In a distant incarnation of self, circa 1991, I was a member of the grunge scene in Portland, Maine. This did not entail much. I frequented bars, stayed razor-edge thin, and was sort-of (although I could be mistaken) dating a drummer from a band called Otis Coyote. One evening, we attended a party. Instantly, the crowd sorted itself into the musicians (males) and the people who had shown up with the musicians (females). I could only wonder what the musicians were talking about. I imagined they were discussing the things that the drummer talked about—music, books, wild stories from the not too distant past—while I pretended interest in the canned food drive that socially-conscious metal band Tesla had organized in coordination with their upcoming concert: whoever brought the most cans got to meet the band. My forays to join the musicians were met with a silent curiosity or the statement, “there’s more beer in the fridge.” This was a fight waiting to happen—which I promptly initiated at first opportunity—and I anticipated every word leveled at me in the car on the way home: snob, elitist, snob. I knew to steer clear of talking gender because I didn’t need “harpy” added to the others.

I recently finished Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. I devoured this book and enjoyed it. The spirited writing in Eugenides’s most recent novel—his take on semiotics, awkward humanitarian gestures, earnest dress rehearsals for mature married life—makes for good reading. I’m of the right age for this book: older and happy to see what writers make of the time of my youth. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from The Goon Squad took this phenomenon as its organizing principal and one of the perks of hitting forty is enjoying the long look back. On this count, The Marriage Plot is a blast. I relived my bewilderment at having Derrida deployed as a textual cure all, as if he were the Tiger Balm of critics. Madeleine’s hangover, which opens the book, caused me to flash back with such immediacy that I wondered if 80s hangovers weren’t of a particular sort. But I experienced a refluent anxiety on finishing this novel, anxiety at being a woman. It’s the same feeling I get when I’m not really paying attention to a conversation and laugh at the joke before processing that the joke’s been made at the expense of Catholics, or some other easily pilloried group. It’s not that Madeleine—the woman in a triad of main characters— isn’t well-drawn and believable, because she is, nor that her actions aren’t, on a page-turning level, compelling, because they are. But honestly, Madeleine is boring. She lacks the vigor of her male novel mates. She lacks Leonard’s academic brilliance and charismatic mania. She lacks Mitchell’s religious groping and self-conscious wit. All this is by design, no doubt, but still she’s a person of little complication and depth. I wouldn’t want to be stuck in an elevator with her. The other female character who draws attention is Claire, someone who promotes her awareness of women’s issues by policing Mitchell’s ogling women on the street—even though the women ogle back—and who undermines any respect the reader might have for her grasp of sexuality when we learn (spoiler!) that she is actually dating a gay man. To me, Claire reads as a large child, living off parental money and privileged connection in Paris, someone who will never realize that feminists fight for things like equal pay and professional recognition. Instead of policing Mitchell’s attention to other women, her time would have been better spent observing her own boyfriend. But then again, Claire apes sophistication without understanding anything, and this is how feminism is portrayed in this book.

This brings me to another large novel, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Why do I couple these books? Well, both were much-anticipated works from respected authors in the last two years. Both nailed their landings in the public readership. Both received massive reviews in the New York Review of Books. If you detect a little jealousy here, you’re wrong. It’s full blown envy and it does make me do things like count the number of books by women reviewed in that publication. Also the number of books reviewed by women. Also the number of books by women reviewed only by other women. I don’t reserve this policing for NYRB, but I do read this publication and am made aware regularly. I am a feminist. Make your joke and I will probably laugh before realizing—awkwardly and with anxiety—it has been made at my expense.

