Thursday, October 08, 2015

The Virgin Suicides

THE ironic tone of this lyrical but highly comic debut novel is established in its opening two sentences: 'On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide - it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese - the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope. They got out of the EMS truck, as usual moving much too slowly in our opinion, and the fat one said under his breath, 'This ain't TV folks, this is how fast we go]' '
From a chance conversation with a babysitter, who told him how as teenagers she and her sisters all attempted suicide, Eugenides has fashioned an eccentric, amusing and moving American fantasy, set in the leafy suburb of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, where he spent his own teenage years. It is a book not so much about suicide - although the five teenage Lisbon sisters do kill themselves - but about unrequited love and the unknowable hurt of any action.

The story is pieced together 20 years later by a group of middle-aged men. As neighbourhood boys in the Seventies, they yearned for the exotic and unreachable sisters and the story comes out of their continuing obsession with them and the meaning of what they did.

Like suburban archaeologists, the narrators sort through a rubbish pile of evidence - diaries, snapshots, dried-out cosmetics, a soap dish, a brassiere - searching for 'some Rosetta stone' to explain the girls. They interview former neighbours, friends, teachers and the girls' dazed and divorced parents. They collate memories and gossip. They find no answers.

The sisters - Therese, Mary, Bonnie, Lux and Cecilia - were under the thumb of their tyrannical, disturbed mother, who never allowed them to have dates and dressed them in ridiculously baggy clothes. Their father, a mild high school maths teacher, was sympathetic but docile.

The narrators recollect a handful of occasions and gestures. The stilted basement party, the only occasion they saw the inside of the Lisbon house, during which Cecilia, the first suicide, went to an upper floor and hurled herself to her death on the spikes of a metal garden fence. The homecoming dance which the surviving girls attended as a group date, when Lux - no virgin she - stayed out until dawn. As a result of this the sisters were removed from school by their mother and incarcerated in their home.

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Jeffrey Eugenides's piercing first novel begins with a startling and horrible event: a 13-year-old girl hurls herself out of a window and impales herself on the iron fence that runs around her family's house.

"It didn't matter," Mr. Eugenides's narrator recalls, "whether her brain continued to flash on the way down, or if she regretted what she'd done, or if she had time to focus on the fence spikes shooting toward her. Her mind no longer existed in any way that mattered. The wind sound huffed, once, and then the moist thud jolted us, the sound of a watermelon breaking open, and for that moment everyone remained still and composed, as though listening to an orchestra, heads tilted to allow the ears to work and no belief coming in yet. Then Mrs. Lisbon, as though alone, said, 'Oh, my God.' " On her second try, her daughter Cecilia had succeeded in "hurling herself out of the world."

This terrible event, along with the subsequent suicides of Cecilia Lisbon's four pretty sisters, feels like something out of a Greek tragedy. It's not at all the sort of thing one expects to find in a coming-of-age story set in the leafy Detroit suburbs of the 70's; and as related by Mr. Eugenides, the deaths of the five Lisbon sisters take on the high, cold shimmer of myth. Their suicides become a symbol of the innocence lost as adolescents are initiated into the sad complexities of grown-up life, and the lost, dying dreams of a community that finds its collective dreams of safety spinning out of reach.

With its incantatory prose, its fascination with teen-age tragedy and its preoccupation with memory and desire and loss, "The Virgin Suicides" will instantly remind readers of Alice McDermott's fine 1987 novel, "That Night." Not only are the themes of the two books similar, but so also are their structures and narrative methods. Both novels focus on events that fracture the consciousness of an entire community into a before and after. And both are narrated by observers who recall the larger-than-life events of their youth from the vantage point of middle age. In their recollections, actual experiences blur together with the distortions of nostalgia; events are re-imagined, extrapolated and heightened in an effort to memorialize and make sense of the past.

In the case of "The Virgin Suicides," the narrator is a collective "we," a group of young men who speak in one voice. They were once in love with the Lisbon girls, and are now, some 20 years later, trying to piece together the story of their deaths. These men, now balding and weary and a bit disappointed with their humdrum lives, serve as the book's Greek chorus, stitching together the story of the Lisbon sisters' tragedy, as they meditate upon its meaning.

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