**Disclaimer: this is a post about the 1993 Jeffrey Eugenides novel, not my pitiful love life. For news on that, stay tuned for tomorrow’s post, “It’s only desperate if you say please more than three times.”
The lumps of death get lost in the mess God made us.
I have been sort of an erratic reading-journaler forever. So, here’s the first installment in my attempt to:
1) Be less erratic. Actually be consistent in writing a little or a lot or literally anything at all about the things I read.
2) Be less private about the kinds of writing I do. In other words, to care a little more deeply about making my writing worth reading.
This one won’t be perfect (pause for collective gasp) because ideally I would journal about my reading throughout the reading process rather than just reflect on it at the end. I reeeeeally dislike doing that though. I’m not sure why. For someone who’s all about the journey, I sure hate journaling about the journey. But I don’t want to feel like I’m just writing a book review either, so…you see the bind I’m in.
About two weeks ago I read The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. I haven’t seen the movie, but I have read Eugenides’ excellent Pulitzer-winner, Middlesex, and I loved it. So I’m guessing that’s how The Virgin Suicides ended up on my bookshelf. That, and my fondness for a deft blend of the sexy and the morguish. I’m not kidding. We came from one, and we’re headed toward the other; so, for me, there’s something inherently haunting and touching about art that manages to intertwine the sensual and the visceral aspects of our physical beingness. Sex and death both have qualities in equal parts seductive and macabre, and Eugenides is good at thinking about those themes in terms that are less black and white than one usually considers. He’s like a literary My Chemical Romance, and I dig that.
The plot of the book is fairly straightforward. Narrated in first person plural (I know, right?), it follows a year in the lives of the Lisbon girls, Cecelia, Lux, Bonnie, Mary, and Therese, five sisters who live in a small, green suburb of Detroit. Mrs. Lisbon is a strict Catholic who only lets her daughters out of the house for school, mass, and activities that would look good on a college application. The neighborhood boys (who, as adults, narrate the novel) are obsessed with the girls, constantly watching them and speculating and fantasizing about them despite the fact that they have only interacted in passing at school. Then the youngest, Cecelia, kills herself, and the Lisbon house and its neighborhood – and the lives of those who occupy them – begin to steadily deteriorate. Within the year, the four other sisters have killed themselves as well. This brings discussion of teenage repression and depression to the forefront of their community, but nothing seems to answer the question of why these particular girls wanted to die.
After reading Middlesex, I knew that Jeffrey Eugenides really had it going on, and The Virgin Suicides confirms that opinion for me. There is a lot to love in Middlesex, but something that especially fascinates me is that Eugenides challenges his reader without being explicit about it. The protagonist and narrator, Cal, is an intersex person, which is in itself challenging enough. But, Eugenides doesn’t drop the mic there. There’s no sense of him thinking, “Well, I wrote a Pulitzer winner about an intersex person, so that’s that. No need to push it any further.” He takes care to thoroughly explore the complications of the breakdown that happens when a reader has to read through the eyes and mouth of a character who doesn’t fit into the most basic categories we’ve established for a human being: “Is it a boy or a girl?” This unsettled equilibrium is subtly present from the lovely first line:
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.
Reading The Virgin Suicides, I found a deeper nuance in what it is I find so moving and intriguing about Eugenides’ character development: he understands women. He knows how to write women. I’ve read a lot of women who know how to write women and men, but for a lot of reasons, I think that women have lived experiences of masculinity more so than men have lived experiences of femininity (obviously, huge generalization). Eugenides’ special attention to gender is penetrating and never patronizing. That quality, in a cis, straight male, to me shows a meticulous, deep, and personal investment in understanding humanity. Very trite, I know, but in Eugenides’ prose, this understanding is so natural and intricate. He never condescends to his reader. He never feels the need to be explicit or explain the why of a truth that he sees clearly enough to write so hauntingly well.
I checked out this book and its reviews on Goodreads, and it was pretty remarkable to me how many readers focused on the boys in the book and how “messed up” they were as a result of the Lisbon girls’ lives and deaths. The first-person plural narration provided by the boys is undeniably one of the most fascinating aspects of the novel, as this style is rarely attempted, let alone with such success. I think the purpose of this narration, however, was to homogenize the boys in the mind of the reader in the same way that the Lisbon girls are homogenized in the minds of the boys. Although the sisters are constantly referred to in terms that cast them as one entity, or as five indistinguishable but equally tantalizing objects of speculation, as the reader I have far better an idea of the individual traits of the five girls than of the distinctions between the countless boys who tell the story. The “we” is not the ripple of the life-altering effects that the Lisbon girls’ lives and deaths had on the boys who loved and watched them obsessively; it is the pronoun of an army violently encroaching on and occupying the consciousnesses of five girls who could never retreat.
The obvious person to “blame” for the five suicides is Mrs. Lisbon – she was strict, she kept her daughters from dating, she made them wear oversized sacks to homecoming, no makeup, no boys, no freedom from supervision. But it wasn’t the strictness that drove the girls to suicide – it was the scrutiny. Even on the night of the triple suicide, when the boys were determined to save the girls from parental tyranny, the parents were asleep. It was the boys who literally watched the girls through the windows with binoculars, speculating wildly how they felt and certain that it had everything to do with them. The paraphernalia of pictures, underwear, and handwriting are treasured by the horde of boys who never cared to befriend the five individual girls. The night of the homecoming, it didn’t matter who took whom – the four boys just showed up and took whatever girl offered her arm. The brassiere on the crucifix is the ultimate symbol of the sexual fantasy-fueled worship that the boys lavished on the girls, uninvited, unwanted, and unreciprocated.
The Virgin Suicides is a book that haunted me for days after finishing, and not for the reasons you’d expect. Gruesome content notwithstanding, the writing is effortlessly beautiful; the prose is a kind of poetry that most novelists can only dream of achieving. The startling beauty of the book demands a contemplation of one’s own sexualness, one’s own impending death, and one’s own experiences with change. Yet, this book, about teenage suicide and sexual repression, is heartbreakingly, weirdly, deeply uplifting. Make no mistake: Eugenides never gets saccharine, he never employs sentimentality, he never earnestly pleads for anyone who is contemplating suicide to reconsider, and he never goes for the Jodi Picault-esque scenes of intensely emotional drama. This is no moral tale. Nevertheless, I would unhesitatingly recommend this book to anyone who is questioning the value of life.
Your life is much more – it means much more, it’s worth much more, it’s much more intricate – than what people tell you it is. How others have conceived of your life is incomplete and inaccurate. Believing other people’s summaries of your life will fragment you irreparably. You have knowledge of your life, of your being-in-the-world, in a special way that others can’t understand, and if they try too hard, they’ll go mad. Dying, however, is not the way to take control of your life and correct the fabrications that asphyxiate you. Selflessness must guide your life, teaching you how to simply be for yourself and to be there for others. Eugenides is in true form as he holds to this solution, never making it seem so simple, but never putting it out of reach. Although others’ encroachment on your life can be destructive and suffocating, it nonetheless indicates presence. Even in moments of deepest misunderstanding and hurt, we are reminded that we are interconnected – living and dying are affairs that can and must be navigated in the spirit of togetherness. Never losing his tone of empathy, Eugenides frankly points out “the outrageousness of a human being thinking only of herself.”
Suicide – the ultimate self-destruction – leaves you truly incomplete, forever burdening the outsiders who loved you, deeply and imperfectly, with the impossible task of piecing fragments of you back together. It is only in a state of being fully known and knowing, fully loved and loving, that we can be complete.