Is marriage the most admirably enduring theme in fiction, or just the most tedious? In the years since the heydays of Updike, Roth, and Bellow, three writers who turned often to the subject (and its most enduring/tedious complication, infidelity), literary novelists have almost deliberately avoided the topic, sick of it the way we tire of the landmarks or monuments we pass daily. Today, the ones who do engage the topic seem determined to do so only to subvert it. Marriage now isn’t worth attention unless it’s a function of, say, semiotics and faith (Jeffrey Eugenides’ "The Marriage Plot"), or pop music and urban diversity (Michael Chabon’s "Telegraph Avenue"), or geopolitics (pick your Franzen).
Lauren Groff’s cutting and inventive third novel, Fates and Furies, is in keeping with that anti-tradition, though what it wants to subvert are the themes of marriage itself. Its two sections follow Lotto, a much-lusted-after college student turned failed actor turned globally acclaimed playwright, and Mathilde, who on the surface is the steadfast, cheerleading spouse. The best marriages are united fronts, the cliché goes, and when somebody dares criticize Mathilde, Lotto snaps back hard: “My wife is the best human being on the planet and you know it.” You groan, but Groff’s groaning, too: It’s clear she wants to interrogate, dissect, and at times openly mock matrimonial sentiment, to reveal the kind of delusions that keeps marriages afloat. “Marriage is made of lies,” Lotto’s mother says. “Kind ones, mostly.”
As the title suggests, myths are a recurring theme: There are references to Arthurian legend (Lotto is short for Lancelot), "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," Antigone, Odysseus, "The Song of Roland," and more. But though the story brushes toward an Oedipal turn in its closing chapters, Groff isn’t striving to rehash Bulfinch so much as she wants to modernize that myth-making urge: Is marriage an act of mythologizing?
Answer: Mostly – though in the novel’s first half, that answer has a romantic cast. The son of a Florida bottled-water heiress, Lotto escapes teenage indiscretions to spend his Vassar years as the brightest stage talent and most robust sexual glutton. When he marries Mathilde – “this gorgeous girl he’d magicked into wife” – he’s disinherited, but no matter: Their early years in the West Village are filled with parties and talented friends, and, in time, a creative break – a play that transforms Lotto into Lancelot Satterwhite, Broadway sensation, and Lotto-and-Mathilde into an unbreakable couple. (It would be impossible to talk about Groff’s design without discussing how the unbreakable turns out anything but – consider yourself spoiler-warned.)
Lotto’s struggles are largely of the Great Man variety – a collaboration gone awry, a New York Times critic who keeps a rhetorical shiv with his name on it, artistic dead ends. (Nobody took him aside to tell him a play about John Wayne Gacy with singing bits was a bad idea, apparently.) Throughout, Mathilde remains his proverbial rock. “She’s a saint,” he says. “One of the purest people I’ve ever met. Just morally upright, never lies, can’t bear a fool.” Bad news is coming, of course.
But it’s one of Groff’s remarkable talents in this novel – though not the biggest one – that she persuades us to keep faith with such a plainly hubristic statement for a while. Lotto’s success is so full-flowered (Groff’s superbly sketched scenes from his oeuvre are gems in themselves), and Mathilde’s supportiveness is so understated, that the novel’s second half is still surprising when all those assurances are inevitably upended. Mathilde, from her name on down, is not who she says she is. And because Mathilde is not who she says she is, Lotto is not quite who he thinks he is. As the other side of their marriage unspools for readers, Mathilde pointedly quotes Gertrude Stein, who wrote, “I have sat with wives who were not wives of geniuses who were real geniuses.” It is bracing to watch Groff deepen Lotto’s delusions and Mathilde’s determination. She is, as the title hints, infuriated.
Groff isn’t compelled to moralize on this. “Storytelling is a landscape, and tragedy is comedy is drama,” an acting coach intones early on. “It simply depends on how you frame what you’re seeing.” But Groff does effectively radicalize the story, free it from its usual themes of romance and heartbreak, to offer a blunter portrait of a marriage. In her brilliant 2007 novel, "The Post-Birthday World," Lionel Shriver took a hatchet to matrimony in a similar way, chopping her narrative in two: In one half, a woman stays true to her husband, while in the other she pursues an affair. Thrusting characters into two different circumstances underscores the notion that marriage reshapes how we view the world, how much we become a function of our partners. "Fates and Furies" achieves a similar effect through more hyperreal effects – Lotto is the brilliant satyr, Mathilde is steeped in psychodrama, and interactions are more overdramatized, built to defy expectations. Rhetorical provocations abound: Mathilde calls pregnant women “the original Trojan horses”; when she and Lotto get a dog, they name it God.
The novel falters when its unreality (a brilliant play written in five hours!) rubs too closely to its portentous sentences. (“‘Help!’ he shouted into the blasting wind. ‘Mathilde!’ he shouted.”) But the novel is remarkably cohesive, considering how far Groff is willing to push her central characters. Later in her life, Mathilde launches her own writing career with a pointed agenda: “She was so tired of the old way of telling stories, all those too-worn narrative paths, the familiar plot thickets, the fat social novels. She needed something messier, something sharper, something like a bomb going off.”
"Fates and Furies" doesn’t blow up marriage, but it’s a ferocious attack on its pieties and commonplaces. The marriage plot is forever, but Groff has found a new way to court the reader.