Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

Occasionally a single passage will illustrate the point I’m trying to tease out of a novel with far greater clarity than I can by loading a review with selected quotes and witty asides. The following, from Jeffrey Eugenides quite remarkable debut, The Virgin Suicides, is a perfect example.

The titular ‘virgins’ of the book, the Lisbon sisters (less one, Cecilia, who has already killed herself), go out to the Homecoming dance with an assortment of the local lads on their only unchaperoned date in their short lives. Trip Fontaine, who has made all the arrangements with the girls’ father so that he can take the enigmatic Lux with him, manages to sneak her away from prying eyes to a spot under the seating in the hall. His friend Joe Hill Conley brings sister Bonnie along too. Trip produces a bottle of something sticky and alcoholic:

Everyone’s attention returned to the bottle Trip Fontaine held in his hand. Reflections from the disco ball glittered on the bottle’s surface, illuminating the inflamed fruit on the label. “Peach schnapps,” Trip Fontaine explained years later, in the desert, drying out from that and everything else. “Babes love it.” He had purchased the liqueur with fake I.D. that afternoon, and had carried it in the lining of his jacket all evening. Now, as the other three watched, he unscrewed the cap and sipped the syrup that was like nectar or honey. “You have to taste it with a kiss,” he said. He held the bottle to Lux’s lips, saying, “Don’t swallow.” Then, taking another swig, he brought his mouth to Lux’s in a peach-flavored kiss. Her throat gurgled with captive mirth. She laughed, a trickle of schnapps dripped down her chin where she caught it with one ringed hand, but then they grew solemn, faces pressed together, swallowing and kissing. When they stopped, Lux said, “That stuff’s really good.” Trip handed the bottle to Joe Hill Conley. He held it to Bonnie’s mouth, but she turned away. “I don’t want any,” she said. “Come on, Trip said. “Just a taste.” “Don’t be such a goody-goody,” said Lux. Only the strip of Bonnie’s eyes was visible, and in the silver light they filled with tears. Below in the dark where her mouth was, Joe Hill Conley thrust the bottle. Her moist eyes widened. Her cheeks filled. “Don’t swallow it,” Lux commanded. And then Joe Hill Conley spilled the contents of his own mouth into Bonnie’s. he said she kept her teeth together throughout the kiss, grinning like a skull. The peach schnapps passed back and forth between his own mouth and hers, but then he felt her swallowing, relaxing. Years later, Joe Hill Conley boasted that he could analyze a woman’s emotional makeup by the taste of her mouth, and insisted that he’d stumbled on this insight that night under the bleachers with Bonnie. He could sense her whole being through the kiss, he said, as though her soul escaped through her lips, as the Renaissance believed. He tasted first the grease of her Chap Stick, then the sad Brussels-sprout flavor of her last meal, and past that the dust of lost afternoons and the salt of tear ducts. The peach schnapps faded away as he sampled the juices of her inner organs, all slightly acidic with woe. Sometimes her lips grew strangely cold, and, peeking, he saw she kissed with her frightened eyes wide open. After that, the schnapps went back and forth. We asked the boys if they had talked intimately with the girls, or asked them about Cecilia, but they said no. “I didn’t want to ruin a good thing,” Trip Fontaine said. And Joe Hill Conley: “There’s a time for talk and a time for silence.” Even though he tasted the mysterious depths in Bonnie’s mouth, he didn’t search them out because he didn’t want her to stop kissing him.

A vignette of growing up in seventies Michigan, this is a sharply observed piece on the strange yearnings and rituals of adolescence. Sad, hilariously funny in parts and a sign of great things to come, (his second novel Middlesex is a masterpiece), The Virgin Suicides is well worth taking off the library shelf.

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