Does The Virgin Suicides Hold Up 25 Years Later?
Rereading Jeffrey Eugenides's Debut Novel in 2018
Get ready to feel old. The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides’s dreamy debut novel about five teenage sisters who all kill themselves over the course of a single year, turns 25 this week—an age, I am contractually obligated to quip here, that the Lisbon sisters will never reach, no matter how yellowed the pages that hold them get (single tear: wiped). To be honest, when I re-read the novel earlier this month, I had no idea that it had a big anniversary coming up; I was just in-between books, trying to decide what to read next, and came across an old copy on my shelf. I picked it up and idly read the first three pages; I knew after that I would read it through to the end. They are very good first pages.
Even so, I read on with some trepidation. I had read the novel in high school (after seeing the Sofia Coppola adaptation, I’m sorry to say, but what do you want from me, I was 14), and I remembered it as gauzy and claustrophobic; I remembered it was about teenage girls killing themselves in gruesome fashion; I remembered that the girls were sexy; I remembered that the novel was written by a man. Uh, oh, I thought, already hooked on that early image of Cecilia gouging her initials into the “foamy layer” of dead fish-flies she finds coating a Thunderbird. I was worried that I would find that this book, which I also remembered that I loved, had aged badly. That in 25 years it had grown stale, or trite, or offensive. That if I read it again, I would somehow lose it.
After all, plenty of pieces of culture I loved as a teenager—and even more recently than that—have revealed themselves to be sexist, racist, homophobic, or otherwise problematic. (Due both to social norms evolving and me personally wising up.) Some I can still enjoy, in light of their other charms (Buffy the Vampire Slayer stands up despite Xander’s relentless idiocy and Whedon’s weird penchant for punishing the non-virginal), and others have become more difficult (does every episode of Friends really need a horrified, pearl-clutching gay joke?).
It’s not just me, and it’s not just my generation, either. I taught an undergraduate writing course a couple of years ago organized around the representation of female characters in general and of female warriors in particular (one of my students referred to our classes as “feminist chat time,” which seemed fair, if not something I would tell my supervisor) and at the end of the semester, several students complained that while the class was great, I had simply ruined too many things for them. I had ruined superhero movies. I had ruined curse words. I had ruined Ms. Pac Man. I had even ruined Taylor Swift.
That’s what awareness does. It ruins everything.
But too bad, because the alternative is wandering around with your eyes closed, and that’s how you wind up falling off a cliff and breaking all the bones in your body.
Anyway, this is all to say that a lot has happened in the last 25 years (honestly, even in the last 25 weeks), and much of it has rather affected the way I view the tropes that are essential to The Virgin Suicides. You know the ones: dead white girls, Manic Pixie Dream Girls, hyper-sexualized teenagers, the male gaze.
This is a novel that relies entirely on the male gaze. It is even narrated by the male gaze—to be precise, by a collective “we”: the neighborhood boys who watch the doomed Lisbon sisters as they skip towards death. Watch isn’t really strong enough. They are hypnotized by them. They track them, obsess over them, gather in darkened houses to watch for them to appear across the street, trade observations and secrets about them among themselves, collect things they used or touched; they send them messages. In later years, after the girls are dead, they interview those who might be able to shed any kind of light on their mindsets, their daily habits, the why of their short lives.
Importantly, at the point of telling, the boys aren’t boys. It’s some 20 years later, and they’re men, collectively recounting their former selves. It’s this temporal distance that makes the perspective so effective: ostensibly they all have wives and houses and jobs and beer bellies that they are obliged to claim as their very own; it was only as children, when they roamed the neighborhood in packs, that they were a true “we.” When they try to fit into it now, the seams complain, the edges crack. Still, they tell the story. They feel that they must.
Honestly, I thought that a novel so dependent on the male gaze would annoy me in 2018. (Like, haven’t I had enough? Why did I even decide to read this book by a white guy anyway?) But I was surprised to find that this very dependence is what makes the novel hold up so well, 25 years later. Because of course, the male gaze is not merely the structure of The Virgin Suicides, but ultimately its subject. The Virgin Suicides, as it turns out, is a novel-length critique of the way men look at women.
