Given that the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of “The Virgin Suicides” (Warner Books, 1993, 249 pages) is about to appear in print, now is a good time for another look at a novel that has become a modern classic in American literature.
Set in Wayne County, Michigan, in and around Grosse Point, a suburb of Detroit, “The Virgin Suicides” is steeped in gloom. Since it is narrated, however, with verve and humor, you don’t quite comprehend how sad it is until you’ve read the final pages. You put the book down and that’s when the melancholy grabs you by the soul.
The action takes place in the early seventies of the twentieth century, and the book features one year in the life of a town. The story tells us upfront how it ends—with the suicide of all five Lisbon girls—then goes back to June and retells everything in chronological order. Given that the point of view is not that of the major characters, the five girls, they are frequently seen as rather hazy figures, not totally rounded.
The youngest and the first to die, Cecelia, aged thirteen, is clearly delineated, but she appears only in the first few pages. Of the others in this obviously Catholic family—Lux, aged fourteen, Bonnie (fifteen), Mary (sixteen) and Therese (seventeen), only Lux is much developed as a character.
Ostensibly the tale of the tragedy of one middle-class family in suburbia, The Virgin Suicides amounts to much more. It is an elegy on the fall from grace of the American Dream. When did the fall begin? In the fifties, the sixties? Or were the seeds of the fall already there in the eighteenth century, at the dawning of the country’s existence?
The book was published in 1993, and now we’re into another millennium, and it appears, with The New Era of Trumpery, that we’ve fallen even further from grace. As Merle Haggard lamented in one of his songs, Where Has America Gone? But then, has the stark reality of life on earth ever been any different? Is it not our aging selves that yearn back for a nostalgic time that, in its essence, was not really that different than now?
The main narrative thread describes the tribulations of American adolescence. The viewpoint is consistently that of young males, teenage boys who, fascinated by female teenage flesh, worship the five Lisbon girls—and spend both waking and sleeping hours trying to figure them out. Meanwhile, over the course of one tragic year, the family loses its youngest to suicide, after which a malaise envelops them all.
The overprotective Mrs. Lisbon exacerbates the situation, not allowing the girls to go out with boys, and eventually imprisoning them in the house. Exactly how the four remaining girls get wrapped up in an apparent cult of suicide we are not given to know, as the narration of the novel does not delve into their heads.
Twenty years later the boys who tell the story, now men, are still obsessed with the—now long dead—Lisbon girls. By this time they are “approaching middle age, a few of us balding.” They try talking to everyone who came into contact with the girls. They even interview the bereaved parents, now divorced. Once again, we are not given to see inside the mother and father, and we can only marvel that anyone could live through the loss of all their children to suicide.
The boy/men investigators compile facts about the Lisbon girls. They have begun doing this when the girls were still alive, and the obsession continues years into the future. They also compile files of “exhibits;” they collect photographs, letters, and items that become something like religious relics. And they get nowhere. Why did the girls kill themselves? Lots of fashionable psychobabble is bandied about, but, in the end, nobody knows for sure.
Who is telling the story? The point of view of the narration is one of the strangest things about the book. The whole business is told in a “we” narrative, first person plural, by the investigators, a group of neighborhood boy voyeurs, who spend hours spying on the Lisbon residence.
Among these voyeurs is, apparently, an “I” narrator who is consistently present. Somebody is telling the story, putting it into words, but we never learn the name of the narrator. He is simply one more of the adolescents fixated on the girls and their fate. How many of the boys grow up and go on with this fixation? The implication is that all of them do, but that is hardly believable. More likely it is this one anonymous and obsessed main teller who is still investigating the mystery twenty years later.
Note passages where the reminiscences point clearly to one person, not to a collective “us.” The development of the plot begins with the suicide of the youngest girl, Cecilia, aged thirteen. This event impacts the whole rest of the novel. “Poor Cecilia appeared in our consciousness at odd moments, most often as we were just waking up, or staring out a car-pool window streaked with rain—she rose up in her wedding dress, muddy with the afterlife, but then a horn would honk, or our radio alarms would unleash a popular song, and we snapped back to reality.” This is obviously the recollection of the one narrator, not the collective “we.”
Plenty of other passages leave the same impression. There is one “I” guy apart from all the “we” guys. As a grown man he goes on collecting evidence on the Lisbon girls, compiling, e.g., “Exhibit # 10, a photograph of the girls in their Homecoming dresses. Skittish about his treasures, the narrator describes the photo, then warns the reader/colocutor: “Please don’t touch. We’re going to put the picture back in its envelope now.” For some reason one of the most grievous things about The Virgin Suicides is this ever-anonymous man, now grown, with a family of his own, but still living his life in the distant past, unable to come to terms with the suicidal girls of his adolescence.
