No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

2010/08: The Virgin Suicides -- Jeffrey Eugenides

A photograph survives of that night (Exhibit #10). The girls are lined up in their party dresses, shoulder to square shoulder, like pioneer women. Their stiff hairdos ("hairdon'ts", Tessie Nepi, the beautician, said) have the stoic, presumptious quality of European fashions enduring the wilderness ... the photograph still conveys the pride of attractive offspring and liminal rites. An air of expectancy glows in the girls' faces. Gripping one another, pulling each other into the frame, they seem braced for some discovery or change of life. Of life. That, at least, is how we see it. Please don't touch. We're going to put the picture back in its envelope now. (p. 119)

First novel by the author of Middlesex, a novel which I enjoyed and admire. Not so impressed with The Virgin Suicides. The haunting, humorous and tender story of the brief lives of the five Lisbon sisters, says the blurb: perhaps I'm losing my sense of humour, but the only humour I found here was pitch-black, mordant, gallows humour.

The story's a simple one, set in suburban America around, at a guess, 1970. After the death of Cecilia Lisbon, her four older sisters are permitted by their overprotective parents to go out on a date. Needless to say, things don't go according to plan; the girls are withdrawn from school and forbidden to leave the house; see title for summary, though it's not wholly true.

There are two narrative idiosyncrasies about this novel: first, more trivially, that it's a book that signals its ending in title and on the first page, so that the reader knows what happens but not the how and why of it. (Whether the how and why are any clearer at the end of the novel is left as an exercise for other readers.) Secondly and fascinatingly, it's written in first person plural: the narrative voice is 'we', a hive-mind of the boys who watch the rise and fall of the Lisbon sisters, who clutch magpie-like to the relics of their lives (LPs, postcards, the memory of a brassiere draped across a crucifix, anecdotal evidence about the treasures concealed in the girls' shared bathroom) and remain obsessed by the memory of the Lisbon girls twenty years later. The narrative voice never names itself, though it refers to parts of itself -- Mark Peters, Demo Karafilis, David Black.

The novel's also about the breakdown of the neighbourhood: the devastating effects of Dutch Elm disease (without trees there were no leaves to rake, no piles of leaves to burn (p. 244)), the decline of the American auto industry, the spiritual bankruptcy of capitalism, the death of the American dream et cetera. Perhaps if I were American it would resonate more strongly with me, the Lisbon girls as metaphor for a generation or a way of life or for the innocence with which they were observed, the hunger with which their memory was pursued, by the nameless 'we' of the narrative.


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