Saturday, June 14, 2014

Teenage Suicide Was Never So Beautiful

“They had killed themselves over our dying forests, over manatees maimed by propellers as they surfaced to drink from garden hoses; they had killed themselves at the sight of of used tires stacked higher than pyramids; they had killed themselves over the failure to find a love none of us ever could be. In the end, the tortures tearing the Lisbon girls pointed to a simple reasoned refusal to accept the world as it was handed down to them, so full of flaws.”

In Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides, the reader knows how the story ends not just from the first page, but from the tell-all nature of the novel's title itself. Five teenage sisters, the Lisbon daughters, Therese, Mary, Bonnie, Lux, and Cecilia, successfully kill themselves, the youngest, Cecilia, inaugurating this disastrous turn of events when she leaps out of her bedroom window during a rare open-house soiree, impaling herself on an iron fence post. Within a year the others would follow en-masse, devastating a suburban community near Detroit, Michigan. Their accursed fate is meticulously analyzed by an anonymous narrator looking back nostalgically and with bittersweetness (cleverly utilizing the collective “we” rather than the singular “I” pronoun, so that the deaths of the Lisbon girls is meant to affect us all.)

What matters to us not so much is that the girls committed suicide, but why? The Virgin Suicides is set in the early 1970s, a notable moment in American history because it was then that American political and economic hegemony had begun to wane (the recession and energy crisis caused by the oil shock, the costs and shame of the Vietnam War, Watergate, urban decay, etcetera). As our anonymous narrator explains,Something sick at the heart of the country had infected the girls. Our parents thought it had to do with our godlessness, or the loosening of morals regarding sex we hadn't even had.” The Detroit area and its automative industry had already begun its precipitous decline into what has become its symbolic cautionary status as a failed metropolis. The little things, unfinished or handled incompetently, added up to a state of attrition: “It had to do with the way the mail wasn't delivered on time, and how potholes never got fixed, or the thievery at City Hall, or the race riots...” The suicide of the Lisbon daughters then is how a small community explains its own decline in parable form. Their deaths can clearly demarcate the way it was to the way it is, one side of time's spectrum, beautiful, sunny, optimistic, the present one of deteriorating opportunity and declining faith in future returns.

But for all the darkness and symbolism, this is not a depressing novel, but one that gets it so right in capturing adolescence in its absolute innocence, imagination, awkwardness, and butterflies in the stomach teenage boldness. Eugenides has a gift for nailing the small details, adding them up, and composing a scene so evocative and true he nearly universalizes the coming-of-age experience. And it is because his narrator and team of obsessive Lisbonphiles are such average, yet sympathetic boys that we, the readers, understand implicitly own own clumsiness and that while it might have felt unbearable at the time, there is indeed something romantic in growing up in America, or at least this feels true in the novel's resonance. One of the best examples is when our narrators describe the school heartthrob, Trip, and his courtship of the sultriest of the sisters, Lux Lisbon:

     “Trip had never even had to dial a girl's phone number. 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.”

Whether describing the watershed moments in a teenager's life, like the Homecoming dance or a first kiss or the more prosaic but nevertheless dramatic and agonizing business of calling a girl you love but who doesn't love you back, the novel reads like a prose poem, so delicate and pure its writing, but never precious, sentimental, or cloying.

Sofia Coppola did a terrific adaptation, 
really nailing the spirit of the book, especially this scene

While the The Virgin Suicides implies small-scale tragedies might have large-scale implications, this is a very intimate story about a family's failure to adjust with loss. Following the shock of Cecilia's suicide, the Lisbons never quite recover, especially the parents, who not only enact a draconian set of rules on the daughters' behavior (isolating them from the world and teenage protocols), but lose altogether their zest for living so that perhaps, as negative examples, the Lisbon girls saw no reason they should not join their sister. Small tasks, like cooking meals, washing dishes, and dusting tabletops fall by the wayside. A retainer left by a boy in the Lisbons' bathroom is tossed into the toilet whereas a quick phone call would have returned the mouthpiece to its owner. “Acts like these-- simple, humane, conscientious, forgiving-- held life together.” But even Mr. Lisbon fails in his failure to fulfill his responsibility: “The retainer, jostled in the surge, disappeared down the porcelain throat, and when waters abated, floated triumphantly, mockingly, out.” It is the small details, that signify not only winning or losing, but the beauty of a good story well told.

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