The book has a plethora of boy adolescent characters, and most of them appear fixated on the Lisbon girls. Prominent among the neighborhood voyeurs (the “we” narrators), are
(1) Peter Sissen, the first of these “investigators” to be invited to the Lisbon home for dinner. It is he who finds, among other treasures, a used tampon in the bathroom;
(2) Paul Baldino, from a mafia family; it is he who sneaks into the Lisbon home and—in what is a strange advancement of the plot—discovers Cecilia, wrists cut, in the tub;
(3) Joe Larson, who lives right across the street, and whose house often provides a place where the boys can spy on the Lisbons;
(4) Chase Buell, another near neighbor; the members of his family also are featured: his father the Christian Scientist, shot down over Burma in WW II, his mother Joan, an alcoholic, his brother “Little Johnny Buell”;
(5) Tim Winer, “the brain,” who examines Cecilia’s diary and finds “emotional instability,” who has studied fish flies and lobsters, the way they resemble one another;
(6) Joe Hill Conley; notably, he is one of the few neighborhood boys who makes real contact with the Lisbon girls. He is among the group of four who take the girls to the homecoming dance. Of these four, only Trip Fontaine (see below) plays much of a role in the overall plot.
The names of boys involved in the fascination with the Lisbons multiplies all out of proportion. It is, in fact, a task to keep up with all the minor male characters in the story: Mike Orriyo, Chip Willard, Vince Fusilli, Valentine Stamorowski, Jerry Burden, Will Timber, Kenny Jenkins, Woody Claubault, Anthony Turkis, and on and on and on. It is impossible to believe that the neighborhood boys who produce the collective “we” narrative could be so numerous.
The witnesses to the extended agony of the Lisbon family, which develops over the course of one year, are legion. In addition to the boys, they include neighbors and townspeople, all of whom have their opinion. Separate incidents are often reported by a single person, who sticks his or her nose into the story this one time only. Becky Talbridge, e.g., reports on her observation of the Lisbon girls, who were camped out in the girls’ bathroom at school, on the Day of Grieving.
Like one of the fish flies, featured prominently in the life of the town, Eugie Kent flashes his way into the book only once a year. The same two paramedics, Fat and Thin, make repetitive visits in their ambulance to the doomed domicile of the Lisbons.
Remarkably, those boys who get closest to the Lisbon girls are not part of the club—the boy virgin voyeurs who are most obsessed with the girls. Among those who are mentioned as having “gone steady” (but not really) with Lux Lisbon are Paul Wannamaker, Kurt Siles, Peter McGuire, Tom Sellers, and Jim Czeslawski. These names never appear again in the book.
Boys who actually put their hands on the Lisbons are “always the stupidest boys, the most selfish and abused at home, and they made terrible sources of information: ‘You want to know what happened? Smell my fingers, man.’”
Sexual frustration may be at the heart of the fixation by the boy virgin voyeurs. The book treats, most often with humor, adolescent male randiness and adolescent male anxiety. When the sexiest of the girls—Lux, aged fourteen, and the only non-virgin among the virgin suicides—goes wild and begins fornicating with assorted males on the roof of her house, the boy voyeurs are not directly involved, but they observe the activities through a telescope. Years later, in the midst of their own copulations, “they”—isn’t this again mainly the hapless “I” narrator?—admit that “it is always that pale wraith we make love to.”
When certain favored boys arrive to pick up the Lisbon girls for the Homecoming dance, the boy voyeurs look on from Joe Larson’s house: “Left out, we watched the boys drive up.” The anonymous narrator, we learn later, had a date to the homecoming dance, but he had eyes there only for the Lisbon girls.
Years later, the narrators—read again, largely, the one anonymous “I” narrator—are “scarred forever,” and “happier with dreams than wives.” We learn that the narrator is married, but still copulating with Lux Lisbon in his mind. Trying to locate the nexus of the girls’ pain is compared to searching for nodules in one’s own scrotal sack.
