The Virgin Suicides serves as a reminder that the problems the country currently faces have gestated for decades.
In her introduction to last year’s 25th anniversary edition of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, author Emma Cline describes her attempt to discern meaning from the hieroglyphics she left in her weathered old paperback edition of the book. In its story about teenage obsession, she saw her own–reflected less in the suicidal Lisbon sisters, the novel’s focus of desire, and more for Eugenides’ precise prose. We all bring ourselves to the art we engage with. Cline empowers her subject with her own childhood. A middle-aged person reading it for the first time, like this critic, may well think, “Make America Great Again.” Eugenides manages a near-biblical examination of the rot that has infected the American soul since the end of World War II and the advent of the suburb. Clearly tragic and surprisingly funny, the book work will remain poignant as long as we mythologize a past that was never ideal.
Grosse Pointe, Michigan provides his setting, but it could have been placed in Levittown, Mesa or any of the communities created in the ‘50s to resettle G.I.’s and their families for life in the new middle class of America’s postwar economy. This is the origin story of the “white working class” made so famous in the postmortems of the last presidential election. It’s an America of uniformity where identical houses were built on identical tracts of land for maximum efficiency, and the term company town has been retired for appellations meant to express the fineness of one’s community.
The Virgin Suicides takes place in the ‘70s, two decades into this great economic restructuring, so homeowners have had time to differentiate their houses as much as suburbanites can. The lawn usually becomes the area of self-expression in a place like Grosse Pointe. The types of shrubs and flowers one chooses to plant becomes a symbol of one’s character, and there are always the old trees that survived the culling required to develop the suburbs. The trees are always growing and provide the homeowner with a unique prop for his yard, but as the novel begins, the trees are dying, as do a symbol of memory, carrying history in their hidden rings and personal stories of tire swings, treehouses and climbing exhibitions to dangerous heights. The local government keeps condemning the trees for Dutch elm disease, thoughtlessly destroying rather than attempting to preserve a beautiful, old aspect of a community, and they’re all gone by the book’s end, cleansing the community for the next set of homeowners investing in the American dream. It is America happily forgetting its history, especially the tragedies, to enjoy sunny tomorrows.
But the narrators want nothing more than to hold onto memory and find answers to the sorrow that has traumatized them all: The suicides of the five Lisbon girls. Fully aware of the faultiness of their remembrances, the narrators are a pool of the neighborhood boys who obsessed over the daughters of their high school math teacher in uncomfortable ways, rarely speaking, but always watching from windows and through binoculars and telescopes. This Greek chorus is cognizant of the ways it objectified the Lisbon girls, making them platonic ideals of blonde, White femininity while dehumanizing them in the process. In many ways, this is the story of the impotent limits of the male gaze, where the supposed innocence of teenage obsession allows people to ignore the potential for problematic adulthoods.
The inability to see the Lisbon girls beyond their collective until the last moments of their lives is the tragedy that haunts the boys. An inability to hear women rather than fantasize about them represents the great flaw of the masculinity men inculcate in their sons. You can’t make an object your equal, but you can covet it and resent it. This is the toxin we all fear in the fragile ego of the cisgender male, and Eugenides uses his group of boys to examine its less extreme gradations.
The boys tell the story, providing Eugenides cover for his subversive genius. They deny that the story is a mystery, citing the suicides of the Lisbon girls as fact, yet their motivation creates a mystery that the boys spend their adulthoods attempting to understand. The narrators disparage grand pronouncements, particularly when delivered by media figures like local reporter Linda Perl, as well as doctors and psychologists. They objectify the girls for career motivations, creating narratives around societal, genetic or mental causes for a collective act of self-harm. Eugenides keeps his commentary localized, but by doing so offers a stark critique of the industries we have authorized to organize our feelings around the tragic and unknowable. The narrators may not believe they are up to this task, but they speak with collective poignancy.
The Virgin Suicides serves as a reminder that the problems the country currently faces have gestated for decades. Equality was not part of the postwar plan, just consumerism and magazine spreads featuring the perfect family. Grosse Pointe becomes a metaphor for the country, a place traumatized by the lies of its own mythology, yet more willing to manicure the veneer than examine the ugliness of its social construction. The town blames the girls for its stagnation and ruination, not the dying auto industry that provided its lifeblood. Like a crumbling empire in need of scapegoats, the citizens of Grosse Pointe need someone to blame for their lack of foresight and imagination. It has always been this way. American literature from Sinclair to Steinbeck to Eugenides tell us this is so.
This is one of the great books of American literature, and whether it is read during Clinton’s America, Bush’s America, Obama’s America and now Trump’s, it’s a reminder that there is just one America, a deeply flawed country repeating reactionary cycles to incremental progress. Whether we address our festering challenges to become a fairer and more equal society is an untold story for another generation.