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Friday, September 21, 2012

The Marriage Plot

There are two main elements to writing a great novel. The first is to come up with a compelling, original story featuring memorable, realistic characters going through humongous life events, responding to challenges, and reaching some sort of climactic, cathartic conclusion. The second element is the nuts-and-bolts of the writing; clear and concise sentences, arresting images, interesting and unusual word choices, fluidity and dexterity.

There are lots of novelists who excel at one or the other of these elements, but not both. A novelist with great stories and clunky, unappealing prose can still find success with readers who appreciate a rollicking good story more than elegant language. While someone with an immense command of the language can find favor with readers looking for new ways to use words and metaphors they would not have thought of themselves. Both groups of writers (and their readers) tend to look on the other group with condescension or disdain, but I’ve always felt that to be truly great, a novel must have a great story as well as impeccable prose.

The Marriage Plot is the second novel I have read by Jeffrey Eugenides, after his Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex. In both novels, I have been struck by the amazing ability Eugenides has with words. He is remarkably self-confident and assured in his usage and his construction, and justifiably so. The man writes a good sentence. But in Middlesex I thought his plotting, while buoyed by an interesting and unusual premise and strong knowledge and research of the setting and place, left a lot to be desired. The story eventually caved in under the pressure of all the unnecessary weirdness and outré sexuality Eugenides laid on top of his fractured novel of growing-up.

Now, Eugenides has followed up that effort with a story that is surprisingly toothless and inconsequential. The Marriage Plot is a misconceived overlaying of the comedy of manners style of the Regency and Victorian eras onto the modern age. Featuring three characters who are realistically drawn yet at times alarmingly stupid or unsympathetic, The Marriage Plot stumbles to an uninteresting conclusion featuring no real tension or resolution. But hey, some of the sentences are nice.

Madeleine Hanna, Leonard Bankhead, and Mitchell Grammaticus are three members of the Brown University Class of 1982. Their intertwining romantic lives on campus lead each to struggle in their immediately post-graduate lives. Madeleine is a rich-girl a bit spoiled by her exposure to the finer things and a bit unreflective when it comes to the privileges that allow her to fritter away her time reading musty old novels while her classmates fret about the recession. Mitchell is a religious studies major captivated by life’s greatest questions, but equally entranced by Madeleine’s tantalizing figure. However, Madeleine is with the brilliant but troubled Leonard Bankhead, a dual major in Biology and Philosophy who turns out to be too smart for his own good when he is diagnosed with manic-depression on Graduation Day.

The novel is at its best in flashbacks to the characters’ time at Brown, delving into the background of the main trio’s relationships. Unfortunately for the reader, more of the novel follows their quixotic post-grad wanderings. Anyone who ever had a friend who claimed to be changed by studying abroad will recognize the feeling of boredom that overcomes them while reading long passages of this novel.

Mitchell joins a friend on a globe-trotting adventure, eventually coming to a crisis moment in India when he tries to put his religious beliefs into practice volunteering with Mother Teresa to help the poor and sick. Leonard tries to keep his illness in control and keep it a secret from the esteemed scientists he is working and competing with. Madeleine devotes her life to Leonard, while trying to squeeze in grad-school applications when she can.

Surprisingly, the novel collapses on its low-stakes plot. It’s perhaps too prejudicial to say that the lives of spoiled rich-kids can’t make for great literature, but it’s definitely true that it doesn’t work for The Marriage Plot. Mitchell’s and Madeleine’s self-created problems are nothing in comparison to Leonard’s very real trauma, and yet Eugenides explores Mitchell and Madeleine in far greater detail, entirely out of proportion with the interest they possess to the reader.

The Marriage Plot is a compulsively readable, comparatively short novel, but it could stand to put on some weight. The narrative shortcuts and shying away from real consequences makes it ultimately a frustrating experience for the reader hoping for greatness.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Writer-director Leslye Headland’s Bachelorette is so darkly and crudely funny it makes Bridesmaids look like a family film. And while the sharp edges may puncture holes through its characters’ believability, ultimately the film is saved by an inspired madcap energy that suffuses the climactic scenes and brushes aside all the minor quibbles and nitpicks through sheer force of laughter.

When Becky (Rebel Wilson) tells her best friend Regan (Kirsten Dunst) that she’s engaged, the news is greeted with simulated enthusiasm and barely-disguised disgust. Regan and Becky’s two other best friends, Gena (Lizzy Caplan), and Katie (Isla Fisher) react to the news so poorly they seem almost like misogynistic characters, the back-biting fake friends of every woman-hater’s fears. Their ambivalence toward Becky’s happiness is made more disturbing because of how rooted it is in their own shallowness. The three friends, all skinny and conventionally attractive, can’t stand that the plus-sized Becky is marrying a stable, normal guy while their romantic and personal lives lie in tatters. They’re not exactly sympathetic figures, which is of course largely the point.

After some inexcusable, and frankly too mean to be funny, actions at the rehearsal dinner, Katie, Regan, and Gena decide to drown their troubles in booze and drugs. When that combination proves harmful to the bride’s dress, resulting in a large tear down the middle, the trio go into overdrive trying to solve their problems.

Along the way, they are helped/hindered by a similar trio of groomsmen including best man Trevor (James Marsden), the groom’s brother Joe (Kyle Bornheimer), and Gena’s ex Clyde (Adam Scott). If you’re dreading the conventional pairing up of trios, well, you’re not entirely wrong, but the film still manages to surprise you.