But back to Freedom. Freedom is the story of Patty and Walter Berglund’s marriage, and Walter’s earnest idealism is the wind that fills the sails and gets this boat in motion. Like Walter, I like birds. Like Walter, I deplore mountaintop removal. That sounds facile, but not for me. I’m a huge fan of the political novel and believe, with heartfelt and possibly naïve enthusiasm, that books like this can educate people about environmental, social, and political ills. Lionel Shriver’s So Much For That, which looks at the healthcare industry, should be required reading for anyone affected by health. So I read Freedom enthusiastically, cheering for the outing of the corruption of Big Business and D.C. lobbying, and for the lens trained on warmongering as a moneymaking venture. But after finishing this book, I was again disappointed by the dippiness of the female characters. Patty Berglund’s flailing around to define herself made it difficult for anything of much interest to stick. My issue is not with her being credible, but why couldn’t she have been as compelling as Walter, who believes not only in something, but in many things? There are several female characters— among them Jenna, a stunning preppy icon, and Connie, loving and excruciatingly pathetic— in this long book, who languish, trapped by the apparent dullness of their gender. Perhaps Lalitha—a vibrant and attractive arrival about a third way into the novel—transcends at points. She is a politically motivated and intelligent person; she is also a tremendously noble creature who manages to stir not only admiration for balding, overweight, polemical Walter, but also desires him with a bottomless, prickling lust. She’s also a “pretty young dark-skinned” martyr to her dreams and, ultimately, poor driving.

In the past two years, were there larger books than Freedom and The Marriage Plot? Well, Goon Squad joined that crowd after award notice, but—other than debuts—no other book springs to mind. Know this: I like big books—big important fiction books—because they ought to exist, and sometimes—like the Cerulean Warbler of Freedom—their survival is not assured. Literary novels like The Marriage Plot and Freedom that reach a broad a readership are rare cultural opportunities to create dialogue about the societies represented within, the people represented within, and, in the subject of this short piece, the women represented within. We are told that Patty Berglund and Madeleine Hanna are attractive, appealing people, but they weren’t attractive to this reader—although they both read as sexually attractive—and seem to promote, in the worlds of their respective novels, the possibility that women are just less interesting than men. This is less of an attack than an observation and, since I read both these books with respect for their astute representations of society, I wonder if I live in a world where it is accepted that women are the duller, less intellectual, more sexually-defined gender. Is this true?

Let me end with a fictional scenario. You’re at a party, which has, in the way of some parties, sorted itself according to gender. In one corner, we have Walter Berglund and Richard Katz—a pivotal character, and, fittingly, a musician— of Freedom, and Leonard Bankhead and Mitchell Grammaticus of The Marriage Plot. On the other side of the room, you have Madeleine Hanna and Claire from The Marriage Plot, and Patty Berglund, Lalitha, Jenna, and Connie of Freedom. AND you’re in the mood for conversation—real conversation. Where do you go? Who do you want to spend your time with?

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SABINA MURRAY is the author of three novels and two short story collections, including the PEN/Faulkner Award winning The Caprices and the contemporary gothic A Carnivore's Inquiry. Her work is included in The Norton Anthology. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Guggenheim Foundation and Radcliffe Institute and is on the fiction faculty of the MFA program at UMass Amherst. She wrote the script for Beautiful Country, a Golden Bear contender, for which she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. Her latest, Tales of the New World, was recently published by Grove/Black Cat.

16 responses to “On the Women of Freedom and The Marriage Plot

  1. Seth Pollins says:

    Thank you, Sabina, for posting this intelligent and thoughtful essay. I have not read The Marriage Plot, but I just finished reading Freedom for a second time. I agree with you wholeheartedly that the female characters are rather dippy, with the exception of Lalitha. On the other hand, I found Patty’s character, beyond her moments of dippy-ness, to be the most compelling, rich, and ultimately tragic character in the book. I think it says something that Patty’s is the only character’s voice we actually encounter in the novel–then again, that voice is offered in third person. Still, it was Walter who ultimately bored me most. I yearned for the Patty parts: for her voice, her lust, her dark humor. I found her attractive and I certainly would chose to speak to her above Walter, if not Richard. I do agree, though, that Connie, Jenna, and most of the other female characters do seem to come off as “duller, less intelligent, and more sexually defined.”

    A friend of mine, a lesbian, called Franzen’s novel the most straight novel she’d ever read. I’m still trying to figure out what she meant by that. I just note it here because she seemed to be making a statement about the overt maleness of the writing. I’m not sure if you have any comments about that…

    I enjoyed reading your piece and commenting!

