Philip Roth, “American Pastoral

1998

A family drama that seems an important precursor for Eugenides and Franzen, American Pastoral is one of several novels Roth wrote about Nathan “Skip” Zuckerman. Rather than the fusion of narrative and psyche that Henry James, for example, demonstrates, in Roth the layering of voices calls attention to the problem of linguistic (self-)representation. Like Eugenides and Franzen, too, this is a novel of suburban solipsism – the lives of others.

The formal device of novel writing is (over)performed here. It falls in concentric nests here: we read a novel about a novelist trying to imagine the mind of the Swede, who is in turn trying to imagine the mind of his daughter Merry. But the narrator often does not sound like the Swede, even/especially in moments of free indirect discourse – the neurotic calling himself “stupid bastard,” or the “oh boy, what’s really wrong with Merry,” etc. Oddly, we never return to Nathan’s frame, or if we do, it is ambiguously. Tthe novel concludes:

“Yes, the breach had been pounded in their fortification, even out here in secure Old Rimrock, and now that it was opened it would not be closed again. They’ll never recover. Everything is against them, everyone and everything that does not like their life. All the voices from without, condemning and rejecting their life! And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?” 423.

We have no idea whose voice this is – Nathans? The Swede’s? The stuttering, violent Merry has made the Swede “see” – beyond his own desire to “pass” (a repeating theme in Roth), and to be successful, into the pressures his own brother has resisted. But this is only if we believe we have entered the Swede’s mind at all, or whether it has been “put on,” like a glove from his factory.

Jeffrey Eugenides, “The Virgin Suicides”

1993

Eugenides’ first novel tells of the 5 Lisbon sisters of Grosse Pointe, Michigan during the 1970s. It has an unusual style, told from a Greek chorus of teenage boys who are in love with the sisters. They reconstruct the stories by memories, voyeurism, and research, emphasizing the importance of the material objects in each girl’s room and the particularities of each of their bodies, which appear to the boys to be mappable onto their desires and depressions. Ronald Lisbon is a math teacher, his wife is a homemaker, and they have 5 daughters: Cecilia (13), Lux (14), Bonnie (15), Mary (16), and Therese (17). The family is Catholic.

The girls’ lives problematically overlap and intersect, as the opening paragraphs suggest:

“On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope. They got out of the EMS truck, as usual moving much too slowly in our opinion, and the fat one said under his breath, ‘This ain’t TV folks, this is how fast we go.’ He was carrying the heavy respirator and cardiac unit past the bushes that had grown monstrous and over the erupting lawn, tame and immaculate thirteen months earlier when the trouble began.

Cecilia, the youngest, only thirteen, had gone first, slitting her wrists like a Stoic while taking a bath, and when they found her, afloat in her pink pool… her extremities were already blue… the laminated picture of the Virgin Mary she held against her budding chest…

We’ve tried to arrange the photographs chronologically, though the passage of so many years has made it difficult” 3-4.

Cecilia lives, but kills herself only weeks later during a chaperoned party, when she jumps from the window and is impaled on a fence spike (the detail of the bracelets that cover her arms while the lights glimmer over every surface in the rec room).

In the fall, “despite their closed ranks, we could see the new differences among them, and we felt that if we kept looking hard enough we might begin to understand what they were feeling and who they were” 64. Lux, the most sexualized of all the girls (sounds like Lo, also a delicious fabric) sleeps with Trip Fontaine after the school dance (she is permitted to go because she gets the other girls dates). “The girls we knew, along with their mothers, fell in love with Trip Fontaine. Their desire was silent yet magnificent, like a thousand daisies attuning their faces toward the path of the sun” 69. For Trip, “Lux is the most naked person with clothes on he had ever seen,” dramatized in the movie when we see x-ray style through her dress to her panties, on which she has written “Trip” in permanent ink. One boy kisses Bonnie and “her soul escaped through her lips” 130. Trip can “feel how slim [Lux is] under all those drapes. It killed me” 131.

Lux misses curfew, and the parents pull the girls out of school. The house becomes stale and eerie. Lux is still seen making love on the roof each night with a different boy, “a cellophane body” like a film star 145. The boys begin to obsess, imagining trips with the girls inspired by travel brochures they toss out (especially after learning of Lux’s pregnancy scare): “The only way we could feel close to the girls was through these impossible excursions, which have scarred us forever, making us happier with dreams than wives” 169. The title of the novel comes from the song lyrics “Virgin suicide, What was that she cried? No use in stayin, On this holocaust ride, She gave me her cherry, She’s my virgin suicide” 176. “The song certainly ties in nicely with the notion that a dark force beset the girls, some monolithic evil we weren’t responsible for” 177. What is illegible to the boys are the girls’ differences – they cannot make them coincide. On the trees in the neighborhood (once imagined as lungs filling with air): “for a time the tree stood blighted, trying to raise its stunted arms, a creature clubbed mute, only its sudden voicelessness making us realize it had been speaking all along” 179.

The boys call the house and play records to the girls over the phone, and the girls respond in kind, but with more inscrutable lyrics and choices (less pop, more folk). The girls send them a message on a laminated picture of the virgin to come over at midnight, but when they arrive, the suicides go off like dominoes: Bonnie hangs herself in the basement, Therese swallows sleeping pills, and Lux dies of carbon monoxide in the garage (escaping by car, as it were). Mary fails to copy her, sticking her head in the oven, but goes a month later by sleeping pills, a year after Cecilia’s death and 13 months after the bathtub incident. As they stand looking at Bonnie, they think, “We had never known her. They had brought us here to find that out” 215. “We knew them now,” they claim afterwards 217. In a moment like Humbert and Lolita, the coroner “spoke of the incredible cleanliness of the girls’ bodies, the youngest he had ever worked on, showing no signs of wastage or alcoholism. Their smooth blue hearts looked like water balloons, and the rest of their organs possessed a similar textbook clarity” 221. The boys are dismayed as everyone begins to recite the TV version of the occurrences, rather than the events as they were. The novel ends,

“They made us participate in their own madness, because we couldn’t help but retrace their steps, rethink their thoughts, and see that none of them led to us. We couldn’t imagine the emptiness of a creature who put a razor to her wrists and opened her veins, the emptiness and the calm… we had to breathe forever the air of the rooms in which they killed themselves. It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, 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” 249.

The misguided close reading of the girls (as in Lot 49, Oedipa misreads the clues around her) recalls the line in Little Women “over the mysteries of female life there lies a veil best left undisturbed.” I would like to compare this to Roth’s project of the obsessive mythologies American suburbia maps onto its members, as well as to Jonathan Franzen. To me, the family drama of Roth-Eugenides-Franzen seems like an interesting one to pursue against the backdrop of the “hysterical realist” or more typically “postmodern” novel of social issues and complexes. The Virgin Suicides seems particularly interesting for the way it focuses in on female space, women as products and surfaces, and the prize of their virginity (ironic in Lux’s case). The mythology of the girls supersedes their humanity – it is the thing the boys cannot recover from the trash of history and its artifacts.