Bachelorette is remarkable for how well it wrings laughs out of its characters’ personal failings and fundamental flaws. It also pushes the boundaries of comedy without exactly relying on gross-out humor (when one character vomits, it’s actually one of the more serious moments of the film.)

Dunst, Caplan, and Fisher all give spot-on performances as unhappy, troubled women. Their various freak-outs and implosions are fascinating to watch. By the end, though they’ve only taken small steps toward redemption, their humanity has become so apparent that you can’t help but be happy they all made it to the church on time.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

My TV Posts Have a New Home

I'm pleased to announce that I'm joining my good friend Cassie Belek's TV blog, The Demo. From now on all my TV writing will show up on that site, http://thedemotv.com/

Please give the site a look, we don't officially launch until September 17, when we will make our Emmy predictions and I'll be reviewing the Boardwalk Empire Season 3 premiere, but there are a few preview posts to peruse until then.

As for this site, I'll still be filling it with book and movie reviews, and the occasional list or what have you.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Game Change

John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, the authors of Game Change, a look inside the campaigns during the 2008 presidential election, are to be commended on their reportage. Getting this close to the campaigns had to be difficult, given the desire for political figures to maintain their cherished public personas. In time, I suspect that the level of detail as well as the unflattering portraits of several key figures will be an invaluable resource for history buffs to get an idea of what the people who sought the nation’s highest offices were really like.

However, for the present-day reader, especially those who were engaged in the events of 2008, Game Change provides not much more than insider gossip in its slim, scant jaunt down memory lane. Its breathless relation of the collapse of the Clinton and McCain campaigns is hampered by a decided lack of perspective and a curious distance from the relevant issues.

All of that would be fine if Heilemann and Halperin were capable of writing clearly and concisely, but alas they are not. Their prose is repetitive and their constant need to coin cutesy little neologisms is beyond aggravating. (Clinton’s staff is Hillaryland, Obama’s is O-Town, and McCain’s alternately McCainiacs and McCainworld. It’s excruciating.) They also show the shallowness of their effort by resorting to using “ten-dollar” vocabulary words in unnecessary and unhelpful ways. (Parlous instead of perilous, chary as opposed to wary, peccadilloes where affairs would be palatable. This kind of thing seems like a crutch for those insecure about their intellect.)

Ultimately, the authors of Game Change are successfully mainly in establishing that all this posturing and politicking is really nothing more than a game, both to the reporters chasing every sideshow and to the men and women conducting our nation’s business. Though some figures come off looking better than others (Obama comes off rather well, something that is reassuring or evidence of the media’s kid-gloves treatment, depending on your perspective) Game Change reinforces the idea that only a crazy person would actually want to be President.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure

Despite the author’s name in the title, The Princess Bride is not the work of the long-forgotten Florinese writer S. Morgenstern but rather the brain-child of famed screenwriter William Goldman, who presents this story as though he were editing, and dramatically abridging, a musty old classic for a younger audience.

Goldman has a deft sense of humor, and his abridgements, always accompanied by his own rationalizing, are a big part of the gag. Goldman’s aim in writing The Princess Bride is to take the classic adventure stories he fell in love with and cut out all the boring parts. Anyone who has read Ivanhoe or other works of its kind knows that in between the thrilling swordplay and acts of derring-do is a lot of unnecessary junk about life in the castle, political intrigue, and endless feasts and speeches.

Of course, the film version of this novel is far more well-known than the book itself, creating an odd echo chamber effect. Goldman’s “update” supposedly took all the boring parts out of the book, but the film, which I’d seen many times before opening the book, cuts out some of Goldman’s excess too, making scenes which are in the book but not the movie feel quite superfluous.

Lovers of the film, which may well include everyone who has seen it, will marvel at how fully-formed the movie lives within the text of Goldman’s novel. Almost all of the film’s best lines are in the original source verbatim.

The Princess Bride is not the type of book you read in suspense. Indeed, Goldman himself considers the ending fairly inconsequential. The true joy is in Goldman’s wry, winking sense of humor.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Sleepwalk with Me

Mike Birbiglia’s film, based on a one-man show he wrote about his own life, is a slight, occasionally funny movie caught between its auteur’s desires to tell a conventionally funny story and his ambition to do so in an innovative, rule-breaking manner. Ultimately, Birbiglia’s trickery is not memorable enough, nor his story engrossing enough, to make this film anything more than a minor pleasure.

Birbiglia plays struggling stand-up Matt Pandamiglio, whose career and relationship are both struggling to survive. Lauren Ambrose is his patient, supportive, two-dimensional girlfriend Abby, who is starting to hint, sometimes subtly, sometimes not, that she is ready to settle down and start a family. Matt’s parents (Carol Kane and James Rebhorn) are also exerting pressure on him to get serious, about Abby and his life in general.

Matt’s response to all this pressure can probably be guessed by looking at the title: he starts sleepwalking, specifically by acting out his dreams. Eventually, Matt, just like his real-life counterpart, starts to see his career and life grow after becoming more honest about his feelings. It is only after incorporating his fears and conflicts into his stand-up routine that Matt accomplishes anything.

It’s a satisfying conclusion, but relatively pat and obvious. The slices of Birbiglia’s stand-up that peek through the narrative are often clever, but very little about this film’s construction matches that level of wit and creativity.