Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Jeffrey Eugenides, "The Virgin Suicides"

 – Warner Books, A Time Warner Company, New York 1999 ISBN 0-446-67025-1
Read from January 3rd to 16th 2016
My rating:


What horizon of expectation does a clever title like The Virgin Suicides open (this in the improbable case you’ve never heard of the famous song of the equally famous band Cruel Crux J)? One could focus on the “suicide” word and think of Camus and his philosophical dilemma (whether life is worth living). Or one could be distracted by the “virgin” word, read with the image of pagan sacrifices in mind (on the altar of civilisation, of course). Or one could simply take “virgin” as the adjective it is, fully and unexpectedly (and without teenage connotation whatsoever) qualifying “suicide” , in which case the book is expected to reveal new, unthought-of meanings of the latter, that will divorce it either from “bravery” or “cowardice”, the usually accompanying words.

It is difficult not to suspect such intent, given that although the novel speaks of virgins (that is adolescents) that kill themselves, it is not about them, it is not about the Lisbon girls. Not really. It is more about our rooted habit to forget and replace the forgotten things with false memories. It is about the subtle but firm bans we let society to use in order to keep us on a short leash. It is about our deep fears masquerading as vulgar revelations and apparent misunderstandings that lead to no epiphanies. In the end, it is about suicide – by dull solitude and perfect indifference.


A generous and fascinating theme, this one, so why did I not relate to Jeffrey Eugenides’s story? It’s clearly not because it was not well told (in fact it is an amazingly good narrative as many a critic has observed). It is rather because of this uneasy feeling I’ve got all along, that I was unwillingly part of some inappropriate jest, like when you hear someone irreverently joking in church during the Mass and you don’t quite know whether to shush (which will prove your respect) or laugh (which will prove your non conventionalism). And I assure you I am not a prude nor is it my political correctness speaking (I’m sadly lacking in it anyway); however I’ve had this vaguely uncomfortable impression that the author could not, despite his obvious efforts, find the right way to balance irony and drama, and the result is somehow annoying, out of order, despite the laugh that is forced upon us from the very first lines:

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.' 

This wavering has a constancy that could easily turn into a stylistic brand of its own, but in the end it remains only a weird awkwardness that confuses the reader, who more than once questions himself whether he should have cried when he laughed and vice versa, since the feeling that he should guiltily hide his amusement never quits him. For although some episodes are honestly funny (like the reptilian image of the girl who had grasped the leg of a boy to confess she was so in love she could no longer walk), many are ambiguous (like the dissertations about suicide from various sources, beginning with the slightly horrendous TV show and ending with the contradictory opinions of the psychiatrists), so that the history of the five teenagers often slips from tragic to absurd whereas the thoughts and reactions of the bystanders are so absurd that become somehow tragic:

It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.

Nevertheless, the book is a steady debut, revealing a talented writer, whose main force is the mesmerizing storytelling technique, based in this novel on one hand on the subtle nuances of the “we” narrative voice, and on the other hand on the poignant descriptions, that parallel the human and the civilisation and even the nature decay, in a powerful apocalyptic vision of a corrupted universe, echoing with the devil’s laughter:

They had killed themselves over our dying forests, over manatees maimed by propellers as they surfaced to drink from garden hoses; they had killed themselves at the sight of the used tires stacked higher than the pyramids; they had killed themselves over the failure to find a love none of use could ever be. In the end, the tortures tearing the Lisbon girls pointed to a simple reasoned refusal to accept the world as it handed down to them, so full of flaws.

The collective narrator (someone compared it with the Greek choir) describes this decay mostly from an outsider’s point of view, mimicking either the public opinion with its hunger for sensational and appetite for drama that lead to an obsessive stalking of the private lives, or the keen amateur detective who indiscriminately collects strange items that will become, in a mystery parody, “exhibits”, or the amateur psychiatrist doubled by sociologist who analyzes the phenomenon of the suicide to turn the events firstly into some ordinary medical case, then in raw material for future  legends:

The Lisbon girls made suicide familiar. Later, when other acquaintances chose to end their lives – sometimes even borrowing a book the day before – we always pictured them as taking off cumbersome boots to enter the highly associative mustiness of a family cottage on a dune overlooking the sea.

While trying to solve the mystery of the suicide of the five Lisbon girls some twenty years ago, the collective memory evokes also a dead and forgotten house that belonged to a dead and forgotten town, without realizing that the house and the town used as a mere background were softly and more silently killing themselves too. Their death is in the end as offensive and loud as that of the girls, filling their absence with the liquid smell of the imminence:

…as the house began to fall apart, casting out whiffs of rotten wood and soggy carpet, this other smell began wafting from the Lisbons’, invading our dreams and making us wash our hands over and over again. The smell was so thick it seemed liquid, and stepping into its current felt like being sprayed. We tried to locate its source, looking for dead squirrels in the yard or a bag of fertilizer, but the smell contained too much syrup to be death itself. The smell was definitely on the side of life, and reminded David Black of a fancy mushroom salad he’d eaten on a trip with his parents to New York.

Like in many other urban-gothic tales, the mystery of the Lisbon girls suicides remains unsolved. A refusal to take the “holocaust ride” is only one possible explanation. The social and genetic constraints could be another. But maybe in the end it is to challenge us to find the name of the last “two bullets” Dr. Hornicker is talking about:


“With most people,” he said, “suicide is like Russian roulette. Only one chamber has bullet. With the Lisbon girls, the gun was loaded. A bullet for family abuse. A bullet for genetic predisposition. A bullet for historical malaise. A bullet for inevitable momentum. The other two bullets are impossible to name, but that doesn’t mean the chambers were empty.”

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