Saturday, May 24, 2008

Books: The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Virgin Suicides is one of my all-time favorite movies; I've seen it six or eight times and I have the DVD, but I've never had any urge to read the book (nor have I had the urge to read Eugenides' much-acclaimed sophomore effort, Middlesex, despite it's brick-like size). I have, however, had the urge to join a book club, and as luck would have it (for I joined after the book had already been chosen), the assigned reading is none other than the inspiration for Sophia Coppola's first (and by far best) movie.

Being so intimately acquainted with the film, I found myself again swept up into its green and yellow mellifluous rapture by the book, and unable to determine whether that sun-soaked feeling came directly from the text, or by association, from the memory of the almost over-exposed stock, invoked by similar names, phrases, quotations. I also had a very startling moment of deja-vu, reading about Lux (one of five Lisbon sisters, second-to-youngest, and the only non-virgin suicide) using a can of Coca-Cola as post-coital douche, lacking access to any more pharmaceutical contraceptive; seeing the film a second time, years after the first, I had expected this scene, but it never came. I thought I had been crazy, made it up, transplanted it from another film I'd seen, but no; it's there, in the book, which I'd never read. I've yet to work out this conundrum to my satisfaction.

But to the text. I found myself, right from the first few pages, wanting to read with a red pen in hand, to remove certain stray words and restructure certain clauses. I felt like I was reading a manuscript. A strong manuscript, to be sure, but one that needed the pruning of a copy editor. I've almost never felt this way while reading a "quality" (and I won't argue that this is a quality) novel (I can think of one possible exception, though I probably wouldn't dare to call that novel quality), and I again wonder whether my over-familiarity with the plot, the tone, the very world of the book, is to blame. Certainly, this was Eugenides first novel, so slack must be cut; and yet, perfection is so attainable in this case that I have trouble keeping my OCD in check.

A male friend who had seen the movie and then read the book told me that the later concerned much more intensively the boys who are the witnesses and the recorders of the Lisbon girls' suicides, their obsession, their awkward moments, their adolescence, whereas the movie features more generously the girls, their buttery hair and starry eyes and sun-dappled sorrow. The book being the brainchild of a man and the movie the brainchild of a woman, that's not surprising. And yet, I found the girls to be the same taunting phantoms in the book that they are onscreen, if, perhaps, a bit less beautiful (though no less bewitching), and the boys the same curious, hungry, idealistic dreamers (the girls, in fact, are given more substance in the book; they too are shown to be curious, hungry, and idealistic dreamers). The one character who lives less in the text than he does on the screen is the preternaturally cool Trip Fontaine (who, it can be argued, "trips" the switch that eventually leads to the remaining four sisters' suicides).* If one were to continue along the gendered explanation proposed above, this follows: Eugenides, a man, can't describe with the same affection a male teen heartthrob that Coppola, a woman, can. Eugenides' Trip is an impalpable cipher, harder to grasp than the Lisbon girls. Coppola's Trip (Josh Hartnett, at the time fresh and unsullied by movies like The Black Dahlia and Resurrecting the Champ), with long hair and aviator sunglasses and the swagger to end all slo-mo walks down a high school hallway, melted me at 17 when I first saw the film, 19, when I saw it again, and every additional year since, inspiring me to attend every other Hartnett vehicle, no matter how frivolous.

Eugenides, though, can have all the credit, because we have seen what imbecilic froth Coppola comes up with on her own. Ultimately, The Virgin Suicides keys into the despairing depths of today's shallow lives: as Dutch elm disease strikes each of the neighborhood's trees, as the seasonal fish-flies coat homes and cars and the ground with their hollow carcasses after living their brief 24-hour lives, something in the air, a poisonous elixir, inspires restlessness and decay under our skins, and without fresh air and adventure and friendship and sexual intimacy, necessary phenomena pulled farther and farther from our reach, we succumb, and we collapse. For the young, youth is painful, for the old, elusive and lovely. For the lonesome, locked up in apprehension, fatal, for the lonesome who are more free, the stimulus of wist.

*If you are not familiar with the plot, it is as follows: at the beginning, the youngest of five sisters (13) attempts suicide; she survives, but then attempts again, this time with better luck. For a year afterward, the remaining four sisters live under the increasing martial law of their church-going mother and distracted father, until, on the anniversary of their sister's first attempt, they all commit suicide. In the movie, they are all dead when the neighborhood boys, who loved them from afar (across the street) come and find them. In the book, one survives her attempt and lives another month before finishing herself off more successfully. It's not as morbid as it sounds, though I'm certain that my mother wouldn't have wanted me watching/reading it as a teenager, although I did.

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