I still own the copy of “The Virgin Suicides” that I first read in high school, the evidence of my teen-age self on its pages: water-rippled from many hours in the bath, stained with juice from the tangerines I used to eat in great quantities. It’s a book I’ve read many times now, but I still remember that original encounter, how it felt like a flare from my own secret world, all the inchoate longings and obsessions of being a teen-ager somehow rendered into book form. Even the five Lisbon sisters seemed like some mirror of me and my four younger sisters—I knew the peculiarity of a household filled with girls, the feverish swapping of clothes, the rituals and ablutions, experiencing adolescence like some long-standing illness from which we all suffered. The world of “The Virgin Suicides” was gothic and mundane, just like the world of teen-agers, with our desire to catalogue and make meaning out of any sign or symbol, even the mildest of occurrences taking on great portent. It was exhausting to live that way, believing in the significance of every feeling, tracking every minor emotional shift. But still: sometimes I miss it.
“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.” From the very first line, the reader understands the Lisbon girls—“daughters”—will all die. The paramedics can easily navigate this last attempt because what should be shocking—a young girl’s suicide— has become, in the strange logic of the Lisbon family, routine. Even the narration is measured, calm, relaying the suicide method with a simple aside. There is no crime for the reader to try to solve, no whodunnit. We know what happens. We know who dies, and how, and by what methods. By giving us this information immediately, with such cool distance, Eugenides directs our attention to different questions, to a different scale of novelistic inquiry. Even when all the unknowns become known, every detail accounted for, every witness interrogated, how much can we ever truly understand our own lives?
In one of the great feats of voice, “The Virgin Suicides” is narrated by a Greek chorus of unnamed men, looking back on their adolescence and the suicides of five girls in their Michigan suburb. The narrators are both elegiac and mordant, dipping in and out of lives, moments, acting as the collective consciousness of an entire neighborhood. The men have never quite moved on—despite their now “thinning hair and soft bellies,” they remain arrested as boys, circling around the lingering mystery of what motivated the girls’ deaths. With procedural effort, they’ve exhaustively catalogued relics from that time (“Exhibits #1 through #97”), conducted interviews with the most minor of neighborhood players, imagined themselves into the heads of the five Lisbon sisters—tried, essentially, to fully animate the past. The book retroactively constructs the eighteen months between the first daughter’s suicide and the last, while the middle-aged narrators obsessively probe a mystery that might never be revealed, the clues only half-legible.
The Lisbon daughters are odd, spectral, starting out as an amorphous and interchangeable mass of five blonde girls, “a patch of glare like a congregation of angels.” In the course of the boys’ careful study, the girls emerge into specificity: dreamy Cecilia, with her lists of endangered animals, her shorn wedding gown; Therese, busy on her ham radio; Bonnie, who kisses with her “frightened eyes wide open”; Mary, dancing with a Kleenex in one hand; Lux, the brashest and most compelling, with her halter tops and “strange gruff laugh.” A different writer might have kept the girls as some manic-pixie fantasy, all surface. But Eugenides gives us glimpses of their real, breathing selves, allows the Lisbon girls the dignity of existing beyond the boys’ conceptions of them, each with an identity that can’t merely be pieced together by an observer, no matter how dedicated. Even as they become specific, studied, obsessed over, the Lisbon girls are never truly revealed, to either the reader or to the boys, who understand that their interest in the girls never gets them any closer to the truth of who the girls are. If anything, the girls become more mysterious, more powerful, forever out of reach. The girls, they say, “knew everything about us though we couldn’t fathom them at all. We knew, finally, that 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.”
As a writer, Jeffrey Eugenides builds a world so tight and atmospheric that the book operates like a weather system, with its own distinct logic, or like the closed circuit of an adolescent brain, attuned to signs and symbols, an addictive claustrophobia. Even as Eugenides interrogates the postwar suburban dream, the “dying empire” of a Michigan town, there’s a sense of timelessness, the setting both immediate and otherworldly, toggling between the daily boredoms of teen-agers and a realm almost mythic: when Cecilia slits her wrists, the paramedics with the stretcher are described as “slaves offering the victim to the altar,” Cecilia as “the drugged virgin rising up on her elbows, with an otherworldly smile on her pale lips.” Because the writing is so seamless, it’s easy to fall into its rhythms, to submit to the book as you might to a dream. That’s one deep pleasure of “The Virgin Suicides”—its hyperspecificity, rooms and streets and neighborhoods described in pixelated detail. Every description, every object, feels exactly right, the physical world building on itself like a poem; Lux’s tube top, Cecilia’s prayer card, an Apollo 11 lamp, orange baby aspirin. Even the Lisbons’ grocery list, cadged from a delivery boy, takes on a romantic, gnomic quality. Why do these details—spiked pineapple juice, rosy-pink marble, a dirty canvas tennis shoe—conjure so much? Minor characters are treated with similarly precise and often very funny attention: the perfectly named Trip Fontaine with his assiduous attention to tanning and his jarred collection of “Great Reefers of the World,” who was deflowered by a Las Vegas poker dealer while on vacation in Acapulco. Or Dominic Palazzolo, “the first boy in our neighborhood to wear sunglasses,” who looked “frail, diseased, and temperamental, as we expected a European to look.” Eugenides renders the texture of a time and place as it appears in memory—how a certain smell, an arrangement of objects, a pattern of sunshine and shade as seen from the backseat of a car, can suddenly conjure a past life, waiting beneath the surface.
