The Double Take: Re-reading "The Virgin Suicides"
In the third edition of this series, I re-read Jeffrey Eugenides' 1993 novel, "The Virgin Suicides", and track the decline of suburbia through the misfortune of a tree.
Welcome to the The Double Take, a semi-regular series in which I re-evaluate books and films that I first encountered long ago.
This year is the 30th anniversary of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, a novel that opens itself up to multiple interpretations. Reading it reveals something new or newly relevant to the man I’ve become each time I open it up. But I hadn’t read it in a few years when this anniversary came around, so I decided now is the time.
I found I had a lot to say about this incredible book. So much that I didn’t want to cram it all into one long essay, so this week is an entry in The Double Take series, and in a fortnight, there will be an essay on one of the more controversial aspects of the novel.
Virginia Woolf once announced, “On or about December 1910 human nature changed.” Few shifts in human history can be located with such specificity, though many are more plausible than this modernist credo. 9/11 and the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press make more credible claims on history than Woolf’s hyperbolic pronouncement. In any case, the when of seismic cultural shifts is less interesting than the question of what was rearranged in the tectonic rumblings of society’s fundaments. Such analysis is often left to those of a conservative disposition; progressives are usually too busy jumping up and down in an effort to make the world tremble and shift again. Given the tendency for people to age out of forward-marching progressivism and into backward-glancing traditionalism, those most concerned with the past tend to be, à la Dante, “midway upon the journey of life”.
Not so for Jeffrey Eugenides, who was 33 on the publication of his debut novel, The Virgin Suicides. At that age, he’d have only been glancing over the trench of youth at the no-man’s-land we all cross in mid-life. Yet his novel is suffused with the poignant agony of a past just out of reach. The Virgin Suicides does more than simply lionise the golden age of the American ideal and lament its passing – the novel interrogates the very gold-tinted lens through which we view our yesterdays. Such clarity ought to be brought to any retrospective look at the novel itself, and now that The Virgin Suicideshas reached its thirtieth anniversary, it seems like a good time to look back on the book – at what it has meant to countless readers, myself among them, since its publication.
When I first read The Virgin Suicides, I was in my early twenties, an age at which I could see more clearly all that I’d experienced with the myopia of youth. That’s why, on my first reading of the novel, I found myself captivated by the world in which the story takes place and that reminded me so much of the world of my upbringing. The novel is set in a suburb in Michigan in the 1970s, but, somehow, it could be the small city where I grew up in British Columbia, Canada, in the late eighties and nineties.
The Virgin Suicides tells the story of one summer in which the Lisbon girls, five sisters in their early to late teens, all commit suicide. What I remember most from my first reading of the novel – what somehow stuck with me as profoundly as the virginal self-slaughter – is a tree. The elm tree in the Lisbon yard, and the elm trees that populate their suburb. I decided to re-read The Virgin Suicides to understand why I was so affected by them. I discovered that the story of the Lisbon girls, the boys who idealise them, and the community that raises them, can be tracked through the misfortune of the trees.
In the midst of the opening scene, in which paramedics attend to Cecelia’s failed suicide, we read about the once “stately” elm trees as they are attended to by the Parks Department. They’re spraying them with insecticide in an effort to save the trees from “the fungus spread by Dutch elm beetles”. This is an effort that, we are told here at the start, will not work – the trees will be cut down, just as the paramedics’ efforts will eventually fail and the girls’ lives will be cut short. Their deaths are foretold on page one, as if ineludible fate has something to do with it. Just like our present selves looking back on what was, the novel begins at the end.
The demise of their elm tree is one of the things that Cecelia fixates on in her diary, suggesting itself an explanation for her eventual death: environmental despair. Of course, the novel doesn’t allow us any easy answers, and other factors complicate this picture of eco-nihilism. What the elm tree stands for (in its stand and then fall) is a question: does her despair come from the loss of things that represent the world she’s nostalgic for, or does her despair lead her to notice and focus on such things? This then suggests itself as a question for the reader: does the belief that things were better yesterday motivate us to improve the present moment, or does the glorification of yesterday only make us bitter about today?
One of my favourite passages in The Virgin Suicides comes when the fathers join together to rake the leaves of those ill-fated elm trees from their yards, to pile them up and collectively burn the waste of another season:
“In those days before universal pollution we were allowed to burn our leaves, and at night, in one of those last rituals of our disintegrating tribe, every father came down to the street to ignite his family’s pile.”
