“The Virgin Suicides” by Jeffrey Eugenides – repulsive book that drained my will to listen

the virgin suicidesNormally, I finish the books I start, especially when, like this one, they are well written and well narrated.

I made it halfway through this book and put it away in disgust. I didn’t want any more of it in my head.

This isn’t because I felt too emotionally distraught by experiencing a novel that centres around the death by suicide of five young sisters.  There is no empathy for those women in this novel. The young women here are displayed as curiosities, barely distinguishable from one another, alien to the boy/man describing them, important because of the impact they have on the boys who observe them rather than because of any intrinsic worth. They are the thunderstorm the boys stand in. How the boys felt in the rain is what Jeffrey Eugenides is concerned with, not what it means to be a storm.

The book is set in an American White Middle-Class suburb in the 1970’s and is told, twenty years after the fact, by a man who was a boy at the time of the suicides and who is still sufficiently obsessed by the events to be investigating them, not so much, it seems, to unravel a mystery as to revive the taste of it in his mouth.

Eugenides writes well. This does not endear his novel to me because he chooses to deploy his skill not to write an elegy that gives meaning to the suicides of the young women, but to write an almost masturbatory reminiscence of what it felt like to be a white boy with no first-hand knowledge of girls, lusting and longing for the  Lisbon Sisters, without actually being able to see them as people.

The era itself, including its racism and its sexual repression, is presented with unquestioning love. There seems to be more regret in the author’s mind for the loss of a time when nice families raked leaves off their lawns in the Fall than there is for the death of any or all of the Lisbon sisters.

The adult narrator, recalling his own reactions as a boy, seems to long for a time when girls were a mystery and boys spent hours talking to each other about what it might be like to touch them.

The book seemed to me to be steeped in a repressed but deeply felt homoeroticism. The description of Trip Fontaine and his encounter with Lux Lisbon is a good example of this. Trip is described with a tenderness and admiration, bordering on love, both as a beautiful youth and as a middle-aged man, wrecked by drug use. Lux, in her short, frenzied, assault on Trip, is presented as a threat, an unleashed animal, something alien and dangerous and far from human.

The longer I listened to this well-written, well-narrated book, the more I was repulsed by its nostalgia for ignorance and its voyeuristic delight in treating women as an alien, not quite human, species.

Like all good storytellers, Eugenides is a skilled manipulator. He uses the passive, unquestioning, but articulate romanticism of the narrator to lull the reader into an uncritical assessment of this world and the people in it. He dresses his book with literary allusions, from character names that are amusingly descriptive, through selected quotations from poetry, to a stylistic nod at Steinbeck, and he sets this all back far enough in time that the use of tinted lenses to view the world is seen as appropriate.

Unfortunately, I am repelled by this particular manipulation. It is at best hollow and uncritical and at worst sets out to eulogize a male view of the world that I despise.

O.K., so he’s a Pulitzer Prize winner. That wasn’t my decision. Putting his book away halfway through was. Life is too short to spend on well-expressed ideas that curdle the soul.


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