The characters of The Virgin Suicides live in American suburbia, where, so they hope, they are insulated from the street riots of the blacks just up the road (Detroit), and where they can indulge in typically American fantasies: such as, we are the exceptional nation, and we, if we are real Americans, deserve happiness. Right smack in the middle of this a thirteen-year-old girl, Cecilia, one of their own, kills herself. Eventually all of her sisters do so as well. “Something sick at the heart of the country had infected the girls.” That’s the major theme of the novel. “They had killed themselves over our dying forests, over manatees maimed by propellers,” over probably many other things, but, in the end, nobody really knows why.
All, in the end, is “a chasing after the wind,” and, it appears, there is no escaping decadence, not in America or anywhere else.
Decadence seeps continually into the pages of the book. The action begins in June, and June is fish-fly season in Michigan. Also known as burrowing mayflies, because at one stage they burrow under the silt at the bottom of the lake, the fish-flies wreak havoc over suburbia for a day or two, “when each year our town is covered by the flotsam of those ephemeral insects. Rising in clouds from the algae in the polluted lake [Lake St. Clair], they blacken windows, coat cars and streetlamps, plaster the municipal docks and festoon the rigging of sailboats, always in the same brown ubiquity of flying scum.”
On this same early page (p. 4) Cecilia—her mind, apparently, already on suicide—is observed commenting on the transience of the flies: “They only live twenty-four hours. They hatch, they reproduce, and then they croak.” Cecilia leaves her initials in the foamy layer of bugs that coat a Thunderbird on the street.
The fish-flies have a bad smell, and true to the decadent spirit of the narrative, bad smells are all over the place. “We became acquainted with starry skies the girls had gazed at while camping years before, and the boredom of summers traipsing from back yard to front to back again, and even a certain indefinable smell that arose from toilets on rainy nights, which the girls called ‘sewery.’”
After Cecilia’s death, Mrs. Lisbon keeps the other girls on a tight rein. They eventually are pulled out of school and forced to remain at home, never leaving the stagnation of the house. After Cecilia everything rapidly deteriorates, the Lisbon house rots almost as if a living organism and begins reeking of decay. “For even as the house began to fall apart, casting out whiffs of rotten wood and soggy carpet, this other smell began wafting from the Lisbons’, invading our dreams and making us wash our hands over and over again. The smell was so thick it seemed liquid, and stepping into its current felt like being sprayed.” Mafioso son Paul Baldino defines it as “the smell of trapped beaver.”
At the climax of the book, when the boy voyeurs enter the Lisbon house—determined to help the girls escape—they immediately encounter the noisome reek: “The smell, now that we were inside, was stronger than ever. It was the smell of wet plaster, drains clogged with the endless tangle of the girls’ hair, mildewed cabinets, leaking pipes. Paint cans were still stationed under leaks, each full of a weak solution of other times. The living room had a plundered look.”
In the final pages, “The swamp smell that arose [from Lake St. Clair] was outrageous amid the genteel mansions of the automotive families and the green elevated paddle tennis courts and the graduation parties held under illuminated tents. Debutantes cried over the misfortune of coming out in a season everyone would remember for its bad smell.”
Adding to the air of decadence is the cemetery workers’ strike, which continues for the whole year of the book’s action. Bodies cannot be buried and begin piling up. Some are shipped out to other states, where they are refrigerated, awaiting the end of the strike, which is finally settled of the day of the last Lisbon girl’s (Mary’s) suicide. When the Lisbons arrive at the cemetery to bury their daughter they are greeted by mass confusion, dug-up ground in all directions and scads of burials.
Finally, there is the leitmotif of the dying elm trees, one last emblem of the decadence. Elm trees die throughout the action, and there are even scenes of people saying goodbye to their elms. At one point the four surviving Lisbon girls fight to save the family elm, apparently much beloved of Cecilia. By the final pages of the book practically no elms are left. “The Parks Department continued to cut down trees, removing a sick elm to save the remaining twenty, then removing another to save the remaining nineteen, and so on and so on until only the half-tree remained in front of the Lisbons’ old house. Nobody could bear to watch when they came for it . . . . . Everyone stayed inside during the execution of the Lisbons’ tree, but even in our dens we could feel how blinding the outside was becoming, our entire neighborhood like an overexposed photograph.”
