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The Seattle Stranger: "Just too damned good to put down."

Date: Oct 16 2011

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by Paul Constant

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It is absolutely true that we tell ourselves stories in order to live, but (with all apologies to Ms. Didion) it's also true that some stories—even good stories, the best stories—can warp us and twist us in ways we don't want to be twisted. As fundamentalists have proved for millennia, bad stories can downright destroy us. And books, still the greatest story-delivery mechanism devised by humanity, can transform us in ways we can't even begin to understand.

 

We meet Madeleine, the protagonist of Jeffrey Eugenides's new novel, The Marriage Plot, at the end of her college career. She's a senior at Brown who is working on a thesis about how marriage is the final goal of nearly every great English novel. As she buries herself in the thick comfort of Jane Austen, she's desperately trying to protect herself from falling in love.

 

Like the heroines she's studying, Madeleine is torn between two men. Mitchell Grammaticus is the long-suffering friend whose unrequited love for Madeleine is the force that continually attracts and repulses him as he travels Europe and India looking for some kind of spiritual truth that doesn't feel like a lie. But Madeleine can't fight her attraction to Leonard Bankhead, an awkward genius with a nonconformist streak that grants him a devilish charm. Eugenides makes an interesting choice by "casting" Leonard as a decidedly more modern literary figure: With his tall frame, long hair tied back in bandannas, impolite penchant for chewing tobacco, and broad-reaching, humorously self-aware discursive conversational style, it's impossible for a book lover to not mentally cast David Foster Wallace in the role. This is at once bold and distracting, the literary equivalent of casting George Clooney in a Miranda July film.

 

We bookish sorts will find a lot to enjoy in The Marriage Plot; every page feels like some tweak of (or nod to) literary romantic (and sometimes romantic) convention. And Eugenides is still one of the best novelists in America. But something about The Marriage Plot just doesn't work; a lot of the problem comes with the ending, which feels as though it should be the first page of the second half of the book. Eugenides can't consummate the ideas about feminism and love and commitment that he's presented to us along the way; he walks us up to the altar and then leaves us standing there, eager with anticipation, at the beginning of a story that never starts.

The characters in Alexander Maksik's debut novel, You Deserve Nothing, are likewise in the process of having their brains forever transformed by books. William Silver is an American teaching English at an international high school in Paris. Maksik doesn't tell us that Mr. Silver is a gifted educator; we get to see his teaching style as he teaches the students—and the reader—about the origins of existentialism in a witty, concise, and bright lecture.

 

This is a story about two different sorts of readers. The students in Mr. Silver's advanced class are encountering these ideas for the first time, and as we read the chapters told from their perspectives, we see their worlds bubbling with the kind of intellectual expansion that comes from discovering Sartre as a teenager. Mr. Silver, though, encounters these texts at the same time every year, and while he has great, almost religious respect for them, a certain rigor mortis of the cerebellum simply has to kick in. Mr. Silver tries to write the texts back to life with his students' own enthusiasm; when he takes risks with his teaching style that break down the boundaries between teacher and student, bad things happen.

 

Maksik doesn't shy away from the creepiness of the relationships that form over the course of You Deserve Nothing. The blurbs on this book are informative for a change, not because of what they say, but because of who wrote them: A. M. Homes, Tom Perrotta, and Susanna Moore—a triad of writers who use beautiful language to breathe warmth into cold and dispassionate protagonists. Maksik is of that lineage, but he brings something new to their formula. Rather than Homes's emotional Grand Guignols or Perrotta's darkly satirical comedies, Maksik gives us a real tragedy. He makes the reader feel every raw inch of the mounting horror as the events unfold. You can see it coming from a mile away, but you can't stop turning the pages to freeze things before they become too terrible. The book is just too damned good to put down.