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Debutante Essays

Appropriately, The Marriage Plot arose from an act of literary adultery. In the late 90s, during an impasse in the writing of Middlesex, I put the manuscript aside. (I hadn’t fallen out of love, exactly, but I wasn’t sure where the relationship was headed.) Over the following weeks I began flirting with another novel, not a comic epic like Middlesex but a more traditional story about a wealthy family throwing a debutante party. At first, the new novel seemed to be everything I was looking for. It was less demanding, easy to be with, and rather nicely proportioned. Before I knew it I’d written a hundred pages – at which point the novelty wore off. It dawned on me that this new affair was going to be every bit as demanding as the book I was trying to escape. I missed Middlesex, too. I had an idea why we hadn’t been getting along. And so, with a renewed sense of commitment, almost giddy with joy, I went back to it.

After Middlesex was published, I returned to the debutante novel. Its hundred pages were just as I’d left them. They seemed O.K. However, as I resumed work on the book, something kept bothering me. The novel felt old-fashioned. The writing was perfectly acceptable, even good in spots, but in others it felt lifeless, second-hand. The story was told from multiple points of view, in short sections of a few pages apiece. One of the characters was named Madeleine. As I wrote her section, I began to wander once again. Instead of placing her in my debutante-party plot, I began imagining her boyfriend troubles and the books she was reading, and soon I was straying off into memories of my own college days, when the craze for semiotics was at its height in American universities. Something changed in the prose I was writing as well. I can pinpoint when this shift occurred. It came with the line: “Madeleine’s love troubles had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.” The tone of this sentence differed from the tone of the rest of the book. It was more intimate, more colloquial, and more knowing. All at once, the fustiness of the book that had so displeased me dropped away. The debutante novel had felt like an actual 19th-century novel. It smelled like an old couch brought back from the flea market. In contrast, Madeleine’s section felt fresher, more energetic and alive. It sprung directly from concerns and details in my own life. When the narrative ceased to be a pallid replica of a 19th-century novel and became a novel about a young woman obsessed with the 19th-centry novel, and about what such an obsession does to her romantic expectations, the book jumped forward a century. It became contemporary and sounded contemporary and allowed me to write about all kinds of things I hadn’t been able to write about before, religion and Mother Teresa, manic depression, the class system as it operated at an Eastern university in the 1980s, Roland Barthes, J.D. Salinger, the Jesus Prayer, and Talking Heads. Pretty soon, I had over a hundred pages of this new section.

The irony was clear: here I was, cheating on a novel that had once been my mistress! Madeleine’s section just kept getting longer. The longer it got, the more I liked it. Over the course of a painful two weeks, I surgically separated the two manuscripts, taking out three of the characters – Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard – and giving them their own book.

I didn’t know, at that point, that the book would be called The Marriage Plot, or that it would have anything to do with marriage. But gradually, as I pushed forward with the book, other things I’d been thinking about began to make their way in. In 2004, for the online magazine Slate, I had discussed the legacy of Joyce with the novelist Jim Lewis. During that exchange, I lamented the fact that the marriage plot, which had given rise to the novel, was no longer available to the modern novelist. In my book The Marriage Plot, I put these slightly reactionary thoughts into the mouth of Madeleine’s elderly thesis director, Professor Saunders:

In Saunders’s opinion, the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance. In the days when success had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter who Emma married if she could file for separation later? How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? As far as Saunders was concerned, marriage didn’t mean anything anymore, and neither did the novel.

It didn’t happen right away. But as I wrote about my three undergraduates, describing the end of their time at university and the beginning of their adult lives, such academic thoughts as these attached themselves to my story and provided me with a solid structure for the book. Instead of writing a marriage plot, I could deconstruct one and then put it back together, consistent with the religious, social, and sexual conventions prevailing today. I could write a novel that wasn’t a marriage plot but that, in a certain way, was; a novel that drew strongly from tradition without being at all averse to modernity.

That’s the intellectual background of The Marriage Plot. But you don’t write a novel from an idea, or at least I don’t. You write a novel out of the emotional and psychological stuff that you can’t shake off, or don’t want to. For me, this had to do with memories with being young, bookish, concupiscent, and confused. Safely in my 40s, married and a father, I could look back on the terrifying ecstasy of college love, and try to re-live it, at a safe distance. It was deep winter in Chicago when all this happened. Every day I looked out my office window at snow swirling over Lake Michigan. After separating the two books, I put one in a drawer and kept the other on my desk. I ran off with The Marriage Plot and didn’t look back. I changed completely, became a different person, a different writer; I started a new life with a new love, and all without ever leaving home.

