The Evolution Of An Author – Jeffrey Eugenides Part 1 – The Virgin Suicides

So every nine years, like clockwork, Jeffrey Eugenides releases another novel.

Why nine years? I don’t know. 1993 brought us The Virgin Suicides, 2002 saw the release of Middlesex, and just this year, Eugenides’ long awaited third novel The Marriage Plot hit stores.

Most people first heard of Jeffrey Eugenides because of the film version of The Virgin Suicides, adapted for the screen and directed by Sofia Coppola.  You’re thinking to yourself… I’m just going to read the book and skip the movie… Film adaptations always suck.

Normally… Yes, you’d be correct.  But Coppola did it right.  So much of the book gets onto the screen unchanged and those closing scenes…  some of the most heartbreaking scenes shot on film.  The film is well worth checking out.

Anyway.

The Virgin Suicides was released back in the fat, happy 1990s.  Bill Clinton was newly elected into office, Kurt Cobain was still alive, and Betamax was a footnote in history, while DVD was just a few years in the future.  Ah, 1993.  What fond memories.

Some people will tell you that The Virgin Suicides is a story about five young girls who kill themselves.  On the surface this is true, in the same way that James Patterson is a writer.  Sure, on a technical level you’re right.  But you’re also an asshole.  Shut up and let me tell this, OK?

The book does deal with the suicides of the Lisbon sisters, but they aren’t the main characters.  In fact, what makes The Virgin Suicides a remarkable novel is the narration.  Instead of a standard first- or third-person narrative style, Eugenides instead goes with a classical  choral perspective, where the story is told by a mysterious “us.”

This unnamed “us” is the group of boys who grew up on the same street with the girls, the boys who went to school with the girls.  The boys, who are now grown men, are reflecting on that fateful year that the girls took their own lives.  Through memories, interviews, and obsessive hoarding of items from the Lisbon’s house, they try to cobble together some semblance of understanding.

And I bet you’re asking… Why did they kill themselves after all?  Surely after almost 400 pages, an answer emerges.  Ha ha.  Poor sod.  The book never explains why.  At least not with any sense of finality or certainty.

Was it their overbearing and overprotective mother?  The trials and tribulations of growing up as a girl in the madhouse of high school?  The systemic destruction of the environment?  The threat of nuclear war?

Eugenides is smart enough not to give us a knot to tie up our loose ends and the book is far better for it.  A ton of reviewers on Amazon and elsewhere complained about this missing bit of the book and…  If you finish reading the book and are disappointed by this, you didn’t read the book closely enough.

Similarly, I’ve read many complaints about the portrayal of the girls in the book.  Many claim that the way they act is not a good representation of the female gender, even taking into account that they are high schoolers.  Once again, anyone who comes back with this impression has missed crucial details in the novel.

Firstly, there is no answer for us, the reader, because the narrators never get an answer.  They sit, decades later, shuffling through the remains of family photos, old bits of clothing, and tattered memories without ever getting closer to any revelation about the experience.  They never even notice the disturbing aspects of their own obsession.

Secondly, the girls are portrayed the way they are through the novel because the entire story is told from the point of view of grown men remembering high school crushes.

Guys, think about that one girl you never asked out.  Girls, do the same, but with a guy (of course, gay or lesbian friends are free to think of the same sex as necessary).  Think back to middle school or high school and recall how much you idealized the person you were crushing on.  Now amplify that about a thousand percent and make sure not to change that idealized perspective for about thirty years.

The portrayal of the Lisbon girls is unrealistic because their suicides allowed the boys’ memories to become fossilized and unchanged.  Along the same lines (outside of brief snippets of diary entries), we’re never given the story from the girls’ perspective and any interviews the boys do with people outside of the “us” who narrate are cherry picked for the most relevant parts.  Of course the Lisbon girls are going to be characterized poorly.  They’re meant to be!

In the end, The Virgin Suicides is Eugenides’ strongest work because the turns of phrase are unforgettable, the portrayal of the boys’ obsession and the downward spiral of suburbia (a common theme for Eugenides) is intriguing and disturbing, and, with its unconventional narrative voice, a highly original novel of power and wit.  Read it, read it, read it!

So…  Once every nine years, Jeffrey Eugenides writes a new book.  Is the wait worth it?  Stay tuned to Parts 2 and 3 to find out.  When?  Well…  soon, hopefully.  Maybe?  But next, stay tuned for a review about the forthcoming novel Flatscreen by Adam Wilson

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One thought on “The Evolution Of An Author – Jeffrey Eugenides Part 1 – The Virgin Suicides

  1. I read the Virgin Suicides a number of years ago–all in one day! It’s definitely on my list of books to reread if I ever get a chance. It really is fantastic on a number of levels. Cheers!

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