Jeffrey Eugenides’ first novel The Virgin Suicides (1993) is probably better known in its eerie big-screen incarnation, as the 1999 film directed by Sofia Coppola. The film captures the essence of the book well, but this arresting novel ought to be read on its own merits as a stand-out piece of American literature – along with the author’s second novel, Middlesex (2002).
Both books are coming-of-age novels of a sort, sometimes with a wry glance to the tricks and clichés of the genre. The Virgin Suicides is notable for its ‘collective’ narrator (a device that can be awkward but in this case works brilliantly), a group of middle-aged men channelling their teenage selves to relate the chilling tale of their neighbours, the five Lisbon sisters who, one by one, take their own lives. The ‘we’ of the narrator works to dispel the myth of there being ‘a singular truth’ – the narrative is a (seemingly) seamless montage of memories, press reports and other ‘official’ documents, which often contradict each other, showing the nuts and bolts of the enterprise of storytelling and the way in which modern-day myths are made.
Eugenides’ interest in myths is even more evident in Middlesex, whose hermaphrodite protagonist, Cal, has been compared to Odysseus. Literally an epic novel, Middlesex traces the journey of a mutant gene through the generations of a family, exploring an intersex immigrant’s version of the ubiquitous American Dream, taking in all of the ‘Big Themes’ and quite a few of the small ones along the way. Eugenides won a Pulitzer Prize for Middlesex, and perhaps he is better known in the States as a consequence, but he certainly deserves to be made more of here. These are Great American Novels which don’t boast about it. And they’re funny as well.
Emily Berry was an Eric Gregory Award winner in 2008. Her pamphlet collection, Stingray Fevers, is available from Tall-Lighthouse and she has a selection of poems in the forthcoming Bloodaxe anthology Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century, edited by James Byrne and Clare Pollard.
Her work has been widely published in magazines including Poetry Review, Ambit, Poetry London and The Manhattan Review.