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Martyrs on the Block

The Virgin Suicides

by Jeffrey Eugenides
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 249 pp., $18.00

During the last decade, some writers from the generation that grew up in the suburbs have returned to this previously discredited site and reinvented it. Neighborhoods that once seemed impervious to magic of any kind have become increasingly popular settings, in novels and movies, for the fabulous and the bizarre. Beautiful women appear naked on respectable front porches, strange constellations rise in the night sky over identical rooftops; fathers and punks engage in epic battle on modest front lawns. Alice McDermott, David Lynch, Alice Hoffman, and Steven Spielberg all explore fantasies of suburbia with varying measures of affection and irony. Jeffrey Eugenides, who has just published his stylish novel The Virgin Suicides, belongs in this list.

Eugenides, a first-time novelist, is a little like a man who offers to juggle several incongruous and life-threatening objects before your eyes. You’re not sure if he can pull it off, and you’re not sure about your motives in watching him try. He may be too ambitious and set himself on fire, or knock you out with a bowling pin; but it’s hard to turn away. On his first page, he makes it clear that his title means what it says, and that he plans to spin a dreamy, elegiac tale from its terrible promise:

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 the 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.” He was carrying the heavy respirator and cardiac unit past the bushes that had grown monstrous and over the erupting lawn, tame and immaculate thirteen months earlier when the trouble began.

Five teen-aged sisters commit suicide under the same roof in less than a year and a half and under three hundred pages; can Eugenides keep all these balls in the air—horror, humor, mystery, sadness—and manage to suspend your disbelief as well, without making you furious at him or disgusted with yourself?

Even the structure of the novel hinges on an outrageous romantic conceit. Many years after the Lisbon tragedy, an investigation into the girls’ suicides is undertaken by the guys from their old neighborhood. Now on the brink of middle age, they are still scarred by the girls’ deaths—afflicted with a sort of Annabel Lee syndrome—and they make up the shadowy Greek chorus that tells the story. In order to learn why what happened happened, these amateur detectives have returned to the scene of the crime: the suburbs where they grew up. Specific references that would suggest too strongly a particular year or location have been carefully smoothed away, while every predictable landmark, from the tree house to the school parking lot, is animated by an intense nostalgia. The result is a neighborhood deeply familiar to any American who grew up with a television set; you have dreamed about this neighborhood, even if you have never lived here. And it’s here, among the relics of their adolescence, that the abandoned suitors gather to pursue their holy quest.

Their research has been prodigious, and they have accumulated a small mountain of evidence. There are old grocery lists, stolen hospital records and high-school chemistry write-ups, pilfered journals (“We know portions of the diary by heart now”), faded snapshots, and interviews with the surviving parties, from the girls’ parents to their orthodontist. Yet the narrators responsible for these strenuous efforts are not substantially different, it turns out, from their teen-aged selves, and their efforts to understand the Lisbon girls had begun—unofficially, anyway—almost two decades earlier.

The five Lisbon girls—pretty, blonde, Catholic, vaguely similar in appearance—had been the object of local lust before their lives took a darker turn. The boys in the neighborhood had been obsessed with the sisters, as though collectively stricken with an incurable fever. The fact that the girls weren’t allowed to date only increased their allure, and the boys became desperate for intimate details about the sisters’ cloistered existence. Finally, one of them gets invited over for dinner and sneaks upstairs to use the bathroom.

He came back to us with stories of bedrooms filled with crumpled panties, of stuffed animals hugged to death by the passion of the girls, of a crucifix draped with a brassiere, of gauzy chambers of canopied beds, and of the effluvia of so many young girls becoming women together in the same cramped space.

Another, determined to catch one of the sisters in the shower, enters the house through a sewer tunnel that runs into the basement. He discovers Cecilia in the bathtub, but the sight of her turns out to be more than he bargained for: she has slit her wrists, and he must call the police. From this point on sexual unavailability begins to merge with the alarming possibility of permanent unavailability, and the boys’ desire becomes confounded and intensified by feelings of protectiveness and awe. When the medics carry Cecilia off to the hospital she looks “like a tiny Cleopatra on an imperial litter,” and they watch, mesmerized. Ordinary life has suddenly gained a new, operatic dimension.

After Cecilia’s suicide attempt, the boys discover that they are no longer merely onlookers, but participants in the drama of the unraveling Lisbon family. They’re drafted, like fledgling Greek heroes, into mysterious service, for which they are willing but manifestly unprepared. When the deeply conservative Lisbon parents decide to let their daughters have a party, all the boys in the neighborhood, even Joe the Retard, are invited. “We were used to the parties our older brothers threw with our parents out of town, to dark rooms vibrating with heaps of bodies, musical vomiting, beer kegs beached on ice in the bathtub, riots in the hallways, and the destruction of living room sculpture.” This party, though, is entirely different. They are ushered downstairs, to the rec room:

The steps were metal-tipped and steep, and as we descended, the light at the bottom grew brighter and brighter, as though we were approaching the molten core of the earth. By the time we reached the last step it was blinding. Fluorescent lights buzzed overhead; table lamps burned on every surface. The green and red linoleum checkerboard flamed beneath our buckled shoes…. The paneled walls gleamed, and for the first few seconds the Lisbon girls were only a patch of glare like a congregation of angels.

