June 4, 2007

Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides

I really did not like this book. I can see all kinds of literary things going on in it, some of the writing is beautiful, especially the elegaic concluding section, and all of it is artful. I can also see thematically interesting things going on, especially with the self-conscious inquiry into whether the suicides are symptoms of a historical malaise or a cultural decline. But none of that offsets how disturbing and morbid the basic premise is, how voyeuristic (falling just the wrong side of that fine line between exploring and representing male adolescent fantasies, and indulging them), and how exploitive and prurient. Among other things, Eugenides does seem to be challenging his readers to consider why or how they interpret stories, how information and observation is drawn on selectively as the narrator and his friends draw on their "evidence" about the lives of the Lisbon sisters. Again, interesting. But while I don't think the novel glamorizes or makes light of suicide (it is, I'd say, despite everything, a sad and even tragic novel), it uses it to do these arty intellectual things. All five girls are objectified in life and death, and again, for me, the novel falls just on the wrong side of being about objectification vs. being objectifying. We have no idea who these girls are or what actually motivates them: their deaths matter because of how they affect others and how they are read by others. Fairly early in the novel there's a comment about the hell of being a girl at that time, but these girls do not live anything like a representative life, so again, they are being used as symbols. Now, I know better than to talk as if the Lisbon sisters are real people somehow being abused by an unjust novelist...but there's something awry with the imagination that set up this story, something uncomfortable about taking this premise in the first place.

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