I’ve been avoiding The Luminaries (I will get back to it, I will) by re-reading The Little Friend, and then I found myself avoiding that by reading The Virgin Suicides, which is an attractive slender thing, something tasty and distracting, but all too quickly over.
Oh, how beautifully it’s done. It’s a book about death in all its forms, and, conversely about life in all its forms. It’s about gossip and rumour, change and stasis. It’s about how we need to know the answers to the various urgent questions we have; how we are obsessed with needing to know why about so many things. And this book, while making you think you will learn why, is like a shake-up, saying ‘you will never know why.’ If you can handle this type of vacuum, let go of having to know, and if you are okay with dark, then this is a great read.
It’s about the suicides of the five Lisbon sisters – Cecilia (13), Lux (14), Bonnie (15), Mary (16) and Therese (17) over the period of a year or so.
‘They were short, round-buttocked in denim, with roundish cheeks that recalled that same dorsal softness.’ [p5]
Cecilia kills herself first, and then the others later. The parents are quite religious and strict, and keep to themselves and isolate the sisters, but there’s seemingly no abuse, no terrible misery, no reason why all five of the girls would want to die. The sisters seem normal; they lie about and brush each other’s hair, listen to music and chatter and laugh. All normal teenage behaviour. What might be a sinister reason lurking behind this scenario is never even hinted at, or if it was, I was too dense to pick it up. I’m a close reader so I’d be surprised if I missed something, even something subtle. I think it’s their normalcy that is significant in this book; it’s a comment that often when a person kills themselves people say they had no idea it would happen. ‘S/he seemed fine.’ Having five sisters all with different personalities, they are like a composite, a kind of everygirl, each representing an individual character in this story but also serving a narrative purpose as a collective whole, like the boys watching them.
The opening line takes you by the throat:
‘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.’
Like real life, the novel asks the question: Why? And like in real life, there answer is a blank, nothing more than a question mark. We do not know why.
The narrative voice is interesting in that it is a plural ‘we’ voice, the collective voice of the boys who have been watching the Lisbon sisters, obsessed with them over the years. The point of view bleeds across lines, from this ‘we’ voice to other character points of view; it’s very slippery and has the effect of creating something magical and dreamy. (A Greek chorus, some reviewer called the ‘we’ voice, and Eugenides responded saying that if he wasn’t of Greek background himself it was unlikely this voice would be called a Greek chorus.)
There are references to the boys souveniring things from the sisters: bras, makeup, photographs, tennis shoes, candles, and other trinkets. This reminded me of Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence and its protagonist’s collection of possessions pilfered from his object of obsession, the beautiful Füsun. The boys are very close to the girls geographically; they are across the road in houses, down the street watching, at school in corridors near lockers. The landscape changes through the course of the novel; not just seasonally but there seems to be an overall dark deterioration, an overlay of shadowy decay. All the way through, I felt gentle author comments were being made, and if the reader didn’t ‘get it’ then that was ok. To me, this is beautiful and compelling prose and while dark not depressing.
There are two scenes that will stick with me for a long time. The first concerns Lux, the most rebellious of the sisters (apart from Cecilia, who could be argued to be the most resistant to life as she ‘went’ first). Lux is the one who sneaks out and ‘goes with boys’. She defies her parents openly towards the end of the book. There is a boy who loves her, a boy called Trip Fontaine, who wasn’t used to girls not loving him. He is the boy who all girls (and their mothers) love, and it baffles him that the one girl he loves is the only girl who doesn’t love him. He visits the house to sit chastely on the couch with Mrs Lisbon in between him and Lux. They sit and watch television with no conversation.
‘And that was all that happened. Trip didn’t get to sit next to Lux, nor speak to her, nor even look at her, but the bright nearby fact of her presence burned in his mind.’
At ten o’clock, taking a cue from his wife, Mr Lisbon slaps Trip on the back and says it’s time for him to go.
‘Trip shook [Mr Lisbon’s] hand, then Mrs Lisbon’s colder one, and Lux stepped forward to escort him out. She must have seen the situation was futile, because she hardly looked at him during the short trip to the door. She walked with her head down, digging in her ear for wax, and looked up as she opened the door to give him a sad smile that promised only frustration. Trip Fontaine left crushed, knowing that all he could hope for was another night on the sofa beside Mrs Lisbon.’
He goes to his car and sits in it, ‘gazing at the house, watching as downstairs lights traded places with those upstairs, and then, one by one, went out. He thought about Lux getting ready for bed, and just the idea of her holding a toothbrush excited him more than the full-fledged nudity he saw in his own bedroom nearly every night. He laid his head back on the headrest and opened his mouth to ease the constriction in his chest, when suddenly the air inside the car churned. He felt himself grasped by his long lapels, pulled forward and pushed back, as a creature with a hundred mouths started sucking the marrow from his bones. She said nothing as she came on like a starved animal, and he wouldn’t have known who it was if it hadn’t been for the taste of her watermelon gum, which after the first few torrid kisses he found himself chewing. She was no longer wearing pants but a flannel nightgown. Her feet, wet from the lawn, gave off a pasture smell. He felt her clammy shins, her hot knees, her bristly thighs, and then with terror he put his finger in the ravenous mouth of the animal leashed below her waist. It was as though he had never touched a girl before; he felt fur and an oily substance like otter insulation. Two beasts lived in the car, one above, snuffling and biting him, and one below struggling to get out of its damp cage. Valiantly he did what he could to feed them, placate them, but the sense of his insufficiency grew, and after a few minutes, with only the words “Gotta get back before bed check,” Lux left him, more dead than alive.’ [p81-82]
I don’t know much about writing sex, and I know I don’t really like reading it when it’s drawn out and ‘serious’ but to me this is a great passage. It’s sudden and shocking and the words spike up off the page at the reader. Fabulous stuff.
The second scene that will stay with me is the lead up and realisation of the last sisters’ suicides. I won’t replicate that here, it’s too long, but it’s haunting and again, ambiguous; there are clues foreshadowing what will happen which only make sense in retrospect, and the power is in the reader being with the boys as they wait in the house, expecting something entirely different is going to happen.
I have started Middlesex and not persisted. I am going to try and read it again. I don’t have The Marriage Plot – I did hear it wasn’t as good as Middlesex, which was Eugenides’s big hit, but I would try it. Just noticed, Eugenides seems to be on the same publishing-cycle as Donna Tartt:
The Secret History 1992
The Virgin Suicides 1993
The Little Friend 2002
The Marriage Plot 2011
The Goldfinch 2013 – maybe with this one, the publishers wanted to avoid Big Author Clash on the circuit?