Thursday, 24 March 2016

the virgin suicides

On Wednesday 23rd I finished The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. The writing was good and enjoyable, up to a point, but the story was unsatisfying; atmospheric, but punctured by droppings of the suspension of disbelief. Ultimately, disappointing.

On Twitter, Sarah Perry had mentioned that she was reading a book with a 'we' narration. I said I didn't think I'd read any we-narrated books, and she mentioned two in particular: Then We Came To The End, by Joshua Ferris, which I picked up shortly after in Oxfam, and The Virgin Suicides, which I saw in the library last week.

I saw the film some years ago, and the book jacket itself is very clear on the plot summary - five sisters kill themselves, 'we' are the neighbourhood boys telling the story (twenty years later...).

The 'we' narration is not intrusive, but making that narration choice forces other decisions which bend construction and plausibility too far out of shape. And while I am a very willing suspender of disbelief, I respond very badly to books where the internal logic or the world created does not hang together. (Have I ever told you about my first English essay at university, on Wuthering Heights?)

Whether one is meant to or not, or whether this is what other readers do or not, I understood the 'we' narrator as one of the group of boys who never names himself (which I think is what I would also have done had I not known at the outset that 'I' would never appear from within the 'we' for the whole of the book).

I guess the idea is to emphasise the idea of the group of boys viewing and thinking about the group of girls; that emphasising is the only real motive I can think of to make it 'we' rather than a more conventional omniscient narrator, say. Or rather, a non-omniscient narrator, still narrating broadly the boys' experience, without having to reveal the internal or private lives of the girls (and thus give away - or, perhaps rather, be forced to justify/explain - the motives and reasons for the Lisbon family life and suicides).

A problem then is, how do you get into the books all the details which the boys wouldn't have got first hand, especially information from the adults, which they would not have been told by others as teenage boys. The solution to this is to set the telling of the story essentially twenty years later, for some or all of which intervening time the boys have thought continuously about the girls, preserved a museum of artefacts/exhibits relating to the girls (in, I think, a childhood treehouse which they still apparently meet in in their mid-thirties, although at when they visit it at the time of the events it is referred to as being from their own childhood and really too old and small for them), and interviewed every relevant adult in the community. That's implausible; as is, on the other hand, the incredibly detailed descriptions of rooms, scenes, seasons and events which happened twenty years ago from this telling. And even then, there are still details, scenes, conversations, moments which seem to be the provenance of an omniscient narrator, rather than things which they observed (and some of their supposed observation is implausible) or were told by anyone else.

The other two main problems for me were that on the one hand I was never made to believe that the girls held the necessary mysterious fascination to justify the boys' (and others') obsession (to take one example towards the end, the author having (to no apparent purpose) kept one girl alive and communicable for an extra month, the boys show no interest in communicating with her in that time), nor given any reason to believe that the girls committed suicide for anything other than reasons of plot. I mention these only briefly, but they were big problems for me. It's one thing leaving things vaguely, ambiguously mysterious or not wholly explained, although you have to do that very well to get away with it, especially with such a major plot point; but here it just felt like an absence, that there was nothing there.

Having seen the film, and assuming it had reflected the book, I was ready for the lack of insight or explanation, but it didn't really make it any the less disappointing. Probably more disappointing, because at the sentence-by-sentence level (if you know what I mean) I enjoyed reading it, although always beneath it was the bumping of the collapsed suspension.

One odd side-thing which seemed completely implausible to me, but it was such an unlikely thing to say that it made me wonder if there were towns in America where such a thing was possible - I thought about it a lot more than was necessary, it was a surprisingly distracting detail - was when he said, in relation to the first funeral, 'There had never been a funeral in our town before, at least not during our lifetimes' (p35 in my 2002 paperback).

There was a nice phrase (p105) in relation to the Day of Grieving declared at school after the first suicide, in which the Lisbon sisters did not take part: 'None of the teachers insisted on their participating, with the result that all the healing was done by those of us without wounds.' That feels very true for a wide range of similar situations.

First line: On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her life - 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.
Last line (actually, last phrase, at end of last, long sentence): , and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.
Dedication: For Gus and Wanda