    • Seth, thanks for weighing in. Straight seems valid to Freedom for a couple of reasons. First, the narrative style willfully eschews post-modernist technique–there is technology in this book, but that is controlled within a traditional narrative. Second, there is the maleness. In a year that produced such guy-fests as Matterhorn, Karl Marlantes’s hectic, youth-dominated, almost Hendrixesque opera of the Vietnam War, and Lipsyte’s The Ask which took not only a man, but a seeming man-child as its main character, Freedom does seem to stand out as a very male narrative. One thing that I think contributes to this is the controlled narrative style. Perhaps Franzen listened to the first part of Flaubert’s invocation to “be present everywhere” but found the part about being “invisible” less compelling. And here we get into lovely,murky territory where I ponder what “maleness” and “femaleness” are and whether women can be “male” and vice versa. This, of course, is rich stuff and deserves a longer, more articulate exploration.

  2. Don Mitchell says:

    Sabrina, I too found your essay intelligent and thoughtful. And interesting. I haven’t read either of those novels, but I expect to.

    I’m at work on a novel in which one of the main narrators (there are 6) is not only a woman, but a tribal woman. Another narrator is a teenaged tribal woman, and another is a twenty-something Berkeley radical (it’s set in 169-71). So obviously I’m concerned with how to portray women.

    You mention mountaintop removal. Have you read Ann Pancake’s novel, “Strange As This Weather Has Been?” It’s very fine, with two important women narrators (a woman and her daughter). There are others, but the women are, I think, especially well-drawn. And the mountaintop removal backdrop is heartbreaking.

    I also wonder if you know Jim Harrison’s women? I’m thinking particularly of Dalva, in the novel of that name, and its sequel, “The Road Home.” I’d be interested in your take on them.

  3. I’m so excited to have this essay here, Sabina! I taught FREEDOM in my Fiction Seminar this year, and the students in the class were fairly maddened by the portrayal of women. I do concur, oddly, that I would far rather hang out with Patty than Walter, though. Walter is a smart but ultimately bloodless man. I would rather hear Patty wax neurotic about her sex life than listen to Walter dryly explain to me about the birds. But, of course, if Richard Katz were anywhere in a room, I guess that is probably where everyone would be, if the characters from FREEDOM were those we had to choose from. And one thing that really struck me as I read FREEDOM was how Richard was so compelling from Patty’s point of view, but from his own point of view he seemed much meaner, less smart and elegant in his disrepair and just plain snarky and bratty. It made me wonder if in a “straight” novel like this (I like that term for FREEDOM–it seems to fit) the female gaze is somehow necessary to make the man seem “larger.” Walter is larger through Lalitha and Richard through Patty. Left to their own devices, neither of these men are any more profound, really, than Patty herself. But she is not granted a male gaze that elevates her, really. Her male gaze only wants to fuck her and feel frustrated by her. Maybe that’s the biggest difference in the portrayal. After all, we never see Connie or Jenna or the other female characters from their OWN eyes–we only see them vis-a-vis the judgments of the male characters, except for Patty. Who, incidentally, is obviously the character Franzen feels closest to, since her “autobiography” is almost indistinguishable from his own narrative voice. But this is complex stuff. I tend to agree with you very widely about the overall message, even though the details may strike me differently. Thanks for this.

  4. Emily Rapp says:

    I love this essay, Sabina. You’ve perfectly articulated what was getting under my skin about the women in Freedom, especially. Cheers.

  5. zoe zolbrod says:

    Ooooooo some of my favorite topics (even though I haven’t read MARRIAGE PLOT, yet). One great thing about a novel gaining the kind of too-big-to-fail reception that FREEDOM did is that it provides a common subject to discuss.

    Gina, I love your comment about Richard being more interesting from Patty’s POV (and Richard’s, too, to some extent) than he was from his own. I hadn’t thought of that, and it rings true. I also agree that I would rather talk to Patty at a party than Richard–at least the embittered, autobiography-writing Patty. When she was in her college-jock mode or uber-mom Minneapolis mode, I would have run the other way. At that point, I would have been thrilled to see Richard and discuss with him the corporate structure at 3M or 80s indie bands or whatever the fuck. The new tires on his bicycle. Anything to get away from another discussion about the kids and the PTA. I have way too many of those already.

