Monday, March 14, 2011

The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Last month I wrote that Requiem for a Dream was the first instance of a novel and its film adaptation impressing me equally.  There have been some fine films -- Revolutionary Road, Lost Horizon, Remains of the Day -- but they're crippled by the 2-3 hour time limit.  No matter how splendid they are, they feel to me like visual Readers' Digest condensed versions.  They always lose something.

I can't make a fair comparison of Jeffrey Eugenides' novel, The Virgin Suicides, and the film that Sofia Coppola wrought from it, because it's been over a decade since I saw the film.  I remember thinking it brilliant at the time, though, and the book is stunning.  Unapologetic gushing commences now.

The anonymous narrator is a man reflecting upon his teen-aged years in Detroit, where he watched the simultaneous destruction of the  auto industry, the elm trees, and the Lisbon family, whose five golden-haired daughters had mesmerised him and his friends for as long as they can recall.  The devoutly Catholic Lisbon parents kept their lissome girls on tight leashes.  Over the course of a little more than a year, the boys watched the entire family, following the suicide of the youngest daughter, slide into hell.  The narrator keeps an even tone, almost journalistic, as he moves from descriptions of Cecilia, impaled upon the picket fence-post where she fell after her dive out an upper-story window, to his elegiac sadness as the Dutch elm beetle ravaged the grand old trees that had always shaded their streets.  But no, it's not a journalistic tone -- it's quietly reminiscent.  The narrator and his friends salvaged mementos from the ruined house after the parents had moved on.  As he recalls the story, he might be picking them up off a table or out of an old, musty box, looking at them one more time.

The story is compelling and evocative and would probably be so even if written more carelessly.  Eugenides, however, has a knack for finding the off-beat analogy, the quirky descriptor, the incongruous image, all of which make the text vibrate.  Here he describes Mr. Lisbon:
...he had long harbored doubts about his wife's strictness, knowing in his heart that girls forbidden to dance would only attract husbands with bad complexions and sunken chests. Also, the odor of all those cooped-up girls had begun to annoy him. He felt at times as though he were living in the bird house at the zoo.  
And here, the difficulties of the neighbourhood mothers in writing condolence cards to the bereaved Lisbons after Cecilia's suicide:
...some of the Waspier types, accustomed to writing notes for all occasions, labored over personal responses. Mrs. Beards used a quote from Walt Whitman we took to murmuring to one another:  "All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, / and to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier."  Chase Buell peeked at his own mother's card as he slipped it under the Lisbons' door.  It read: "I don't know what you're feeling.  I won't even pretend."  
While some in the neighbourhood mused that the Lisbons' strictness with their girls might have contributed to the tragedy, Mrs. Lisbon responded by tightening her grasp, suspecting that the era's increasing sexual freedom was the real culprit:
Mrs. Lisbon thought the darker urges of dating could be satisfied by frolic in the open air -- love sublimated by lawn darts.  
She demanded that the girls burn their pop and rock & roll LPs in the backyard barbecue grill in a bizarre 1970s auto da fé.  Thence forward, they were allowed only religious muzack of the sort heard on fuzzy AM radio stations:
Choirs sing in blond voices, scales ascend toward harmonic crescendos, like marshmallow foaming into the ears... Father Moody heard the music the few times he visited for coffee on Sunday afternoons. "It wasn't my cup of tea," he said to us later. "I go in for the more august stuff. Handel's Messiah. Mozart's Requiem. This was basically, if I may say so, what you might expect to hear in a Protestant household."  
Once the Lisbon girls were withdrawn from school and sealed more tightly than ever within their house, which was slowly deteriorating from neglect, the boys tried to carry on, maybe to sample a more normal life for a while:
Like everyone else, we went to Alice O'Connor's coming-out party to forget about the Lisbon girls. The black bartenders in red vests served us alcohol without asking for ID, and in turn, around 3 AM we said nothing when we saw them loading leftover cases of whiskey into the trunk of a sagging Cadillac. Inside, we got to know girls who had never considered taking their own lives...  
 The girls were monstrous in their formal dresses, each built around a wire cage. Pounds of hair were secured atop their heads. Drunk, and kissing us, or passing out in chairs, they were bound for college, husbands, child-rearing, unhappiness only dimly perceived -- bound, in other words, for life.  
The narrator and his friends, too, were bound for life, but he can't seem to let go of the Detroit of his youth, or the Lisbon girls.  Over the years, people inevitably came to conclusions about the suicides, all part of the process of setting the experience down and moving on:
Everyone we spoke to dated the demise of our neighborhood from the suicides of the Lisbon girls. Though at first people blamed them, gradually a sea change took place, so that the girls were seen not as scapegoats but as seers. More and more, people forgot about the individual reasons why the girls may have killed themselves, the stress disorders and insufficient neurotransmitters, and instead put the deaths down to the girls' foresight in predicting decadence. People saw their clairvoyance in the wiped-out elms, the harsh sunlight, the continuing decline of our auto industry.  
The narrator reaches some different retrospective views on the virgin suicides, but it seems unlikely that he'll ever reach a conclusion.  He may never set them down and move on, and he defies his readers to do so, either.

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