For the narrators, all this scrupulous attention to detail seems like an attempt at moral irreproachability, an effort to defend their authority to tell the tale of the Lisbon girls. By being unsparing in their trawl through the past, they can forestall charges of narrative agenda or impropriety, as if pure quantity of information could stand in for the truth. Even as these details accumulate—data drawn from every conceivable corner of the neighborhood, every nook of memory—they obscure the larger picture. “Angling Carl Tagel’s telescope out the tree-house window, we managed to see the pockmarked moon steaming silently across space, then blue Venus, but when we turned the telescope on Lux’s window it brought us so close we couldn’t see a thing.” Even the planets, millions of miles away, are more legible to the boys than the girls who live right across the street. When the boys directly communicate with the girls—taking turns playing songs over the phone in halting, mysterious exchanges—the boys write down the song titles, the order in which they’re played, passing the “sticky receiver from ear to ear,” like “pressing our ears to the girls’ chests.”
It only later does it occur to them later that the message the girls were sending might not have needed decoding, that all their conspiracy theories and painstaking efforts to crack the supposed code only obscured reality. Maybe the girls had merely wanted connection. “Our surveillance had been so focused we missed nothing but a simple returned gaze.” The details held the truth hostage, preventing any meaningful exchange. Suddenly, the boys become implicated in the fates of the Lisbon sisters, their own projections preventing them from actually knowing the girls: “We decided the girls had been trying to talk to us all along, to elicit our help, but we’d been too infatuated to listen.” What the boys have been calling love is actually something closer to estrangement.
The boys aren’t the only ones who misjudge the world around them, perhaps fatally. Their parents—no longer in possession of the moral authority that war confers—have to prove themselves on the meager battlefields of their suburban homes instead, a generalized fear replacing any specific enemy. The source of the possible danger shifts in scope from the global—the threat of nuclear annihilation, pollution, toxic spills—to the local: dead flies crusting over the cars in the neighborhood, trees on the block condemned because of Dutch elm disease. Danger or, rather, death is something external and knowable, and therefore is something that can be prevented—the boys get vaccinations, hold polio sugar cubes under their tongues, caution Cecilia not to touch her mouth to the drinking fountain. Even when Lux breaks curfew, Mr.and Mrs. Lisbon believe the problem is situated somewhere out in the world, not in Lux herself, so any threat can be alleviated by essentially jailing their five daughters in the house. According to the Lisbons’ moral logic, home should be the safest place, protected from external dangers, global and local. Then comes the more frightening realization, as in a horror film: the call is coming from inside the house. All the ballast of the suburban world, the tended lawns and the neighbors and the roomy, practical cars, can’t keep the danger away when the source is psychological, a mystery coiled in adolescents themselves, a realm beyond the reach of even the strictest of parents.
The book is an elegy, not only for the dead girls but for the boys’ own adolescent selves. Their relationship with the Lisbons was fundamentally a fantasy, but the intensity and scope of their feelings was real, perhaps more real than anything that followed. After the last Lisbon daughter dies, it’s like a spell is broken: the adult world, with its ordinary disappointments, presses in. “We were slowly carted,” they tell us, “into the melancholic remainder of our lives.” Time betrays them, inevitably, indiscriminately: even Trip Fontaine, once an owner of the most “lustrous father-and-son tan in the city,” turns into a haunted alcoholic, rambling nonsense in a desert rehab. Perhaps by living in the world of the past, cataloguing its every leaving, the boys can maintain that intensity, occupy a domain that doesn’t contain regret and aging and loss. But of course the boys cannot arrest time. They speak of the girls—who died in the full throes of adolescence—with jealousy, as though they were guests who left a party at its peak. Dead girls don’t suffer the unfairness of growing older, don’t see their youth corrode and their memories dim. A couple buys the Lisbon house, turns it into “a sleek empty space for meditation and serenity, covering with Japanese screens the shaggy memories of the Lisbon girls.” Even idolized boys become fallible. “Paul Baldino began to look like any other fat boy with rings around his eyes, and one day he slipped, or was pushed, in the showers at school, and we saw him lying on the tiles, nursing his foot.” The boys’ exhibits, beloved and watched over, are deteriorating: “Mary’s old cosmetics drying out and turning to beige dust . . . Cecilia’s canvas high-tops yellowing beyond remedy of toothbrush and dish soap.” As the boys say, “We haven’t kept our tomb sufficiently airtight, and our sacred objects are perishing.”
The past never leaves us, Eugenides seems to say, it just doubles and exposes, always shifting out of our grasp. The book is an elegy for how life passes through us, changes us. We are subject to its mysterious workings but never given a narrative that satisfies. Any attempt to impose logic doesn’t hold up: there is no memory that doesn’t fuzz around the edges, reveal itself as something else entirely, like Mrs. Lisbon mistaking the flash of sun in a window for the face of a girl long dead. There is basic pain in being sentient, in being witness to the phenomenal existence of the world without any answer as to why. I think of certain lines I circled in “The Virgin Suicides” as a teen-ager—I don’t know what moved my previous self to respond to those particular words, fragments that mean very little to me now. There’s something strange: to be both the teen-ager, feverishly underlining, and the adult, this many years later, who can only look at these illegible markings and wonder at the curious bargain of being alive, the basic self-estrangement of growing up. Like the boys, we can try to solve the mystery of our own adolescence, bridge the gap between all the people we have been, but of course there are no answers. There are no reasons. Maybe the closest we can get are in the images that stay with us, a dying elm on a certain street in a certain town in a certain summer. “It was June 13,” the narrators remind themselves, like an incantation, “eighty-three degrees out, under sunny skies.”
The boys—now men—end the book gathered in the tree house, the lost kingdom of their youth: “It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been,” they say, “or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.” The boys might as well be calling for themselves; no one will ever answer.
This text was drawn from the introduction to Picador’s new edition of “The Virgin Suicides,” by Jeffrey Eugenides.