Postmodern Passion

Benjamin Nugent describes how a number of his favorite recent novels are stories of romance and courtship, and “get away with great warmth…by using a particular cold vocabulary, the vocabulary of theory.” One example? Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot:

Sometimes, in these novels, discussions of theory are merely juxtaposed with love scenes. But the best ones are those in which theory provides the language that enables the lovers to communicate. In Eugenides’ book, two Brown students, Leonard and Madeline, meet in a semiotics class. When Madeline tells Leonard she loves him for the first time, he finds an ingenious way to slam on the brakes: He digs in her bag for her copy of Barthes’ “A Lover’s Discourse” and points to the section on the words “I love you.”

“The figure refers not to the declaration of love, to the avowal, but to the repeated utterance of the love cry … Once the first avowal has been made, ‘I love you’ has no meaning whatever …”

He smirks, she throws the book at his head. A young lover rejecting another in naturalistic dialogue might feel melodramatic, too hot, too familiar to allow a reader to feel the sting. But because Leonard’s cruelty comes in the form of a quotation about a “figure,” an “utterance” — that is, in the cold jargon of literary criticism — the moment of cruelty feels unconventional, real.