A year goes by in American suburbia. Elms die, the fish-flies come back, and people go on exulting, suffering, living and dying. In addition to the story of the doomed Lisbon girls, the book is full of sub-narratives from the world of Americana, ancillary tales featuring, e.g.,
(1) Joe the Retard, who shows up at the only party the Lisbon girls throw, becoming the life of the party when the other boys demonstrate how his ears wiggle if you scratch his chin, and who sings a song, “Oh, the monkeys have no tails in Sambo Wango”; this is Joe’s only appearance in the book;
(2) Trip Fontaine, a pudgy kid who suddenly comes out of the pudge at puberty to become the heartthrob of the whole school, only to decide he wants the one girl who doesn’t want him: heartless and lubricious fourteen-year-old Lux Lisbon;
(3) Muffie Perry, known in her schooldays as a great player of field hockey, but discovered twenty years later fighting to save the orchids her grandmother “had bequeathed to the Belle Island Botanical Garden”; there is an extended sub-narrative here, featuring “The decadence of Belle Isle . . . . the delicate fig-shaped island, stranded between the American Empire and peaceful Canada”;
(4) The immigrant from Greece, Old Mrs. Karafilis, living in the basement of her family home, waiting to die, recalls her life of hiding out to escape being murdered by the Turks, then wonders how American tribulations she hears about—“Tommy Riggs totaled his parents’ Lincoln”—can compare with hers. She also can never understand why Americans pretend to be happy all the time. Dark humor, characteristic of the novel as a whole, weaves its way into many of the ancillary bits.
“Meanwhile, a local television show focused on the subject of teenage suicide, inviting two girls and one boy to explain their reasons for attempting it. We listened to them, but it was clear they’d received too much therapy to know the truth. Their answers sounded rehearsed, relying on concepts of self-esteem and other words clumsy on their tongues. One of the girls, Rannie Jilson, had tried to end her life by baking a pie full of rat poison so that she could eat it without attracting suspicion, but had served only to kill her eighty-six-year-old grandmother, a lover of sweets.”
Lots of other set pieces make The Virgin Suicides a treasure of fine writing. Here, e.g., is a description of a now-archaic ritual: the raking and burning of leaves in autumnal suburbia.
“In the past, fall began with a collective rattle in the treetops; then, in an endless profusion, the leaves snapped off and came floating down, circling and flapping in updrafts, like the world shedding itself . . . . The first weekend after leaf fall, we began raking in military ranks, heaping piles in the street. Different families used different methods. The Buells employed a three-man formation, with two rakers raking lengthwise and another sweeping in at a right angle . . . . The Pitzenbergers toiled with ten people—two parents, seven teenagers, and the two-year-old Catholic mistake following with a toy rake. Mrs. Anderson, fat, used a leaf blower. We all did our part. Afterward, the scrubbed grass, like thoroughly brushed hair, gave us a pleasure we felt all the way to our bowels.”
Note the interloper leaf blower, already there in the early seventies, poised to blow all rakes out of existence and destroy a long and lovely, quiet tradition. By the time of the writing of the narrative, twenty years later, the loud blowers ruin the peace of the neighborhood, and the joy of burning piles of leaves is gone as well, legislated into illegality. The snowstorms of that Michigan childhood are also a thing of the past. Snow never comes, it seems, in onslaughts anymore. O lost youth! “The world, a tired performer, offers us another half-assed season.”
Here, in a book about adolescent awkwardness and unease, is the thing of the dreaded phone call to a girl you like. It is described through the viewpoint of heartthrob Trip, who has been so successful with women before Lux that he has never had to call a girl on the phone. “It was all new to him: the memorization of strategic speeches, the trial runs of possible conversations, the yogic deep breathing, all leading up to the blind, headlong dive into the staticky sea of telephone lines. He hadn’t suffered the eternity of the ring about to be picked up, didn’t know the heart rush of hearing that incomparable voice suddenly linked with his own, the sense it gave of being too close to even see her, of being actually inside her ear. He had never felt the pain of lackluster responses, the dread of ‘Oh . . . hi,’ or the quick annihilation of ‘Who?’”
The book begins with Cecilia, who always goes around in an old wedding dress, who dies in that dress, a virgin bride of Death. The action ends with the mass suicide of the other four girls, in a scene that could be titled The Elopement with Death. For the first time in their lives, the boy voyeurs actually get directly involved—if only briefly.
The girls, who apparently know they are being watched, begin secret communications with the boy voyeurs. Eventually they set up a time for a meeting; the boys sneak into the Lisbon residence in the middle of the night. There they encounter luscious Lux, the most fully fleshed out of all the four girls (literally and figuratively). The idea is that they will all run off to Florida together.
In the film made of the novel (directed by Sophia Coppola) there is even a wonderful flash into a future that never arrives, the imaginary scene of the girls and boys in a car, tooling down the road in bliss, on their way to the Sunshine State and freedom. As it turns out, Lux does drive away in the family car, in a manner of speaking. She sits with the motor running until asphyxiated.
