Wednesday, June 24th, 2009...5:55 pm

On Marriage, or Just Finished Reading: On Beauty by Zadie Smith and Netherland by Joseph O’Neill

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“At our very first meeting, Juliet Schwarz turned to Rachel and asked if she loved me and, if yes, what it was about me that she loved. (…)

“’Love,’” Rachel desperately replied, “is such an omnibus word.”

Here was an irony of our continental separation (undertaken, remember, in the hope of clarification): it had made things less clear than ever. By and large, we separators succeeded only in separating our feelings from any meaning we could give them. That was my experience, if you want to talk about experience. I had no way of knowing if what I felt, brooding in New York City, was love’s abstract or love’s miserable leftover. The idea of love was itself separated by meaning. Love? Rachel had gotten it right. Love was an omnibus thronged by a rabble.

And yet we again climbed aboard, she and I.

Netherland, Joseph O,Neill

I’ve been puzzling over marriage a lot lately.

I’m very proud resident of the first state to legalize gay marriage, and so have been watching the recent marriage debates with a strong interest, not because I’m gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but because I really believe in the institution of marriage. Or I thought I did. Or I believe in a different institution than the one people are fighting over. But I really love weddings and have been doing my fair share of participating in planning/prepping for friends’ weddings this summer.

Anyway, it’s led me to rethink a lot of what I thought I was sure about. I’m heartened to see people fighting for what I think is their civil right to marry who they want (my own parents’ marriage would have been illegal at one point) but looking at all the ugliness in this debate, I gotta say, I’m feeling pretty cynical about the institution I thought I believed in wholeheartedly.

The Christian right spends a lot of time talking about the redefinition of marriage, but from where I sit it seems to me that they’re the ones with their priorities out of whack. Since when did marriage and family become about intolerance, judgment and exclusion? (Wait, maybe don’t answer that). In addition, I feel like the right (along with the wedding industrial complex) has played a big part in setting up this unrealistic, Leave it to Beaver, unattainable fairy tale standard for what marriage should be. It’s no wonder so many people get divorced if their measure for failure is that they didn’t live up to a fantasy.

For their part, a lot of my friends on the left seem happy to throw the whole thing out, baby and bath water, so I can’t say I’m really in their camp on this one either. Sure, it’s not perfect, it’s an inherently sexist arrangement, blah blah, but there is something to be said for two committed parents raising their kids in stable, secure households, working through their issues together as a family no matter what the dysfunction.

I guess I’m feeling like there’s nothing left to hold on to—seems like these days it’s either Ward and June or anything goes. If those are my options, what’s the point?

In the face of this discouragement I happened to recently read two works of fiction (ironically) that I thought depicted the beautifully flawed, human side of marriage that comes from two imperfect people making a lifelong commitment to each other. How on earth could that possibly be easy? Zadie Smith (“On Beauty”) and Joseph O’Neill (“Netherland”) have written, gorgeous unvarnished stories about marriages that have at the core of them deep love, commitment and hope. In other words, they’re nothing like the fairy tale marriages that the pro-marriage crew is trying to cram down our throats.

The recent commentary about Netherland has focused on the fact that President Obama seems to be reading it, and so, therefore, devotes a ton of attention to the political themes of the story (post-9/11 NYC, the immigrant experience in 21st century America). For my part, I thought the politics were secondary to the relationship themes, tools used to tell the story of their marriage. Hans and his wife live through 9/11, and the stress of the experience serves to highlight tensions they’re already experiencing. In the wreckage of his marriage, Hans finds refuge on the cricket fields of Staten Island with West Indian and South Asian immigrants to get as far away from his upper-class banker’s life in Manhattan and seek comfort in the familiarity of the game he played as a kid.

Two of my best friends are getting married this summer. I’ll be spending a good chunk of my summer planning with and feting them. In the midst of it all, I’m hoping they don’t fall victim to the unattainable fairy tale expectations society is trying to foist upon them. I hope when the going gets tough their first instinct isn’t to bail. I hope they don’t become ashamed because things aren’t as blissful as they’ve been told they’ll be. I hope they can find beauty in the struggle. Now that I think about it, maybe they’ll be getting some books as their wedding gifts.

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