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Highbrow Horror : THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, By Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $18; 256 pp.)

June 20, 1993|Kristin McCloy | McCloy is the author of "Velocity" and has just completed her second novel, "Some Girls," which will be published next year

In the hands of someone else, the story of five teen-age girls, all from the same family, taking their own lives might be a dreadful tale, dark and depressing. But despite the ghoulish nature of his subject, or perhaps because of it, Jeffrey Eugenides never loses his sense of humor. Mordant to be sure, and always understated, Eugenides' sense of the absurd is relentless (he describes one of the girls, Bonnie, as being "a foot taller than any of her sisters, mostly because of the length of her neck which would one day hang from the end of a rope"). After the first suicide, in which the youngest sister, Cecilia Lisbon, leaves a party in the rec room to hurl herself out of a window and onto the standard white picket fence below, one of the invited guests remembers to call across the lawn, "Thank you for the party, Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon."

The other outstanding feature of Eugenides' novel is its voice: first person plural. The narrator speaks, always, as a collective "we," a pronoun that stands for all the neighborhood boys who witnessed the Lisbon girls' lives, and deaths, from the vantage point of their lawns, treehouses, attic and bedroom windows. As the anonymous-boy-next-door, that "we" manages both an exacting and fascinating account of every possibly relevant detail, with no witness' account deemed too trivial. It recalls a suburban community that no longer exists, in which everybody takes his turn as informant, from Skip the plumber's assistant who finds Cecilia's diary "by the toilet," to Peter Loomis, who delivers the funeral flowers for FTD.

From the beginning, we are told of the sisters' impending suicides; the mystery of this book lies not in when, where or how they did it, only in why, and this story is told as recollection by the group of boys, now grown into men. Still obsessed with the Lisbon girls, they determine for once and for all to gather all the available data for this ultimate analysis.

In the investigation that follows, the book traces a history of adolescence; it's a little like thumbing through a yearbook with someone who adds brief postscripts to faded faces, such as Mike Firkin's, "who later became a missionary and died of malaria in Thailand." We hear about Trip Fontaine, who loses his virginity to a 37-year-old blackjack dealer named Gina Desander while on vacation in Acapulco with his father and his father's boyfriend. He comes back a different creature. "When (Trip) returned we heard his new deep voice sounding a foot above our heads, apprehended without understanding the tight seat of his jeans, smelled his cologne and compared our own cheese-colored skin to his."

Transformed into the school dreamboat and later interviewed at a drying-out rehabilitation center somewhere in the desert, Trip Fontaine's claim to relevance is the brief love affair he had with Lux, the Lisbon sisters' erotic siren. One night after he has contrived to spend the evening at the Lisbons', watching television under Mrs. Lisbon's strict tutelage, Lux attacks him in his car. "Years later he was still amazed by Lux's singleness of purpose, her total lack of inhibitions, her mythic mutability that allowed her to possess three or four arms at once."

He never finds out if this episode is the cause, but Lux is thereafter immediately grounded. It is around this time that the neighbors begin to chart the growing disrepair of the Lisbons' house, as if the ever-increasing captivity of those four remaining girls were the cause of its decay. "The blue slate roof . . . visibly darkened. The yellow bricks turned brown. Bats flew out of the chimney in the evening. . . . Other than to school or church, the Lisbon girls never went anywhere."

At this point, there is a movement at the high school to somehow acknowledge the tragedy of Cecilia Lisbon's suicide, and thus ensues the Day of Grieving. "Teachers passed out mimeographs related to the day's theme, which was never officially announced, as Mrs. Woodhouse felt it inappropriate to single out the girls' tragedy."

Again and again, the adults in the book emerge as an incompetent, embarrassed presence in the face of trauma (after Cecilia's first, unsuccessful attempt at suicide, psychiatrist Dr. Hornicker's advice to her parents is that they allow the 13-year-old to wear makeup).

Determined in the way that only the lust-stricken can be, Trip Fontaine finally takes matters into his own hands and asks Mr. Lisbon's permission to take Lux to the Homecoming. In the face of Mr. Lisbon's inevitable denial ("he and his wife had certain rules, and he couldn't very well change them now for the younger ones, even if he wanted to his wife couldn't let him, ha ha"), Trip comes up with a brainstorm. "What if it was a bunch of us guys?" he asks. "And we took out your other daughters, too, like in a group?"

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