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The Virgin Suicides – Andy mourns the Lisbon sisters

February 12, 2012

The last two books I have read for the Reading Challenge have been compared to The Catcher in the Rye. Less than Zero was referred to as “Catcher in the Rye updated” by the LA Times. The Virgin Suicides was described as “a Catcher in the Rye for our time” by the (presumably London) Observer. I read Catcher in the Rye decades ago and I can’t remember much about it and if I tried to read my ancient orange Penguin copy of it, secondhand when I bought it at Barb’s Book Exchange and Bargain Bazaar on Raymond St, Sale (long gone) for 50 cents, I doubt it’d stay in one piece. In fact it may not be in one piece now. (Just checked. Two pieces.) Anyway I can’t remember much about it so whether the comparisons are valid or not is not a judgment I can make. I can, however, say that The Virgin Suicides and Less than Zero are such dramatically different books that the comparison seems at least slightly fatuous to me. But perhaps not.

Before I begin, a word to the witless … “Spoilers, sweetie!”

Among the most impressive things about this very impressive novel is its narrative voice. First person plural. Yup. First person plural. If you haven’t read The Virgin Suicides the thing you should be thinking right about now is What the fuck because I mean come on, a novel an entire novel narrated in first person plural voice? We? WE? Serious? And it works? Fuck off.

Google it or wiki it and The Virgin Suicides’ narration is often compared to the chorus in ancient Greek drama but I think this is really only because ancient Greek drama is the only other place you’ll find something like first person plural narration. In any case the Greek Chorus doesn’t narrate. It observes and comments. The adolescent male narrators of Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel observe and comment for sure, but they are also intimately involved in the action. The moral and emotional distance you find in the Greek chorus is completely absent here.

And yes, I do know a little bit about the Greek chorus. I studied Sophocles’ Oedipus and Antigone at high school and uni, and (ahem) I played the Chorus in an amdram production of Anouilh’s Antigone in Sale in the early ’90s. And I was prettyfuckin’ good, too. Just quietly. Larry Olivier played the role in its English-language debut in 1949 and OK, I probably wasn’t as good as him.

Eugenides cleverly wrong foots the reader in a number of ways (and this is a paragraph those wishing to avoid spoilers may wish to skip). The novel is made up of five chapters. Five daughters to top themselves, so you make assumptions, natch. Wrong assumptions. And then the first line of the novel reads: “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.” Apart from being a totally awesome way to open a novel and a spectacular sentence it encourages the reader to make certain assumptions about what is to follow. In terms of how the girls are going to kill themselves. Wrong assumptions, again.

Actually that wasn’t that much of a spoiler really, was it.

And finally the humour. The Virgin  Suicides isn’t exactly a comic novel. Or perhaps it is, now I think about it. Certainly, given it’s a book about five teenage girls who top themselves, there are plenty of laughs to be had. And Eugenides has a deliciously light touch with his often dark humour. How anyone can make the image of a teenage girl being skewered on a metal fence post (not much of a spoiler, that happens at the end of chapter one) wryly amusing is a wee bit beyond me. At the same time the book’s a serious and meditative contemplation of the stultifying impact of tradition and suburbia on the lives of the young in the wake of the ’60s.

Fuck I’m sounding like that dude in that video. Shit book reviewers say. Shit. Fuck.

I read Middlesex years ago, not long after it came out. I was blown away. The Virgin Suicides didn’t impress me quite as much, but I wonder what I’d have thought if I’d read it when it came out in 1993. Meanwhile Eugenides – not exactly the most productive of novelists – finally has a third novel out. Three in 20 years. The Marriage Plot is on my must-read list for 2012.

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