But is that all there is? Certainly, the rhetoric from the semiotics professor and his acolytes is mostly nonsensical and funny, bound to tickle anyone who has read in the field. Yet no matter how dirty the bathwater, the postmodern baby is still there, smiling. The ideas are debated, names like William Gass appear in the text, a Joycean reference gleams like a beacon for English majors, and Maddy is devoted to "A Lover's Discourse" by Roland Barthes. When the brilliant, manic-depressive Leonard ties a blue bandanna on his head, he moves beyond being a fictional character to becoming a double of David Foster Wallace, a brilliant, manic-depressive, bandanna-wearing writer.
It's a heavy meta-textual weight to carry: Wallace, whose landmark novel "Infinite Jest" employed footnotes as a postmodern formal device, committed suicide in 2008 at age 46. Eugenides' earlier books are evidence that he's no retro artist — the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Middlesex" was part lush immigrant story, part coming-of-age of a hermaphrodite, and "The Virgin Suicides" used the first-person plural narrative voice ("we") to tell a story of thwarted teenage sexuality. In "The Marriage Plot," Eugenides lauds and exploits the pleasures of traditionalism while sneaking in a little postmodernism on the side.
In this way, the Wallace echo is enriching, but it is also distracting. The deeper Eugenides explores Leonard's mental illness, the less comfortable it is to associate him with the doomed writer.
If there is a writer to whom Eugenides appears connected, it is not Wallace but Jonathan Franzen. They are less than a year apart in age, and while Franzen got a head start, the two, who are both with the same publisher, are on similar publishing schedules. Last year, Franzen's "Freedom" was a bestseller; like "The Marriage Plot," it's a robust, rich story of adults in a love triangle. Eugenides benefits by the comparison: This book is sweeter, kinder, with a more generous heart. What's more, it is layered with exactly the kinds of things that people who love novels will love.