does not – cannot, perhaps, but that’s another discussion – do is prepare you in any way, shape, or form for reality. The first year out of school is a harrowing and unsettling one. And this book ends, roughly, with the characters at just about my age. So as they look back on the changes that that first year wrought, I too can look back and see the differences. I just had the experience of seeing friends I haven’t seen since graduation and the chasm that has evolved between my life in college and the one I live now is astonishing. I didn’t go off to India like Mitchell, I didn’t get caught in a dangerous relationship with a bipolar (because we can’t call them manic depressives these days – PC, folks) lover… but I did something that my friends weren’t doing and that has changed me drastically, just as it changes all three of these characters.
Although, interestingly enough, I don’t think Eugenides intended to write a novel about any of that. I think he honestly intended to write a modern equivalent – a pastiche, if you will – of a Regency novel. A novel centering around a marriage plot. And it’s a little disconcerting when, on the last page of the novel, Mitchell and Madeleine have a meta-conversation about the altered form of the marriage plot they’ve found themselves in because the novel exists on so many other levels that it sometimes seems to leave behind the idea that spawned it.
And MAN are there levels here. Apparently Grammaticus is an authorial substitute. This is not surprising to me and it makes pretty perfect sense – but the thing I could not get out of my head was Bankhead-as-David-Foster-Wallace. It’s clear – even if you haven’t read anything about this novel prior to reading it but you simply knew who DFW was – that Bankhead is directly inspired by DFW and this novel is Eugenides’ way of trying to cope with his friend’s suicide (Franzen said that elements of the rockstar in Freedom were DFW-inspired for the same reason). But I have to be honest: it gets a little distracting. I never believed Bankhead as a character – he was David Foster Wallace in disguise. And I don’t really like DFW (may he rest in peace) so it was a little difficult to separate my dislike for that author’s work from my dislike for the character. Because you also can’t really get away with disliking Leonard because he’s ill, painfully so, and the empathy you feel is distinct and separate from any dislike you have for him. It gets complicated. But I didn’t like him. I didn’t like what he put Madeleine through, I didn’t like who he was as a human being in general – not my kind of person, I’m sorry.
But then, I’m not sure I liked any of these characters. I found aspects of Mitchell’s character uncomfortably similar to mine – although he’s clearly far more religious than yours truly – and maybe that’s why I had moments of real loathing for him: I saw him doing something stupid that I’ve done and saying “ugh, I don’t want to remember what a fuck-up I was – so I’m just gonna take it out on you, dude.” And Maddie has some very distinct similarities to a number of women I call friends and/or former flames. There was something so uncomfortably real about all of it. I wanted these characters to be older so that I could say “oh, what fuckups, they’re older and yet they’re still doing stupid shit” but no, they’re 23/24. And I saw my own vulnerability there. Someone could write my story and someone my age would read it and say “what a stupid fuck!” but in reality, they’re seeing their own struggle to stay afloat in this brave new world of reality.
I should make a few comments about the novel itself, I suppose. I found it to drag a little bit at times, despite only being 400ish pages. There were scenes, truly depressing scenes, where our characters felt listless and we felt listless too. It wasn’t like The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, which irritated me to no end, although that book also captured the listlessness of post-college life accurately to a point. This book, though, has a far superior author (although Chabon is great, don’t get me wrong) writing a book that is, at its simplest level, simply a love letter to the way things used to be and a requiem for the fact that they will never be that way again. It’s the post-college-ennui book for the people who still read a book and think “hmm, I could write this paper…” It’s the post-college-ennui book for the people who grew five years in the year after they left campus. It feels like a period piece at times – the early 80s, such a weird time to tell this story but also when I found out Eugenides graduated from Brown in ’83, it all made sense – but in the same way that every Austen feels like a period piece. They still resonate today, don’t they? They talk about the same rituals, issues, etc – but we just wish there could be more fancy formal balls these days. Although I’m not sure we miss anything from the 80s except how cheap things were… But I digress.
Rating: 5 out of 5. Despite how deeply it connected with me (or perhaps because of it), there was something about this book that makes me want to not give it a 5. There’s something flawed about it. Something too clinical, educational. Something too easy. But god, the writing in this book… the conversations about authors, the comments about books and the keeping of books… this is a novel written by someone who LOVES novels. Who LOVES books. And he has written a note-perfect update of a classic form, something only a true student of the classics could manage. So I overlook the flaws and think: “my, how the time has flown… and what a year-and-a-half it has been.”