Virgin Suicides CD

The Virgin Suicides (on CD)

I can’t absolutely confirm it, but as it’s been told to me over the years, I was taught to read at the age of three by my mother. She was tired, it seems, of my constant demands: “Read me a story.” And so she taught me to read to myself. And to my sisters.

And though I can’t remember asking to be read to, I’ve always loved it. Years ago, when I was working in radio and spending a lot of time in my car, I listened to books on tape, borrowed from the library. The 3-hour drive from Calgary to Edmonton, with a quick coffee break in Red Deer, felt much less tedious when accompanied by the voice of Sissy Spacek reading To Kill A Mockingbird.

I don’t do a lot of long-distance driving these days, and had almost forgotten what a pleasure it is to be read to. When the story is engaging, and the person doing the reading does it well.  My 8-CD version of The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 debut, is performed by Nick Landrum, who provided the voiceover for “Dexter”. Based in Brooklyn, Landrum has the perfect voice for story-telling. Just the right inflections – not too dramatic, but with the kind of inflection that draws you right inside the story. Be sure to check him out on Bob Dylan’s Chronicles – Volume One – he will not disappoint.

So, back to The Virgin Suicides. The basic premise of the story can be put pretty simply: in the space of a single year, five teenage girls, all from the same family, commit suicide. Thirteen-year-old Cecilia is the first. She slashes her wrists with her father’s razor and is found in the upstairs bathroom, clutching a laminated picture of the Virgin Mary to her chest. (Yes, it’s a bit “on the nose” as the Brits like to say – predictable, if you like . . . lacking nuance. But the Lisbon girls are Catholics . . . they attend church every Sunday and there’s a crucifix in every room. So it makes sense.) Cecelia survives this attempt, but a week later, during a party her parents are giving for her, she goes upstairs and throws herself out her bedroom window. She dies, impaled on a spike of the iron fence that surrounds their yard. Before the year is out, her older sisters – 17-year-old Therese, 16-year-old Mary, 15-year-old Bonnie, and 14-year-old Lux – will follow suit. Therese overdoses on pills, washed down with gin; Mary, who survives her first attempt, succeeds two weeks later, taking an overdose like her older sister; Bonnie hangs herself, and Lux dies of carbon monoxide poisoning, parked in the garage.

It’s a shocking story, told with irony and, frequently, with humour – although I disagree with the critics who hailed it as “wickedly funny”. It can be read as a critique of social mores but works best, I think, as simply a good story well told.

The setting is the town of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, in the 1970s, an affluent suburban community populated by middle-class residents fleeing the “rot” of the city. The auto industry is deteriorating, young men are dying in southeast Asia, and the “new right” is mobilizing in defense of traditional family values. In the leafy streets of Grosse Pointe the residents feel safe from the changes occurring in the outside world – the very sterility of the town protects and isolates them.

On the surface, the Lisbons appear to conform to the community norms. Mr. Lisbon teaches math at the local high school, Mrs. Lisbon is a stay-at-home mom. It’s not until the death of Cecelia, who was always something of a misfit, that cracks begin to appear in the household. As you might expect, Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon attempt to safeguard their remaining daughters. Curfews become more strict – the girls become more isolated. Bonding with each other, they are virtually excluded from any other kind of social life. Fourteen-year-old Lux, the prettiest and liveliest of the sisters, rebels. She forges notes to get out of gym class, climbs up on the changing room lockers to smoke, and has a string of brief sexual liaisons. When the girls are allowed to attend a high school dance, Lux stays out all night, coming home in the morning in a taxi, alone. Mrs. Lisbon is horrified – the girls are taken out of school and not allowed to leave the house. Lux is forced to burn her rock records but retaliates by having sex with random men and boys on the roof of the house while her parents are asleep.

All of this is told through the lens of a group of neighbourhood boys, who narrate the story in the first-person plural. Obsessed with the Lisbons – even somewhat in love with them – they spy on them, gossip about them, and, occasionally, are allowed some access to the girls’ inner lives:

“We started to learn about their lives. Coming to hold collective memories of times we hadn’t experienced. We felt the imprisonment of being a girl. The way it made your mind active and dreamy and how you ended up knowing what colors went together. We knew the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love, and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them.”

So this is what you need to know about the book: while it’s ostensibly a story about five teenage girls, it’s actually a story about adolescent boys. Which is what makes it palatable. The author is not trying to write about women; if he was, there’d be plenty to complain about, as there often is when men write from a female perspective and vice versa. (I’m not saying it can’t be done, just that it’s often done badly.) The Virgin Suicides is not about women, it’s about the way men, especially young men, view women. The boys are seduced not so much by the girls themselves but by what they represent. Young, white, blonde girls on the verge of womanhood. And blood. It doesn’t get much better.

We never get to see the girls up close – like the boys, we’re kept out of their bedrooms, out of their inner thoughts. Eugenides does this deliberately, in order to keep us at a distance, in the way the boys are always across the street, speculating, guessing, surmising, but never really knowing. I found it frustrating, partly because one effect of that distance is to keep us from caring, too much, about the girls. If I’m going to spend 8.75 hours listening to a story about five young women, I’d like to feel something when they die.

Why they kill themselves is never spelled out, in so many words. It’s been argued that they are imprisoned in a paradox: on the one hand, they’re eroticised by the outside world, as represented by the narrators; on the other, their burgeoning sexuality is squelched by their mother’s puritanical dictates. But this is not uncommon – most young women struggle with the pressure to conform to sexual stereotypes which would not be embraced by mom and dad. Thankfully, most of them don’t choose suicide.

I think we’re not meant to know the reason. Eugenides has said the point of the book is about the unknowability of suicide, “the fact that you can never pinpoint the reason why someone commits suicide”. In the end, it’s the boys themselves who, as men, come closest to what feels like the truth: “Something sick at the heart of the country had infected the girls.”

It might have been written today.