The patriarch of the Lisbon house is marked out from the rest of the neighbourhood even before the multiple tragedies that coalesce into one grand tragedy in his home. Each year, he raked his leaves alone, and when offered a sip from the flask of his neighbour, Mr. Lisbon would demur, “Thanks no, thanks no.” Though he “would light his pile like the rest of the fathers”, his “anxiety over the fire’s getting out of control would diminish his pleasure”. We see here the first indication that a parental death grip on their children, born out of a fixation on their safety, might preclude the pleasure of watching them grow up. Hypothesis number two for the deaths of his daughters presents itself: helicopter parenting. Throughout the novel, we see both the parental efforts to control their daughters (ostensibly for their own wellbeing) and the unhealthy ways this provokes rebellion, fourteen-year-old Lux’s sexual encounters with adult men being perhaps the most disturbing.
(One of the most interesting ideas explored in The Virgin Suicides is this perverse notion that ending their own lives is the only autonomy these girls can know. It also interacts in a fascinating way with the voyeuristic relationship the boys have with the Lisbon girls, treating them more like caged birds than actual people. The narrators arguably come in for harsher criticism than the parents here, and when I say arguably I mean that I’m going to argue precisely that in an upcoming essay on the male gaze in this novel.)
The year of the suicides, the leaves strewn across the Lisbon yard go unraked, and when the bonfires are lit and “every house leaped forward, blazing orange”, the Lisbon house remains “dark, a tunnel, an emptiness, past [the neighbours’] smoke and flames”. The Lisbon family is unable to maintain “those last rituals” of the community. When Mr Lisbon discovers the retainer of a neighbourhood boy in the house, he knows it is his “parental and neighbourly duty” to return it because “acts like these – simple, humane, conscientious, forgiving – held life together”. But since his daughter’s death, he can no longer bring himself to perform such duties, so he flushes the retainer down the toilet. His failure will become everyone’s failure eventually, when the last of the trees is cut down. “Without trees, there were no leaves to rake, no piles of leaves to burn” – and thereby no community rituals to hold things together.
The Virgin Suicides can be read as a testament to a time long gone, one of shared duties and values, in which rituals were observed and responsibilities were as important as rights. The novel marks the dying moments of this way of life, as well as the semi-heroic yet doomed efforts of some to preserve it: the reliable housewife of whom it could be said, “It was Tuesday and she smelled of furniture polish”; the Parks Department struggling to save the elm trees; the fathers who join forces to uproot the awful fence on which Cecelia died. Those fathers fail in their task, but at least it can be said, as it is in one of the novel’s most memorable lines:
“It was the greatest show of common effort we could remember in our neighbourhood ... and for a moment our century was noble again.”
With the thirtieth anniversary of The Virgin Suicides, we are further away now from when readers first cracked its spine than Eugenides was from its period setting when he wrote it. In defiance of that passing time, The Virgin Suicides remains as relevant as any contemporary novel hopes to be. I read in it a eulogy for the sense of community that has dissipated with the loss of shared rituals; I read a lamentation for the broken relationship between humanity and nature; I am even made to think of the growing despair of so many young people at the unlikeliness of ever owning a house with a lawn to rake, on which to burn piles of leaves with neighbours. This is just one of many instances on every page of the book where the past, present, and potential future overlap, and I’m sure I’ll find many more when I next read it.
I find myself, having finished this re-reading, going back and re-reading again the final pages. I notice something that I overlooked on my prior readings: there is a moment, after the Parks Department has cut down all the elm trees, in which our collective narrator describes the denuded neighbourhood as “an overexposed photograph”. The light allowed in by the absence of the elms reveals “how truly unimaginative our suburb was, everything laid out on a grid whose bland uniformity the trees had hidden”. A secret is laid bare in this revelation: the past was not golden but just as rusted and rough-edged as today. The past was no better and no worse, it was just yesterday’s present. Just like that, I know that when I come to read The Virgin Suicides again, it will hold something new for me to find, a new way of reading the novel.
A few things remain stable, however, in my various re-readings of The Virgin Suicides. When I read it even now, in the dog days of youth and approaching mid-life, I take a place among its amorphous gang of observers. Their indeterminacy in the face of an uncertain future is my own uncertainty about where I go next – where we go next as a society. I share with them the sensation that where we stand culturally is made of quicksand. Their confusion about the present moment reverberates through the generations to our own today, as we (and they) seek something stable to hold onto. And their questioning of what exactly happened, and who caused it, and what it all means doesn’t end with the deaths of the Lisbon girls, or even with the last page of the novel; those questions, in the abstract, must be asked of every generation hoping to understand how it got to where it is.
• The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides (1993)