Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Virgin Suicides is ostensibly about the suicides of the five Lisbon sisters (readers know early on that all five will die, so I'm not revealing any big surprises). To me, however, it is really about the obsession of the teenage boys who lived in the same Grosse Pointe, Michigan, neighborhood as the girls. The boys are the narrative voice of the novel, told in the rarely effective first person plural. The narrators make clear that they are looking back upon the suicides from middle age (at one point, readers are subjected to a rather detailed description of a testicular self-exam). Yet they still maintain the suitcases of evidence--97 pieces in all--that they began collecting soon after the youngest girl, Cecilia, successfully killed herself on her second attempt (in a particularly gruesome manner).

The second youngest girl, Lux, is a bit of a slut, and when one of the boys falls in love with her, he convinces her parents to let the four remaining sisters attend the homecoming dance with him and his friends. Unfortunately, Lux misses her curfew and, as punishment, the Lisbon parents (largely Mrs. Lisbon we are subtly led to believe) confine the girls to their home. Not only do they stop going to school, the family stops taking care of the house and lawn, stops receiving their usual grocery deliveries, essentially drops out of society--except that Mr. Lisbon continues teaching at the high school  until he is fired. The house starts to emit a strange odor (Eugenides seems to be big on describing aromas in great detail).

Meanwhile, the boys spend most of their time spying on, talking about, or scheming to make contact with the girls. Lux, they know, sneaks up to the rooftop to engage in sex with a seemingly unending supply of men and boys--not including any of our narrators. The boys believe they have finally achieved their goal of trysting with the girls on the very night when three of the sisters succeed in committing suicide (the last sister, like the first, requires two attempts). The resulting media frenzy irritates the boys no end because, though they admit they themselves really know nothing significant about the girls, the media reports are so blatantly wrong, the explanations of the suicides so off-base. The suicides, Dutch Elm disease, and the waning of the auto industry start the decline of their suburb--yet our narrators find themselves living on the same street as adults, continuing their investigations into the Lisbon family (they conduct extensive interviews), and keeping their evidence in their renovated tree house.

The Virgin Suicides should be a sad book, but I found myself unmoved. No character--including the narrators and the sisters--was well enough drawn to elicit understanding or sympathy. The girls were two-dimensional at best and, as a result, did not seem realistic and their deaths carried no apparent meaning. Because of the first person plural narration, the boys had no individual identities and, as a group, were pathetic. The message seems to be either that teenage boys lack the resources to create any kind of meaningful existence and/or that the suburbs are a place in which young people wither into either death or meaningless adulthood.

I know this novel was greeted with rave reviews when it was published back in the mid-1990s and created quite a little buzz around the author. I did not find it particularly entertaining or elucidating. If I had not already read Middlesex and The Marriage Plot, The Virgin Suicides might have dissuaded me from doing so. Luckily, I had read them--both have vastly better developed characters and more interesting stories to tell (in the case of Middlesex, extraordinarily more interesting).

Possibly of note: The Virgin Suicides seems to have inspired a book I read a few years ago, The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard, also a story told in the first person plural, in this instance by a group of boys obsessed with a girl who disappears.  Some aspects of that book I thought were better done than The Virgin Suicides, but the first person plural narration again doesn't work--in fact, it almost never works in my estimation.

Favorite passages:
Dr. Armonson stitched up her wrist wounds. Withen 5 minutes of the transfusion he declared her out of danger. Chucking her under the chin, he said, "What are you doing here, honey? Your not even old enough to know how bad life gets." And it was then Cecelia gave orally what was to be her only form of suicide note, and a useless one at that, because she was going to live: "Obviously, Doctor," she said, "you've never been a 13 year old girl."

In the end we had the pieces of the puzzle, but no matter how we put them together, gaps remained, oddly shaped emptinesses mapped by what surrounded them, like countries we couldn't name

No comments:

Post a Comment