Read Emma Cline's thoughts in The New Yorker's issue October 2, 2018 about 'The Virgin Suicides' (1993), the debut novel by Jeffrey Eugenides. There's a new edition of the novel, and this article was drawn from the introduction in it. Writer and novelist 29-year-old Emma Cline herself is the eldest of five sisters, and she pondered over the what-might-have-beens, and the whys.
My paternal grandparents bought me the book as a sixteenth 16th birthday gift. The story chilled me to the bone. It was an unusual choice of a fictional story, and I suppose they intended it to be some sort of advice to adolescent angst. I was a little confused as to why they would pick this title when they knew what I love horror and the supernatural, and this was clearly neither. However, this almost-goth book has fascinated me for many years. I'd have loved to read this as a text for school, but I supposed it never made it past the censors on the school board.
I think of certain lines I circled in “The Virgin Suicides” as a teen-ager—I don’t know what moved my previous self to respond to those particular words, fragments that mean very little to me now. There’s something strange: to be both the teen-ager, feverishly underlining, and the adult, this many years later, who can only look at these illegible markings and wonder at the curious bargain of being alive, the basic self-estrangement of growing up. Like the boys, we can try to solve the mystery of our own adolescence, bridge the gap between all the people we have been, but of course there are no answers. There are no reasons. Maybe the closest we can get are in the images that stay with us, a dying elm on a certain street in a certain town in a certain summer. “It was June 13,” the narrators remind themselves, like an incantation, “eighty-three degrees out, under sunny skies.”
Written from the perspective of anonymous teenage boys who knew the girls from school, and as neighbors, that itself clouded my teenaged judgment of it, and lent all sorts of observations about the book. The book never offered reasons for the suicides. Most problematic was how the book defined the Lisbon family as Catholic. The youngest daughter Cecilia was saved from her first suicide attempt, but tried again barely a month later, and killed herself. A year later, her four older sisters followed suit. The family had withdrawn themselves from the community, and nobody in the community intervened either.
My 16-year-old self wondered at the lives of the five Lisbon sisters who live in Grosse Point, Michigan; a world so very different from mine. The end of the story wasn't a satisfying closure. You can never rationalize suicides. I wondered about it the same way every teen does. But I never thought it as a solution for all those teenaged problems, which weren't very major anyway. The idea of dying via self-inflicted pain (that isn't from an unfortunate accident), and spending an eternity in hell is more terrifying than anything else.
When I turned 21, the film adaptation (written and directed by Sofia Coppola, 1999) was released. I watched it. It was haunting. Am still chilled when I recently watched it again. Small towns and its communities with its own set of rules are horrifying. The narrative style drew similarities to a Greek chorus, and in it, the tragedy. The so-called male lead Trip Fontaine isn't just one person, or one character. He's also a collective, found across every American high school and everywhere else in the world too, including Singapore schools. We all know a Trip and gang.
Now, I'm seeing how the story mourns for the death of idealism. Suicides are always sad. Suicides of people of similar ages, and whom we're acquainted with, are always tinged with sorrow and heartache. The circumstances have changed, but suicide is still an option when it comes to dealing with life and its unpredictable pain. (Let's put aside debates about medical euthanasia for patients with terminal illnesses that affect affects mental abilities and the quality of life.)
In Singapore, it's a criminal offense to attempt suicide, and imho, that really doesn't help, and neither does it thwart attempts either. It simply makes people want to succeed so that they don't get into shit with the law after. We could blame the community, society, and we could also point fingers at the immediate family, mental illness and depression. Regardless, it's not a matter for discussion when someone is dead. It's a matter of us showing concern for our friends when they're alive, and loving them when they're here with us. Faith and love can go a loooong way.
The boys—now men—end the book gathered in the tree house, the lost kingdom of their youth: “It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been,” they say, “or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.” The boys might as well be calling for themselves; no one will ever answer.