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Jeffrey Eugenides grew up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and attended Brown and Stanford Universities. His novel Middlesex was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Ambassador Book Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, France's Prix Medicis, and the Lambda Literary Award. It was also selected for Oprah’s Book Club. Eugenides’ first novel, The Virgin Suicides, was adapted into a critically-acclaimed film by Sofia Coppola. He is on the faculty of Princeton University, and lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Our Elders criticize many things about us, but usually they attribute to us sins too gaudy to be true. The trouble is that our Elders are a trifle gullible; they have swallowed too much of Mr. Scott Fitzgerald and Miss Gertrude Atherton. They believe all the back-stairs gossip that is written about us. We do not mind when they load the Seven Deadly Sins on our backs, but we object when they claim that we invented them. As long as their platform is a moral one, it is hardly objectionable. Perhaps we are secretly flattered at being considered picturesquely depraved. The same moral accusations have been made against all generations since the first older generation catalogued sin for the benefit of its children. But the good taste of a generation is the individual expression of its mental fastidiousness, and we must resent a slur on the quality of our taste as too personal a criticism to be accepted lightly.

The cabaret is an institution which permits our Elders to drop into a plaintively reminiscent vein and gently deplore the present decay of society. They speak of the grandeur of the balls that used to be. They describe gay and glamorous parties. (It seems, incidentally, that these Elders of ours managed to amuse themselves very thoroughly in spite of the masses of dowagers who sat on gold chairs to observe the proceedings.) We listen sympathetically. And then it comes—the reflection on our good taste: “But, of course, you young people are bored by small parties. You’d rather go to cabarets and rub elbows with all sorts and kinds of people.”

This is a comment that is distinctly offensive. Yes, we like to go to cabarets. There is no use pointing out that there are cabarets and cabarets, from the palely innocuous Lido-Venice to the colorful and more rowdy Club Richmond. There is no use trying to defend any night club. Cabaret has its place in the elderly mind beside Bohemia and bolshevik, and other vague words that have a sinister significance and no precise definition.

But, if we can’t defend the cabaret, at least we can tell why we go there. It is not, as our Elders would have it, because we “enjoy rubbing elbows with all sorts and kinds of people.” We do not particularly like dancing shoulder to shoulder with gaudy and fat drummers. We do not like unattractive people. But, at least, in the cabaret, though we see them and are near them, we do not have to dance with them. If our Elders want to know why we go to cabarets let them go to the best of these, our present day exclusive parties, and look at the stag lines. There they will see extremely unalluring specimens.

There is the young man who is well-read in the Social Register, who talks glibly of the Racquet Club, while he prays that you won’t suspect that he lives far up on the West Side. There is the gentleman who says he comes from the South, who lives just south of New York—in Brooklyn. There is the partner who is inspired by alcohol to do a wholly original Charleston, a dance that necessarily becomes a solo, as you can’t possibly join in, and can only hope for sufficient dexterity to prevent permanent injury to your feet. There are hundreds of specimens, each poisonous in his own individual way. And there are hundreds of pale-faced youths, exactly alike, who have forced the debutante to acquire a line of patter that will apply with equal appropriateness to all the numberless, colorless young men whom she once had the misfortune to meet, and with whom, if they so choose, she must continue to dance at every party. The stag line is not a collection of which any hostess can be proud. Yet what can a poor hostess do?

It is not as simple to give a party now as it used to be. In the old days, one asked an equal number of attractive men and women, and one had a party. Now there is the cutting-in system to cope with. The vitality of the party depends on the size of the stag line. A third or so of the stags are attractive, agreeable, young men. The rest are just stags, and pretty terrible.

Let those supporters of male superiority, who think that hostesses should be able to find three and four times as many attractive young men as young women, recall a certain successful Leap Year party at the Colony Club. The men on that occasion were hand-picked, but the girls were gathered from all New York. They came in

such overwhelming proportions that they outnumbered the men four to one. And the party was a riot. It was a riot well into the morning. But neither sex can stand the strain on its attractives of four to one, and the hostesses never knew where the majority of the feminine stag line came from—they suspected the Bronx. Undoubtedly the extra young women came from the same dim corners of the town whence spring the hundreds of young men who fill the stag lines of the debutante ball rooms, and vanish between functions, no one knows where.

We go to a party and take pot luck, and the luck is four to one against us. At last, tired of fruitless struggles to remember half familiar faces, tired of vainly trying to avoid unwelcome dances, tired of crowds, we go to a cabaret. We go to cabarets because of the very fastidiousness that Our Elders find so admirable a quality. We have privacy in a cabaret. We go with people whom we find attractive. What does it matter if an unsavory Irish politician is carrying on a dull and noisy flirtation with the little blonde at the table behind us? We don’t have to listen; we are with people whose conversation we find amusing. What does it matter if the flapper and her fattish boy friend are wriggling beside us as we dance? We like our partner and the flapper likes hers, and we don’t bother each other.

Yes, we go to cabarets, but we resent the criticism of our good taste in so doing. We go because, like our Elders, we are fastidious. We go because we prefer rubbing elbows in a cabaret to dancing at an exclusive party with all sorts and kinds of people. ♦

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