The Lisbon girls have unique ideas for their elopement, each of them having selected a separate type of suicide. The pages describing how they do it are among the hardest to read in the book. Upon finding Bonnie hanging in the basement, the terrified boys, who could have saved Lux, and maybe the others, flee the house and the story. As so frequently in the book, the imagination of the narrator then takes over, and the point of view is stretched.
The narrator later learns that Therese had taken sleeping pills with gin. He imagines the arrival of Fat and Thin, the same two paramedics, on that fatal night. “We knew them now. Knew the way the skinny one drove, with his bursts of acceleration mid-block, his cautious turning, his habit of misjudging the Lisbons’ driveway so that he ran over the lawn. We knew the bending sound a siren made as it passed, a phenomenon Therese identified correctly as the Doppler effect the third time the EMS truck came, but not the fourth because she was bent herself by then, winding down and away in slow spirals, a feeling akin to being sucked through your own intestines.”
We can hear the stretching of the POV twice in this passage. First, how can the narrator know that Therese identified the Doppler effect the third time the paramedics came? Second, how can the narrator presume to get inside Therese and feel what she feels as she dies, even describing that feeling precisely? This is the closest any of the boy voyeurs come to actual carnal penetration of the Lisbon girls.
No sooner does the narrator get through being inside Therese than he moves to inhabit the sensations of the paramedics. “We still didn’t know their real names, but we were beginning to intuit the condition of their paramedic lives [here it comes, the POV of the ambulance guys], the smell of bandages and oxygen masks, the taste of pre-calamity dinners on resuscitated mouths, the flavor of life ebbing away on the other side of their own puffing faces, the blood, brain spatter, blue cheeks, bulging eyes, and—on our block—the succession of limp bodies wearing charm bracelets and gold lockets in the shape of a heart.”
Great, evocative writing here, as in much of the rest of the book. The ghostly narrator of The Virgin Suicides, or at least his creator, Jeffrey Eugenides, has quite an imagination
But then again, the whole book seems like a huge POV stretch, in that the main protagonists are constantly observed from aside, never from within. Characters like a local drunk, Uncle Tucker, are relied on to spy from afar on the Lisbons and report their findings.
Given its overriding theme of decadence and romantic dreaming, “The Virgin Suicides” has something in common with “The Great Gatsby,” that classic great American novel. The romantic obsession with the Lisbon girls has begun fading even before their death, “no matter how religiously we [read “I”] meditated on them in our [my] most private moments, lying in bed beside two pillows belted together to simulate a human shape. We could no longer evoke with our inner ears the precise pitches and lilts of the Lisbon girls’ voices.”
The unnamed narrator is himself a kind of attenuated Gatsby. He never shows up in the flesh of the novel, but operates as a specter, hiding his presence in the fiction of the “we” narration. Like Gatsby, he is in love not with a person, but with his own fiction, with a dream of bygone times and idealized women.
The debutante party at the end of the book recalls the wild and frenetic gatherings at the Gatsby mansion, the conjuring up of glee in the midst of decay.
The air was polluted with a putrid swamp smell, so the O’Connors “came up with the ingenious solution of making the theme of their daughter Alice’s debutante party ‘Asphyxiation.’ Guests arrived in tuxedos and gas masks, evening gowns and astronaut helmets, and Mr. O’Connor himself wore a deep-sea diver’s suit, opening the glass face mask to guzzle his bourbon and water. At the party’s zenith, when Alice was rolled out in an artificial lung rented for the night from Henry Ford Hospital . . . . the rotting smell pervading the air seemed like a crowning touch of festive atmosphere.”
The fish flies, of course, are in attendance at this Feast in the Midst of the Plague, as are the boy voyeur narrators, along with girls “who had never considered taking their own lives . . . . Drunk, and kissing us, or passing out in chairs, they were bound for college, husbands, child-rearing, unhappiness only dimly perceived—bound, in other words, for life.” For the American Dream.
At daybreak, leaving the party, the boy voyeurs see the EMS truck parked in front of the Lisbon house, “flashing its lights. They hadn’t bothered to use the siren.” They have come for the final suicide, Mary, who having failed once by sticking her head in the oven, succeeds this time with the help of sleeping pills, “dropped into the palm with the long, lying lifeline.”
–U.R. Bowie, author of One Ton: The True and Heartrending Tale of a Fatboy’s Triumph