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Virgin Suicides

Jeffrey Eugenides

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Jeffrey Eugenides, a young American novelist and short story writer, studied at Brown and Stanford and has taught in the creative writing program at Princeton. He first gained acclaim as a young graduate in the mid-1980s for his screenwriting, when he won a Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1986. He has since become known for his shorter fiction, featured in Granta, Conjunctions, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, The Yale Review, and The Best American Short Stories, and for his first novel, The Virgin Suicides, published in 1993. The Virgin Suicides has been subsequently translated into thirteen languages and made into a film by Sofia Coppola (Paramount Pictures, 2000). Eugenides has received fellowships from the Ingram-Merrill foundation in 1992, the Guggenheim Foundation in 1994, and the National Endowment for the Arts in 1995, as well as a Whiting Writers' Award and the Henry D. Vursell Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Berlin Prize Fellowship for 2000–2001. His second novel will be published in 2002.

Eugenides' inimitable prose is characterized by a delight in the absurdity of the mundane, an eye for deviance and particularity, a deliberate but gorgeously lyrical style, pointed and often dark humor, and a screenwriter's eye for image, setting and scene. His fiction has treated such diverse subjects as a hermaphroditism, teenage suicide, the failing renovation of a one-time Florida motel, the burning of Smyrna in Asia Minor, and a graduate's trip to the far East in search of spiritual ecstasy.

With The Virgin Suicides, Eugenides confronts the almost caricatured conformity of the American suburban dream. The Lisbons' middle class neighborhood on the outskirts of a decaying city typifies the "white flight" of the fifties and early sixties, as affluent families left the increasingly impoverished cities in search of fresh air, trees, and a quiet street on which to raise their children. In response to this demand, planned communities of identical houses and manicured lawns began to spring up within commuting distance of cities across the country. Though the Lisbons' suburb is not entirely homogenous—nothing quite matches the Stamarowskis' mansion or the Baldinos' fortress—its even grid of streets and carefully allocated elm trees reflect a deeper uniformity of values and dreams, as well as the tyranny of permanent happiness. Suburban affluence augured an era of mass culture and mass consumerism, with a television in every home and mail order catalogues on every doorstep. "Conspicuous consumption," Thorsten Veblen's 1902 term for the American bourgeoisie's habit of buying things they did not need simply to display their wealth, was reflected in suburbia's community-wide buying patterns and the increasing association of brand with personal identity.

Though The Virgin Suicides draws on the rich literary traditions of memoir, tragedy, love story, coming-of-age-novel, satire, detective story, and horror novel, it does not strictly belong to any of them. Instead, it plays with the edges of genres, invoking familiar tropes while dismissing others. The novel is a self-conscious bricolage reminiscent of a Fellini or Lynch film, or a Warhol installation. The novel relentlessly catalogues data, dissecting the cluster of Lisbon blondes into five remarkably different creatures, and watching carefully as the pimples and limp of the two ambulance men become familiar. The boys' stated purpose on the novel's last page, "putting [the Lisbon girls] back together," is ironic and practically impossible in a book that continuously disassembles. Yet the shock of Cecilia's suicide, an unimaginable act, uniformly brands the Lisbon sisters as outsiders and potential suicide victims, and the mounting strength of the neighbors', the readers', and Mrs. Lisbon's opinion forces this fear to its logical conclusion. Thus Eugenides' tale, a meditation on the limits of community and difference, also aptly prefigures the suburban encounter with diversity in the form of civil rights, feminism, and campaigns for sexual freedom. Eugenides' adolescent protagonists, on the cusp of self- awareness and self-construction as adult human beings, reflect the neighborhood's own budding awareness of and first struggles with a world beyond its carefully mowed bounds.

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