Monday, March 19, 2012

Full of grace

I absolutely loved Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, so I brought his debut novel The Virgin Suicides with me to Michigan to read in between toddler birthday parties and gymnastics practices.

I'll admit, I was a little uneasy about the subject of the book, especially given the need for a recent project like "It Gets Better". But when I read the book as a dark comedy rather than a commentary on teenage suicide and the meaning of adolescence in America, it became less grim.

The plot is fairly straightforward, from the first few paragraphs: five teenage sisters all commit suicide within the space of a year. Was it a pact? Was it because their parents were extremely strict? Was it because their peers thought they were reclusive and weird? Was it due to depression? There are no answers, just as there are rarely any answers with a topic as complex as suicide.

The book is narrated by a collective group of neighborhood boys who are obsessed with the sisters; there is no "I" in the storytelling, only "we". Through the eyes of middle aged men recalling their youth, the reader also becomes the voyeur, bears part of the responsibility for both the ostracism and objectification of the girls, and serves as historical record. The narrators, like society, are gruesomely interested in the suicides (even years later) and yet also ironically supplying the social atmosphere in which they can take place. Are the "Virgin" suicides the girls themselves, innocent lives cut short before the passing of decades and declining of health makes their peers nostalgic for a perceived simpler youth or America?

Eugenides is a brilliant writer. His descriptions of little social details and observations are spot-on, hilarious, and oftentimes poignant. Like Middlesex, it definitely kept the reader hooked and engaged by throwing little interesting crumbs down, little tidbits about plot developments.

Perhaps the underlying discomfort I had with the story stems from some long-buried critique of Durkheim, or in the gritty, uneasy reality that this exaggerated tale is a pretty apt portrait of a cultural obsession.

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