Senin, 22 Mei 2017

Virgin Suicide

The Virgin Suicides

When is The Virgin Suicides from? It was first published, as a short story, by The Paris Review in 1990; then that short story became the first chapter of a novel with the same title, published on 249 very-spaced-out pages by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1993; then the novel was made into a dreamy movie by Sofia Coppola in 1999 (so dreamy Hollywood believed for a while it was Josh Hartnett, and not the director, who was the real heartthrob).

The story doesn’t read like the nineties, with its grandly story-boarded mega-novels; or the eighties, when Eugenides first conceived it, after being told by the woman babysitting his nephew in Gross Pointe, Michigan, that she had tried to commit suicide as a teenager, and that all of her sisters had, too. When I say it reads like the 1970s, though, keep in mind that I have no idea what I’m talking about, because I didn’t actually live through any of the 1970s. But I’ll say it anyway; sometimes keepsakes from before you were born arrive wrapped in nostalgia too perfect to pierce with skepticism. You want to hang the first-date photographs of your grandparents on the wall of a museum, they’re so engorged with yearning; and you trust that the weird magic of suburban adolescence in “The Virgin Suicides” is probably worth enshrining somehow, too.

The trick is in the story’s voice. The successive deaths of five saintly sisters in suburban Detroit is narrated from the adult perspective of the group of boys who worshipped them in the erratic and sometimes ravenous ways adolescent boys would; the story is, of course, about adolescence, not really as it was lived by teenagers but by those who survived to look back on it. “Obviously, doctor,” one of the Lisbon sisters tells the puzzled physician examining her after a suicide attempt, “you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.”

That there is more than one narrator is not the stumbling block you might expect, in part because the voice of the story isn’t multiple and alternating but collective, and so modestly mythic. “I think that if my name hadn’t been Eugenides, people wouldn’t have called the narrator a Greek chorus,” Eugenides later said. But of course they did. And the plural voice does cast a spell, a kind of incantatory-magic counterpoint to the imperative narration that Jay McInerney and Lorrie Moore were rolling out in their books at the time. You is an accusation; we a kind of dreamscape. 

Despite the collective voice, the scale of the storytelling is, through most of the story, intimate and focused. (“No one could understand how Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon had produced such beautiful children.”) At points, it’s even journalistic—unfolding with the moody factualness of synthetic nonfiction, scraps of gathered detail papier–mâché’d together to approximate the lumps of real tragedy:

As the snapshot shows, the slate roof had not yet begun to shed its shingles, the porch was still visible above the bushes, and the windows were not yet held together with strips of masking tape. A comfortable suburban home. The upper-right second-story window contains a blur that Mrs. Lisbon identified as Mary Lisbon. ‘She used to tease her hair because she thought it was limp,’ she said years later, recalling how her daughter had looked for her brief time on earth. In the photograph Mary is caught in the act of blow-drying her hair. Her head appears to be on fire but that is only a trick of the light. It was June 13, eighty-three degrees out, under sunny skies.

A little later, a flash of reporters’ ironic quotation: “Everyone had a theory as to why she had tried to kill herself. Mrs. Buell said the parents were to blame. ‘That girl didn’t want to die,’ she told us. ‘She just wanted out of that house.’ Mrs. Scheer added, ‘She wanted out of that decorating scheme.’” There is also a lot of just-the-facts deadpan: “The psychiatrist’s report takes up most of the hospital record.” But none of that ventriloquism disturbs the narrative affect; omniscience is a plural voice, too.

So is memory, which is one reason why it can be so painful to lose those few people with whom we share a past, no matter how much we’ve come to see them as grotesque aliens since: You lose the language to really reminisce when you’re telling stories to people who weren’t there, and without nostalgia in common end up just performing autobiography, which is boring. Or at any rate not nearly as seductive as this “we could hear”: 

No one else on our street was aware of what had happened. The identical lawns down the block were empty. Someone was barbecuing somewhere. Behind Joe Larson’s house we could hear a birdie being batted back and forth, endlessly, by the two greatest badminton players in the world.

I’ve never had a lawn, never smelled barbecue from the next one over. I don’t remember when I learned what a birdie was. But I can hear it, too.

Tom Keough
The Paris Review 
544 West 27th Street
New York, NY 10001

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