The Virgin Suicides
By Jeffery Eugenides
Before I get into this, I have a recommendation to make for anyone thinking about reading this novel. Do not, under any circumstances, read this book while feeling sad. Don't read it if you feel depressed, down, off, low or even slightly unhappy. And, for the love of God, do not read this book if it has been raining consistently in your vicinity for more than a week (in my case, three weeks). I'm not the sort to suffer from depression (mild or sever) but this book put me in a serious funk.
OK, on with the show...
The Virgin Suicides is the 1993 debut novel by Jeffery Eugenides. It is a book I have been meaning to read for over a decade but circumstances have conspired against me all that time (conspiracies include: forget about the book when I'm in the bookstore, bookstore doesn't have the book, living too far away from bookstore, book is obscenely expensive and I refuse to buy it). After reading and reviewing Eugenides more recent novel Middlesex last year, I decided that enough was enough, ordered it on my Kindle and finally sat down and read it. So to say that this book was built up in my mind is an understatement. There was literally a decade of anticipation burbling under the surface as I delved into this one.
Without going into too much detail, the story is about five sisters who, in the course of a year, each commit suicide. It charts the build-up and execution (no pun intended) of the first suicide and the slow, painful descent of the Lisbon family in the wake of tragedy. It also follows the trajectory of the neighborhood who don't seem to have the emotional capacity to deal with the disintegration of a member group in the community. The novel itself seems often reads like a community coping mechanism, albeit too late. In a broader sense, The Virgin Suicides encapsulates the social and emotional isolation of suburban America. Heady issues for a debut novel, Mr. Eugenides!
Eugenides employs the seldom utilized first person plural narrative, which took some getting used to. The narrator, as far as the reader can tell is a boy within a very large social circle living in the same community (although nameless, clues in the narrative suggest that the community is somewhere in suburban Detroit circa the mid 1970s) who speaks for everyone in his social circle from a point several years after the suicides. The narrative reads like a formal introduction (via collection of evidence and interviews) for some sort of investigation (or perhaps memorial) into the suicides, but the reasons for the formality remain unclear to the very end. It had the effect of reading a modern myth narrated by a Greek chorus.
Once I settled into the narrative style, I decided I liked it for several reasons. The first person plural encapsulates the thoughts, memories and opinions of a large group of people in the community and, therefore creates a semi-omniscient narrator. We experience the story through the eyes of the entire community, which gives the feeling of an urban legend (myth) come true. A lot of the details in the book are gained by heresy and conjecture only adding to the obvious distortion of the truth throughout the novel. Many of the "facts" contradict and there is often a measure of dissent among the interviewees on specific details. All this makes The Virgin Suicides a pleasure to read for those who love narrative nuance.
But the narrative style works very well on a second level. Despite the semi-omniscience of the community, it never penetrates into the actual thoughts, memories and opinions of the Lisbon girls, which is the crux of the story, after all. The narrative style builds a metaphorical wall around the girls (to go with the literal one that is their house and parents). This distance from the subjects places them firmly on a pedestal in the mind of the narrator and, in turn, the mind of the readers. The girls are literally and figuratively out of reach. They are completely intangible and, therefore, lapse into the realm of legend in the minds of the local boys. The girls achieve a distant, almost ephemeral quality in the novel. They are already ghosts at the beginning of the novel and only seem to drift farther from reality as the story progresses. These girls exist only in myth and the motives of the narrator suggest myth making.
Surely, if the narrator had gained more access to the girls while they had been alive, they would have been more human. There are glimpses of their humanity in the book but the narrator seems to miss willfully miss them in order to preserve the girls mythical status. But one gets the impression that the narrator has no intention of humanizing these girls. The Lisbon girls have infected the boys in this community so thoroughly that they will never full recover from what transpired and their particular coping mechanism is to mythologize rather than humanize.
On a second level, this novel deconstructs the deep isolation of the post-World War II North American suburban experience. Eugenides does a spectacular job with setting (as he did in Middlesex). He encapsulates the loneliness and tedium of life in these communities. And this story derives from the dichotomous desires of people who want calm and serenity while simultaneously desiring chaos and disorder. This is best represented in the book during the sub-plot involving the on-going community plan to eliminate Dutch Elm disease in the community trees by cutting them all down, reducing the neighborhood to a barren, naked landscape. The plan is both systematic and chaotic, much like the quietly desperate lives of those who live in the suburbs.
Did this book live up to its reputation (a ten year build up)? Absolutely. Eugenides proved (to me) with Middlesex that he is a significant force in the literary community. Going back and reading The Virgin Suicides only confirms that the pedigree was always there. My recommendation is that if you have not yet read this book, do so. It deserves to be recognized as a modern classic. I finished the book the day before writing this and since I insist on writing my blog within a day of completing a book (to keep it fresh as well as to see what sort of spontaneous nonsense comes out of me) this blog post cannot and will not do this novel justice. There is so much to this book and I fear I will need to re-read this book before too long.
I just hope it doesn't rain when I do.