    One of my favorite aspects of FREEDOM is the son’s POV and sexuality. Loved it. I like to tell myself that Jenna and Connie were both meant to be intentional caricatures of adolescent male capitalist’s fantasies. As such, they amused me. If I start to doubt that analysis, the characterization of Connie, especially, drives me up a wall. And Lalitha makes me doubt my analysis. Franzen just lays it on too thick there, and we’re not seeing her through a teenager’s lens. She’s not associated with the conquering spirit of capitalism. It’s hard to read her as satire, or at least as interesting or amusing satire. You’re exactly right, Sabina. The admiration for her boss Walter, sure, maybe. But her “bottomless, prickling lust?” Her endless patience and support and willingness, basically, to follow him? Her poetic and convenient death? Give me a break.

    An aside, as a female non-musician who was also involved in a music scene in the late 80s/early 90s. When I take my son to his guitar lesson at the local guitar store here, I notice that twenty years later–post-riot grrl and gender studies ubiquity–the males in the store outnumber the women 20 to 1, at least, in every capacity–be they workers, teachers, customers, or students. What’s up with that? I don’t think there’s a simple answer.

  6. […] At The Nervous Breakdown: Sabina Murray on the women of famous novels by Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides. […]

  7. Great comments. One could write an entire essay about the role of the male and female gaze and the construction of self through the male and female gaze in FREEDOM. I would definitely read that. Maybe I just did…Just to add some some fuel to our little discussion, did anyone read the Charles Simic poem, “One Man Circus” in the the last New Yorker 12/12. This is the last stanza and please excuse weird formatting. “Or sitting across from your wife at dinner,/While she prattles about the weather,/Concentrating instead on a trapeze in your head,/The tigers pacing angrily in their cage./ The subject of this poem is a “juggler of hats and live hand grenades” and we learn about his tumultuous and dynamic inner life contrasting with simple external realities such as “buying a newspaper” or listening to his wife’s stunted conversation. I’m not policing gender representation in this poem, which would be, admittedly, ridiculous. That would be like reading a poem about an ax murder and getting all frothy because I’m really against ax murdering. What I think is interesting in this poem is the attention spent to gaze, in this case, in the final stanza, on what I’ll term conniunxial gaze. If you’re wondering where I came up with that term, I was looking for the male equivalent of uxorial, so I checked my handy Cassell’s Compact Latin English/English Latin and found two other options, “marital” that seemed unconcerned with gender, and “virile” (I’m Anglicizing) that seemed concerned with nothing but. In my opinion, this isn’t the best of Simic’s poems. For me, the fact the cliche “prattling” about “weather” undermined my patience. Although perhaps light weather discussion constitutes the “uber-prattle” of them all, especially when delivered by one’s wife!

    • tina jacobson says:

      you’re right absolutely, but a t least simic exposes his own screwed up feelings of low self in his other work. progress is sloooow. thank you for the dialogue. just discovered TNB. great connection

  8. Thank you for this excellent essay, and for being willing to tackle issues of sexism–both in writing and in the industry itself. I am working on an article about how women’s memoirs are received differently than men’s . . . especially when they have something to do with religion. Love these lines: “It’s full blown envy and it does make me do things like count the number of books by women reviewed in that publication. Also the number of books reviewed by women. Also the number of books by women reviewed only by other women.”

  9. Kevin Morris says:

    Very interesting. I’ve not read FREEDOM, but devoured THE MARRIAGE PLOT like you did. I too cringed whenever Claire appeared, as she seemed at best a projection of all college sophomores and at worst a feminist for the time being. As regards Madeleine, however, I’m not sure I agree with you re: her dullness. I really disdained both Leonard and Mitchell — the former’s illness seeming at times to be the result of immaturity, the latter’s quest for spiritual fulfillment ringing hollow and a little creepy.

