It is very difficult to grasp the idea that The Virgin Suicides is only Jeffrey Eugenides' first novel. It has been called the "most eccentrically successful, genuinely lyrical first novel since William Wharton’s Birdy." Eugenides himself has been named a "heavyweight". I just think he is a black and glittering and hypnotic writer, whom i respect dearly for making such a masterpiece even though he relied very little on plot. The novel was first published in part in the paris review, where it won the Aga Khan prize for fiction in 1991. It was released in full hardcover in 1993. He has received many other awards including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Foundation for the Arts, a Whiting Writers' Award, and the Henry D. Vursell Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was awarded a Berlin Prize Fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin for the academic year of 2000 -2001. During this time he was expecting to write a new novel, so we can expect another work to be released shortly.
Eugenides has had shorter pieces of fiction appearing in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Yale Review, Best American Short Stories and Granta's Best of Young American Novelists.
I liked the fact that Eugenides seemed to address the very dark matters in a creepily casual and confident manner. He launched straight into the novel with an opening line about the suicides, no building up to it or anything. The novel itself tells the story from the perspective of four boys as they watch the lives of five shimmering, blonde sisters from a distance. The sisters are iconic, and unattainable, very 2 dimensional, we never really know what's going on in their heads. He has of course been accused of too little differentiation between the sisters but that's a very irrelevant statement. It was necessary for them to remain elusive, because they were being watched from afar. Eugenides was also criticised for employing a 'cop out' collective narrator. I didn't see a problem with it.
Here Eugenides discussed the way the girl's characters would be represented differently on screen:
"I mean, you will have real live people up there on the screen. In the book, the reader is never sure who the Lisbon girls really are. They’re like Cubist portraits viewed from multiple angles. In the film, the Lisbon girls will appear more real, more finalised, because of the medium.
In this way, he didn't believe the film would be able to capture the tone of the book. Because he thought the tone was explicitly based in language, and that it did not have a visual correlative.
The book is a very chilling account of suburbia, and it's the only book written by a contemporary author which Sofia Coppola considered to be a classic. Sofia adapted the novel into a screenplay, which even Eugenides himself claimed was impossible, and made her stunning directorial debut in 2000. She was very protective of the novel and couldn't bear for somebody else to produce it. She said she felt as thought Jeffrey had written it exclusively for her. She says:
"I loved how Jeffrey was so respectful about being that age and everything. How important it is, and also just that kind of melodrama of being a teenager."
Jeffrey was criticised for ending the story in that all too cliché "you decide" sentiment, all open-ended, a shrug. But Jeffrey is a very ambitious writer, and after all, isn't that what suicide is really about? The absurdity? The way there are no answers? The book isn't at all about why the girls did it. It was not about the victims, but the people left in their wake. What it feels like to be left behind. The delusional state of longing that comes with adolescence, the confusion of it all, the way they never get over it. Jeffrey says that "the narrators speak of a world that no longer exists, a world that they remember and therefore ornament and distort."
The suburb in the book is unstipulated. Eugenides says it could be any fancy suburb outside any decaying industrial city. He specifically left it that way because I wanted to universalise it. He developed the scenery extremely well; he gave everyday objects and scenes significance, just as J.D. Salinger gives objects like shower curtains and chicken sandwiches meaning in his novella "franny & zooey". Eugenides has a most valuable gift, the ability to transform the mundane into the extraordinary.
The novel appeared to be well-researched, and planned out, a commentary of alienation in adolescence and suicide. It was in actual fact a scattered idea that came together in pieces and strains, infused later with details from Eugenides’ own early life in Detroit. The entire book was based on a fleeting conversation he had years ago with his older brother's babysitter. She was a normal-looking teenage girl who admitted within in 15 minutes of meeting him that she and her other five sisters had all tried to commit suicide.
Eugenides spent his formative years in Grosse Point, Michigan. He speaks about the decay featured subconsciously in his novel:
”Now, if you grow up in Detroit when I did, what happens is you begin to take decay – urban decay – as inevitable. My earliest memories are of driving down Jefferson Avenue and seeing which businesses had closed up. Boarded-up businesses were like a petting zoo to me, as a kid. My grandfather used to own this bar on Jefferson. I’m writing about it a little bit in the novel I’m working on now. It was still open when I was a little kid, though I think my grandfather had sold it by then. I used to keep my eye out for it whenever we drove downtown. It got shabbier and shabbier and then finally closed. Then after a few years it burned down. Then it was demolished. This was not strange to me. This was the way the world went.
As a New Yorker, what I can’t get used to is how everything continues to function. I’m constantly surprised that the city continues to exist. If this were Detroit, you’d come down the street one day and Grand Central Station would be boarded up. And you’d say, "Oh, they closed up Grand Central," and then you’d keep on driving by. What happened here with Penn Station, that happened a hundred times in Detroit. So I grew up with that sense of elegy about everything. Entropy wasn’t a concept. It was right outside the car window every day. I’m sure these dire atmospherics made their way into The Virgin Suicides."
Eugenides is addressing the question of whether adolescent boys and girls have fundamentally different psychologies or whether the differences are more sociological, in his upcoming novel. This is what he had to say about the issue briefly:
"There may indeed be some deep, hardwired differences between males and females, differences in brain structures, etc., but my hunch is that we are living through a time of a lot of quackery on the subject. I saw this woman on PBS recently, and she was describing female behavior in terms of menstruation. Basically, what she said was that during the first part of a woman’s menstrual cycle, a woman prepares for reproduction, releasing an egg, etc., which made her domestic or inward. But during the second half, she is expelling the egg, and so is more outward and creative. When I was growing up, if you as a guy ascribed any kind of female emotional behavior to menstruation, you had your testicles handed to you in a Dixie cup. Now, however, women are doing it themselves. Or there’s this idea that females have a bigger corpus callosum and so can communicate between the two hemispheres of their brain better, making them communicative, empathetic, whereas men use more one side, making them silent and grimly focused. But common sense tells us that the differences between individual people are greater than the differences between genders. I’m against all the new essentialism. I’m not from Mars or Venus. I’m from Earth."
Lastly, a random and irrelevant tidbit
: Jeffrey Eugenides' favourite piece of literature is "the portrait of a lady
" by henry james
. He finds it charming & eloquent, and says that he has read it so often that it is now like an opera to him, he knows what is going to happen but he just wants to feel it again. He claims it gave him a sentimental education, as well as a lesson in subtlety & restraint. "The book never exhausts itself; it exhausts me."
Quotes from paramountpictures.com and the tidbit about the favourite book from salon.com