This is not at all revelatory if you’ve read the book recently; anyone with a passing ability to analyze literature would understand this. My surprise came from remembering the novel as so distinctly about the Lisbon girls, remembering it as full of those tropes that make me cringe now. (The movie even more so.) But it’s not about them. It’s about the act of looking at them, and—crucially—that act is not celebrated. Actually, by the end, it feels pretty pathetic, even as the reader becomes complicit in it. Yes, for much of the book, the reader can’t help but subscribe to the narrators’ view of the girls—we find them magical, we are lured!—which only makes the ultimate authorial repudiation of their stance more cutting. “I guess it could be read as a satirical response to romanticism,” Eugenides said in a 2013 interview. “The narrator is an overly romantic, poetic, dramatic soul, but isn’t ennobled by the love. It’s actually a more deluded kind of love.”
Deluded is putting it nicely. The perspective of the narrators, if extrapolated to a larger, cultural scale, is actually something somewhat more insidious. Answering a question about the casting of Kirsten Dunst as Lux in the same interview, Eugenides said, “with a book like this no one should really play the characters, because the girls are seen at such a distance.
They’re created by the intention of the observer, and there are so many points of view that they don’t really exist as an exact entity. The way to do it would be to have different actresses playing the girls at different times, depending on who’s talking about them. . . That would be too avant-garde, but closer to the spirit of how I wrote the book. I tried to think of the girls as a shapeshifting entity with many different heads. Like a hydra, but not monstrous. A nice hydra.
This speaks directly to the heart of the book as I read it now: the Lisbon Girls are created by the narrator(s) out of the Lisbon girls, who are, ultimately, normal—despite the fact that they kill themselves. The fact that the girls they think they’re obsessed with don’t exist is something the narrators never entirely grasp. By the way, I remembered it wrong: only one of them is overtly sexual; the rest are varying degrees of chaste, like any typical assortment of differently-aged sisters. Some are vain, some are haughty, some are intellectual, some are gentle. They’re just girls. The reader recognizes this by the end, even if the narrators cannot and do not. In this way, the novel is actually an argument against much of what its tropes, on paper, would suggest it was guilty of: treating women like props, failing to recognize their essential humanity.
Which is not to say that there aren’t parts of this novel that made me cringe from scalp to toenails. Because I love you, here is an example—Lux surprising Trip in his car:
He felt himself grasped by his long lapels, pulled forward and pushed back, as a creature with a hundred mouths started sucking the marrow from his bones. She said nothing as she came on like a starved animal, and he wouldn’t have known who it was if it hadn’t been for the taste of her watermelon gum, which after the first few torrid kisses he found himself chewing. She was no longer wearing pants but a flannel nightgown. Her feet, wet from the lawn, gave off a pasture smell. He felt her clammy shins, her hot knees, her bristly thighs, and then with terror he put his finger in the ravenous mouth of the animal leashed below her waist. It was as though he had never touched a girl before; he felt fur and an oily substance like otter insulation. Two beasts lived in the car, one above, snuffling and biting him, and one below, struggling to get out of its damp cage.
This passage is everything I feared that this novel would turn out to be upon re-read: a breathless description of girls as mysterious, mythical creatures, sexual and dangerous and something rather less than fully human. I mean, otter insulation? I also have questions about that second beast. Is it her vagina? Is it . . . inside her vagina? Or is he talking about his own penis? All other sins aside, the metaphor is utterly unclear to me. Eugenides might be able to wriggle out of this one—after all, it’s Trip telling the narrators telling the reader—but still: ick.
But moments like these are few, and bad sex writing aside, I am pleased to report that the novel more than holds up. I do wonder what this story might have been like if it had been written by a woman—but I don’t wish a woman had written it. The resilience of The Virgin Suicides proves yet again, as Kaitlyn Greenidge argued (about writing characters of different races, but it applies here), that anyone can write about anything—if they do the work, and if they do it right. Eugenides is not inhabiting the Lisbon sisters here, he is not attempting to write convincing women (and again, that is the point), but the stance the novel takes is not an accident; it’s craft. This was the way he could write about them; for the most part, he does it beautifully.