Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Virgin Suicides

The Virgin Suicides - Jeffrey Eugenides

The Virgin Suicides is a mosaic of seventies cultural references, from movies to music to the spread of Dutch Elm disease, the World Wildlife Fund and sexual experimentation in suburbia... in this detritus one thing remains standing, either the legs of a giant statue or the last two Elm trees, stripped of their bark. A plaque beneath them reads "I am Donny Osmonde, King of Kings, look on my works, ye mighty, and my hair."
(with abject apologies to Percy Shelley)
On the surface this is the story of five sisters who kill themselves. We know this right from the start. But under the surface this is many things; an elegy for lost youth, an exploration of sexual fantasies, a gloss on seventies culture, a lament for meaning, a conjuration...
It is also the story of the narrators, a bunch of neighbourhood boys who have watched, fascinated, as the Lisbon girls grew up across the road from their tree house, from which they would watch them. They are now middle aged men and are still fascinated by the girls and their untimely deaths. The voice has been compared to that of a Greek chorus but it seems to me to be more that of a single person hiding behind the plural, and one who is not entirely reliable.

The book in a nutshell..."The yellow bricks retained their look of a church run orphanage and the silence of the lawn was absolute." The Wizard of Oz, religion, Annie and Hannibal Lecter. Children at risk and the knowledge that it won't end well. Nature subjugated.
It is about meaning - where do we find it? How deep do we delve? The story of the girls is being excavated and interpreted. At times the narrative voice tells us clearly that it is speculating, at times it professes to know things that are unknowable to it.
The sisters take on a quasi religious meaning for the boys/men. Cecilia is the first sister to kill herself and they come into possession of her diary: "that tiny rice paper journal illuminated with colored Magic Markers to look like a Book of Hours or a medieval Bible. Miniature designs crowded the pages. Bubblegum angels swooped from top margins, or scraped their wings between teeming paragraphs. Maidens with golden hair dripped sea blue tears into the books spine. Grape-colored whales spouted blood around a newspaper article (pasted in) listing arrivals to the endangered species list."
 Reading it the boys "felt the imprisonment of being a girl" "and that they (the girls) knew everything about us though we couldn't fathom them at all."
But it was not for want of trying, or watching. "None of us went to church so we had a lot of time to watch them, the two parents leached of color, like photographic negatives, and then the five glittering daughters in their homemade dresses, all lace and ruffle, bursting with their fructifying flesh." Notice how he has reversed the polarity here, the girls developed and the parents still waiting to be developed. We are in the world of teenage lust, with seeds scattering everywhere.
How much of what we are told is an erotic fantasy? We can never know but I always felt that there was some sense of being led astray by the narrative voice, particularly in relation to Lux, the most erotically active of the Lisbon girls. Her name echoes that of the most beloved of all the angels, Lucifer, and she tries to fly like him from the arms of her parents/gods, climbing onto the roof and moving her arms "like a child drawing an angel in the snow". The boys watch, fascinated by this "succubus of those binocular nights."
Adults in the book are inept and untrustworthy:  "how ancient they were, how accustomed to trauma, depressions, and wars. We realized that the version of the world they rendered for us was not the world they really believed in." Their attempts to instigate healing after the first suicide do little good because "all the healing was done by those of us without wounds." They are so eager to believe something that explains events  that they listen "to the reporters inanities as though they could tell us the truth about our own lives." Their response to tragedy os often dripping with bathos: "The Reverend Pike spoke of the christian message of death and rebirth, working in a story of his own heartrending loss when his college football team failed to clinch the division title." The two paramedics are almost a comedy duo, the "gangly one" and the "fat one".
The suicides of the four sisters are explained away as a contagion from the first suicide. "No one cared how Cecilia had caught the virus in the first place." One of the boys has a Greek grandmother. She says that "suicide makes sense" to the Greeks but not why Americans "pretended to be happy all the time." It is suggested that Cecilia killed herself because of how we are destroying the world.
The book is like an effort to conjure them back from the disappearing box, as if they are the key to understanding everything. The boys collected anything of theirs they could find and many of these are notionally attached to the book, like relics. The have also hunted down and interviewed all the people they could find who were anyway invlolved. But whatever magic is invested in these objects cannot call them back to life. The conjuration is bound to fail.
A short passage from near the end encapsulates a lot of what the book meant to me, tangential to the story as it may be. "Guests strolled outside beneath Venetian lanterns that led down to the lake. Under moonlight, the algae scum looked like shag carpeting, the entire lake a sunken living room." The sense is of fin de siècle Venice crossed with wife swapping parties in a suburbia that is gradually covering nature from our view. Dying trees, pollution, extinction, a putrid romance. As Lux prepares to leave the room of the living and swap life for whatever "she fished in a bowl for the car keys."
Is it too much to see in the religious imagery and Iberian name the echo of conquistadors and to sense, buried beneath the algae on the lake a faint echo of the splash of oars as the last of some tribe of the true natives are hunted to their death? "If the boats didn't bring the fungus from Europe in the first place none of this would have ever happened."

This Youtube playlist is taken from a phone call from The Lisbon girls to the narrators. They played the first song and the bots played a response each time.


  1. I've heard of this one for years but never really wanted to read it. Tonight, it goes on the list. Such an interesting review!

  2. Thanks. I wrote the first draft of this too late at night and managed to delete it before posting. I think this post is a little less coherent (than the deleted one) but it does give a sense of how the book affected me.
    the word 'conjure' seemed to appear a lot and I felt this was far less of a realist novel than it seems to be treated as. He even makes the point (in a quote that I used in the 1st draft) that he doesn't have a botany reference book like those so beloved of realists and park rangers. (this when wrongly describing a sycamore as some other tree - I don't have the book to hand to cross check.)