    Madeleine seemed like a very balanced character: she really had no idea what she wanted to do with her life (unlike Leonard, who seemed to have some direction career-wise) or where she wanted to go (unlike Mitchell, who had the whole cliche backpacking gap year thing down), but she seemed to have a rational grasp on her situation.

  10. Tara Nesbit says:

    Deeply appreciate this essay, Sabina, and how it gets at something–with humor, grace, and depth–that I have been especially irked by this past year. Is it me changing? Perhaps yes, as I’ve moved from reading mostly small press works, poetry collections, to writing prose, where I now am reading large press works, too. Especially annoying are things like, according to Lev Grossman, there are no books written by females to look forward to in 2012: http://entertainment.time.com/2011/12/07/seven-books-im-looking-forward-to-in-2012/#disqus_thread

  11. Sabina, thank you for this essay. I’ve been thinking about it since I read it. And fairly hating FREEDOM since I read it. It’s made me scared to read THE MARRIAGE PLOT. In fact I feel turned off by even the idea of big concept novels since. I feel both spurned by them and like spurning them too. But, I saw this in the New Yorker just after reading your essay (isn’t one of the lovely things about good writing is how it makes you see other things?). Emily Nussbaum wrote about Dexter: “The overall plot had echoes of ‘fridging,’ an internet term for brutalizing a female character in order to create growth in a male one. (The idiom originated with a Green Lantern comic in which the superhero’s girlfriend was stuffed into a refrigerator.)”

    Franzen neither fridged his character nor made her frigid (about the same thing) but hardly alive. Ugh. In all this I, however, can’t wait to read more of your essays.

  12. Shelley says:

    Your enthusiasm about political novels may be “naive,” as you say, but it’s also much needed in this world.

    And much appreciated by writers.

  13. Miriam Laddish says:

    Currently reading The Marriage Plot and I couldn’t agree more with you about Madeleine. I find it disappointing that a writer as talented as Eugenides could not create a more compelling female protagonist and suspect the problem is that he has fallen into the “woman as object” trope of the vast majority of western literature. The writers Eugenides puts alongside himself in this book – Austen, Eliot, James, Dreiser – all understood the idea that women can and should be the subject of their own lives rather than the object of men’s. In the case of earlier writers, women rarely had the opportunity to be more than object (daughter, wife, mother) in the lives of other people in the real world, but still, Austen managed to make Elizabeth Bennett her own, uncompromising person, as she did with her other protagonists, as did the other writers on Madeleine’s reading list for her senior thesis. The problem with Madeleine (and with the book so far as as I’ve read) is that if feels like Twilight for the intellectuals – all Madeleine cares about is clothing, food and boys (like Bella), she’s pursued by the nice but not quite exciting enough male (Mitchell) and desperately in love (after a few short weeks – work the timeline out, folks, she meets Leonard in her final semester of college and they start going out at week 10) with an aloof, critical, emotional unavailable stud (Edward) – she even runs from the cafe where she meets her parents before graduation wondering why everyone is being so mean to her. Eugenides also writes, about her “decision” to become an English major that science was too hard and math too mathematical. Please. I can almost hear Barbie saying, “Math is too hard.” – Haven’t we moved beyond this yet?

    Madeleine says Mitchell at least cared about her mind, when all Mitchell can think about from meeting her is that he saw her naked breast, and all his references to her are about her physical appearance, not how intelligent she is. She apparently spent four years at Brown being a former popular girl looking for love and learning nothing about life, literature or herself in the process. As a woman who is four years younger than Eugenides’ character, I find myself resenting that he things she captures my generation. I will tell you, yes, there were women like Madeleine in college when I was, but there were many, many more of us who were concerned with our own futures, our own intellectual development, and the desire to find our own way in the world as the subjects of our own lives rather than the object of a man’s. While he may be trying to comment on the trivialities of Austen’s characters’ concerns by bringing one of them into the 20th century, he misses understanding the dynamic complexity of her characters and why those women still resonate for 21st century women and his fall flat.

  14. Erin says:

    Well-written review… I really enjoyed “The Marriage Plot”… could someone please recommend books in the same vein? Witty, smart, relevant….. but fun?

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