Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Virgin Suicides

Jeffrey Eugenides's brilliant debut has already attained classic status since its first publication in 1993, an estimation accelerated by Sophia Coppola's exquisite 1999 film adaptation. It is that rare novel which enjoys equal adoration from the critical elite and the public at large, a contemporary heir to The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird. A parsing of its reviews is likely to turn up such descriptors as 'bittersweet', 'lyrical', 'timeless'; few other works of modern literature evoke such a unique confluence of wistfulness and doom.

Eugenides's bittersweet fable is essentially a Southern Gothic tragedy transplanted into a nondescript American suburb circa the 1970s. The five Lisbon sisters, aged evenly from thirteen to seventeen, inhabit a world of repression and angst whose parameters are defined by their religiously domineering mother and their nebbishy father. Their tale is recounted by a group of neighborhood boys, now adults, whose lifelong love for the girls transforms into an obsession. The sisters' ultimate fate is referenced from the outset, lending an air of dire inevitability to the account of their last days.

After Cecilia, the youngest Lisbon, utilizes the girls' first party ever as an opportunity to end her life before her family and friends, the neighborhood and school district rush to find an explanation and to offer help to her surviving sisters. Each response seems equally ineffectual, particularly that of Mrs. Lisbon, who uses the tragedy as an excuse to tighten her grip on the remaining girls. Following a particularly scandalous rendezvous between Lux Lisbon and her then-beau, the impossibly named Trip Fontaine, the sisters are placed under house arrest indefinitely. Thus begins the final pathetic spiral downward into the abyss from which none of the girls escape.

In spite of its brooding subject matter, the novel maintains a lyrical air throughout, with prose that often borders on poetry. Eugenides never falters in his delicate touch, purging histrionics from a parable which in lesser hands could easily devolve into melodrama. His commendable eye for detail infuses every scene with a pastoral ambience; the narrative pauses frequently to take into account the numerous changes taking place within the neighborhood, particularly those regarding the Lisbon house. As the girls' quaint Middle American home is transformed into a prison, its exterior begins to reflect the dilapidation within—by the time the house is vacated following the girls' mass suicide, it is little more than an empty shell of painful memories and unfathomable loss. In this respect, the novel serves as a kind of haunted house tale, with human wreckage in place of lingering spirits. The horrific trappings are indeed present throughout the novel, but remain submerged until the catastrophic dénouement, exerting their emotional toll on the Lisbon girls until they reach their breaking point.

Picador’s new paperback edition of The Virgin Suicides bears a modest white sleeve with an evocative cover image of lackadaisical teenagers lounging in a field of grass. The understatement of the binding is complemented by the the rest of the package: Short of breadth, with larger than average type, it resembles nothing so much as what children refer to as a 'chapter book'. This sparsity of presentation is entirely appropriate, reflecting the marred innocence of the Lisbon girls themselves. The Virgin Suicides is a precious item, a timeless document of the eternal pangs of youth, a work which deserves to be savored and treasured and shared. A+

Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger, Todd Solondz, Daniel Clowes

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