Context: Finished this off in my mum’s jacuzzi.
There are going to be many who will argue for Middlesex to be reinstated if not alongside this but even to replace it. I won’t be one of them. Middlesex is a very good novel. This though is so good, you might not even realise it.
As I found out from Middlesex, Eugenides does a very good job of describing the average dysfunctional American family. He’s wittier than Franzen in doing so as well.
Virgin Suicides follows just such a family with it’s five daughters hell bent on, well, hell really. As the family self-destructs, a classmate narrator and his friends watches it all unfold seemingly from somewhere over the street although you never really find out who the narrator is or where they live.
In this anonymity lies the hint of Eugenides genius. Catch a glimpse of this in the book and you have opened the door a crack onto the reason why I rated this book as ‘excellent’ whereas I only gave Middlesex a ‘very good’ rating.
Most people commenting on this book will describe their reaction to the Lisbon family who form the focus of the narration. I was equally fascinated however by the voyeurist narrator and his classmates.
While the Lisbon family never really seem to act normally and even flaunt their wierdness, the narrator and his friends actually thinks they they themselves are normal. He thinks this even while they obsess about the girls and collect numbered “exhibits” of their lives and deaths including photos, possessions and even autopsy reports in suitcases dedicated to each girl.
And while you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is just some perverse teenage crush, it is quite clear from the narration that this has been going on for decades and persists well into the middle age of each of them.
This obsessive behaviour strikes me as the theme that Eugenides is really questioning throughout the novel. It isn’t suicide and what drives teenagers to it that is the theme. It’s our fascination with the macabre, the different, the sinister and all that is wrong with those who live over the road. It’s a critique of a society where voilent police videos, neighbourhood gossip and invasive media are all acceptable.
I feel he is in particular critiquing US society but, by using a disembodied although involved narrator, any one of us could be narrating this. I’m sure this is intended.
And as the novel closes, the last line questions a society which, despite watching the drama unfold intimately, despite collecting souvenirs of the girls’ lives, was unable to know them intimately or prevent those lives from disintegrating.
That, for me, makes this a clever and important book.
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.
It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.