These mythical moments throughout the book are always suffused with irony: one moment Eugenides is illuminating the underworld, but the next moment he is describing the punch bowl. Just as the teen-agers themselves are in a situation that they only dimly understand, the author is constantly putting his characters—if only for brief, hilarious, poignant moments—into genres that seem entirely too large for them. The girls are Catholic martyrs on bicycles, priestesses in flannel nightgowns, while the boys are knights of the Holy Grail, Joycean youths, seekers of “some Rosetta stone that would explain the girls at last.” Yet the associations stay in your mind long after you’ve stopped laughing. By never taking his fictional suburbia too seriously, Eugenides gives his readers sly permission to do so—just as Spielberg had to make fun of the glowing interior of the American icebox for us to realize how hypnotic it could be.

The Lisbon girls quickly become distinguishable in their all-too-human ways. There is Bonnie, with her long neck (“which would one day hang from the end of a rope”), clumsy Therese, dark-haired Mary, Lux in her tight-fitting dress. Thirteen-year-old Cecilia still seems a bit phantom-like, drifting about in a dilapidated wedding gown—but then the boys notice that her dress is stained with stewed carrots from her stay in the hospital, and that she is wearing bracelets to hide the scars on her wrists.

Unfortunately, just as the boys are finally getting acquainted with the Lisbon girls, the party comes to a premature end because Cecilia goes upstairs, drinks some canned pear juice, and jumps out the window, impaling herself on the spiked fence. This is another neighborhood first:

There had never been a funeral in our town before, at least not during our lifetimes. The majority of dying had happened during the Second World War when we didn’t exist and our fathers were impossibly skinny young men in black-and-white photographs…. Now our dads were middle-aged, with paunches, and shins rubbed hairless from years of wearing pants, but they were still a long way from death. Their own parents, who spoke foreign languages and lived in converted attics like buzzards, had the finest medical care available and were threatening to live on until the next century. Nobody’s grandfather had died, nobody’s grandmother, nobody’s parents, only a few dogs.

But Cecilia’s abrupt exit is, of course, only a harbinger of bad times to come. After her demise, the boys watch with misgiving as the Lisbons lapse into increasingly bizarre patterns of behavior. Before many months have passed, the girls are forbidden to go outside, the lawn is untended, and a strange smell begins to emanate from the house itself. Lux starts having sex on the roof with mysterious strangers, and the elms on the block are dying one by one. Paradise besieged.

There isn’t much plot in The Virgin Suicides, and there isn’t much character development, either. The evidence in the boys’ investigation doesn’t add up to anything conclusive; instead it coalesces into an atmosphere of longing. At one point the boys are spying on the Lisbon house from a second-story window, across the street. “We called Joe’s mother to come see. In a few seconds we heard her quick feet on the carpeted stairs and she joined us by the window. It was Tuesday and she smelled of furniture polish.” You won’t learn what becomes of Joe’s mother, and you may not even remember what they were all looking at in the first place. But the moment itself—absurdly—inspires an almost Wordsworthian sense of loss. These young mothers who could be counted on to polish the furniture every Tuesday, and to come running when we called them—how little did we suspect that they might vanish forever! Even if we didn’t want to grow up to become them or marry women like them, even if they weren’t a part of our own pasts to begin with.

The boys are thwarted in their pursuit of the girls after death as they were in life, and the reader is oddly relieved; it would be unseemly if, along with their dental records and their underwear drawers, their souls were also available for our perusal. In the end, it seems to be the innocence of their own earlier lives that the detectives mourn. When Cecilia kills herself, they miss her not as some vanished pre-Raphaelite waif flitting across their sexual field of vision, but as part of their own supremely ordinary American childhoods:

We had stood in line with her for smallpox vaccinations, had held polio sugar cubes under our tongues with her, had taught her to jump rope, to light snakes, had stopped her from picking her scabs on numerous occasions, and had cautioned her against touching her mouth to the drinking fountain at Three Mile Park.

The Virgin Suicides reminds us, in an improbable, luxurious way, of the past: of a certain fantasy of innocence that is only appealing now that it can no longer be resurrected. Seduced by this world all over again, we find it difficult to keep in mind that the Lisbon girls killed themselves in order to escape it. If anything is offensive about The Virgin Suicides, perhaps it’s that reading it is such a pleasurable, melancholy experience—in spite of its ostensible subject matter. Eugenides is a cocky performer, so seemingly at ease handling his dangerous material. We forget, for a moment, the grim meanings of these bright, lethal objects. We watch them spinning in the air, and we are entranced by their impermanent, improbable design.

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