I am writing about Jeffrey Eugenides’s magical novel The Marriage Plot at greater length elsewhere, but a remarkable coincidence — an instant of serendipity in literary history — struck me upon reading it.
After he returns from India, where he briefly volunteered in Mother Teresa’s Home for Dying Destitutes, Mitchell Grammaticus begins to attend Quaker meeting back in America. Obviously modeled upon his author (four-syllable Greek surname, Brown University graduate), Mitchell had been receiving instruction in the Church of Rome before leaving American shores. His religious awakening was surprisingly academic. In an undergraduate course “called Religion and Alienation in 20th Century Culture,” a course described by its professor as a “rigorous, comprehensive, analytical course in twentieth-century religious thought” (O, what professors could get away with a generation ago!), Mitchell wrote a final examination paper that was a kind of breakthrough for him:
While he wrote, he felt, for the first time, as though he weren’t in school anymore. He wasn’t answering questions to get a grade on a test. He was trying to diagnose the predicament he felt himself to be in. And not just his predicament, either, but that of everyone he knew. . . . Everyone he knew was convinced that religion was a sham and God a fiction. But his friends’ replacements for religion didn’t look too impressive. No one had an answer for the riddle of existence. It was like that Talking Heads song, “And you may ask yourself, ‘How did I get here?’ . . . And you may tell yourself, ‘This is not my beautiful house.’ And you may tell yourself, ‘This is not my beautiful wife.’ ”
That song, “Once in a Lifetime” (1984), provides Eugenides with his epigraph. And the revelatory moment when it overflows into Mitchell’s mind is the defining moment in The Marriage Plot. (That’s partly what makes it so amazing. When was the last time you read a novel, ostensibly a love story, about the “riddle of existence”?)
His professor is bowled over by Mitchell’s exam paper. “I’ve taught at this college for twenty-two years,” he tells Mitchell. “In all of that time, only once have I received a paper that displays the depth of insight and philosophical acumen that yours does.” He offers to secure Mitchell a full scholarship to divinity school. “I want you to know that I think you have the potential to do significant work in contemporary Christian theological studies,” he says. And with that, Mitchell’s future is assured. He heads for India.
Mitchell never does find an answer that can be summarized while standing on one foot. In large measure, his attendance at Quaker meeting, where the congregants sit in silence until moved to speak by the “inner light,” is a fitting symbol of Mitchell’s recognition that a neat and tidy answer is not forthcoming. At the end of the novel, he decides not to attend divinity school after all; and Eugenides implies that the search for an answer took a different form from then on — namely, the form of book-length fiction.
But it is the attendance at Quaker meeting that struck me. Because the main character in Roland Merullo’s lovely Talk-Funny Girl ends up doing exactly the same. After saving herself from decades of abuse at the hands of her violent parents — parents deranged and justified by a violent ersatz of charismatic Christianity — Marjorie Richards inches back to God by attending Quaker meeting.
The coincidence is remarkable. And telling. Two of the best American novelists now writing go out of their way to affirm religion as a meaningful replacement for the unimpressive replacements of postmodern life, but it is as if they are afraid to go too far. They curb their affirmative steps. I don’t mean to fault Quakerism at all, but even Eugenides is amusing on the fashionable opinions of its contemporary adherents (“the bulletin board outside [the meeting house] bore a flyer for an antinuke march, a plea to petition the government on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal,” and the bumper stickers on the cars in the parking lot “pictured Planet Earth next to the slogan SAVE YOUR MOTHER, or simply, PEACE”).
And you can imagine the difference in dramatic effect if Mitchell Grammaticus or Marjorie Richards had joined an Evangelical church or became strictly orthodox in any way. As I wrote here three weeks ago, “In a literary age that is impatient with religion, perhaps any treatment of the theme, any suggestion that a good life is a worthy goal, runs the risk of being dismissed as dogmatic.” Quakerism, for them and their authors, is frankly a compromise with the very things about postmodern life that leave them feeling incomplete and sting them into a search for answers.
Merullo is candid about the compromise:
Each of us forms an explanation for the existence of failure and pain, and every explanation is a mini-religion all its own. My religion, I suppose, the belief system I’ve made for myself to render the events of my life meaningful, is this: In a mysterious fashion not completely understandable to us, everything moves the individual soul toward humility.
While this is beautiful in its embrace of subjectivity (or what Marilynne Robinson, a more openly religious novelist, calls “the testimony of mind”), it comes dangerously close to confusing subjectivity with relativism. If your answer to the riddle of existence is yours, and my answer is that yours is a sham, what is there left to say? When every religion is a “mini-religion,” and every novel is then a mini-novel (no matter how many pages it accumulates), the triumphalist march of an age that scoffs that God is a fiction and fiction is a relic will not be slowed or diverted, but only quietly, reluctantly joined.