You are going to want to subscribe to the who-do voodoo that the hulking bipolar disorder in Jeffrey Eugenides' novel The Marriage Plot is a nod to his old peer-ish sort David Foster Wallace. You will see it in the clunky Timberlands on his feet and the way he ties that bandanna around his hair and drips chaw spit into a glass. It's in the way that Leonard is an intellectual, hyper-smart about his mental illness, who defies his doctors by sketching out his own way to ween from the meds.
The first time you see him, it feels like a celebrity sighting. You'll want to elbow anyone and whisper “There he is. It's him.” Lean in closer, observe him like a culture smeared on a slide. But after awhile it gets easier to see him as a doppelganger. Especially when he does things you don't want to imagine that Sir Foster Wallace did.
Do it for awhile. Then ditch it. Suspend your disbelief to the point where you think: Well, Leonard isn't athletic and we all know that DFW was a whiz with a racket. Sure that lumbering body smells like Wallace, but think of him more as a character from Where the Wild Things Are, instead, like Eugenides describes him.
Otherwise you're a goner. It's too much. It's a distraction in what is a damn-fine novel on par with Eugenides' other novels The Virgin Suicides, and Middlesex: Maddie loves Leonard, Leonard's lobes are too heavy for his mental illness and Mitchell is in love with Maddie.
It's senior year in the 1980s at Brown University, where Maddie is an English major cooing over book spines and considering the marriage plot in Jane Austen novels. She has, in recent years, fallen out of friendship with Mitchell, who is obsessed with the idea that he is going to marry Madeline, while simultaneously shopping for religion. Leonard spent his early college years as a sexual conquistador but lands on Maddie's radar when he helps back her argument in a literature class.
They're romantic life is hot, their conversations are smart, but then his depression supersedes his mania, he mocks Maddie's declaration of love, gets dumped and he lands in a state hospital. They get back together after graduation and she plays nurse as they play house during a hoity toity biology fellowship. Mitchell, meanwhile, is working his way through Europe with his best friend. He's chasing God and trying to exorcise Maddie who is still so stuck in his craw.
Eugenides has always written great stories. Lovely oppressed sisters who captivate a slew of neighborhood boys; the pros and cons of balancing both sex organs. This one is a take on the simplest of stories — the him or him conundrum — but with smart, complex, and complete characters boasting equal parts pro and con. You're going to like it. A lot.
Regardless, Eugenides has said that the whole DFW thing is an invention made up by New York Magazine's Vulture site that has spiralled, and that he was wrapping Leonard in a head band as more of an Axl Rose gesture. Hm. I don't know. Regardless, he made some strange decisions with the character that have certainly helped to make an opposing argument. If he had just dressed Leonard in bib overalls, we might not even be having this conversation.