This article, titled "Die Selbstmord-Schwestern und ich" (The Virgin Suicides and Me), written by the novel's author, Jeffrey Eugenides, appeared in the German newspaper Die Welt during my visit to Germany, last December. 2023 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the release of Virgin Suicides, to great fanfare and a subsequent movie by that name.
That Eugenides publishes in German newspapers should not suprise anyone who knows about him. From the late 1990s to the early 2000s, he lived and worked in Berlin. Around that time, Eugenides befriended Jonathan Franzen, who also speaks German, and also publishes occasionally in German newspapers. German readers have access to translations of their works.
Most people know Eugenides's Virgin Suicides from the movie, about five sisters from a Catholic family who kill themselves. They never give any reason for obsessing on death, never express any revolt against "The System", their parents, their church, their school, or their religion. Every bit of analysis comes from the other characters.
Eugenides includes little dialogue between the sisters and their parents. He neglects to include any any confidential conversations with girlfriends, confessions to the priest, or anything else to explain why they took their lives, or even who they are. That in itself is strange. Most of the girls I knew in high school talked incessantly. They networked better than us males, that's for sure. We all behaved like lone wolves, compared to them, living in the forest, defined by our Alphas.
I think I understand a few things about Virgin Suicides now, that I did not know when it first came out. When Doctor Armonson stitches Cecilia's arm and transfuses her, he asks her, "What are you doing here, honey? You're not even old enough to know how bad life gets."
Cecilia replies archly, "Obviously, doctor, you've never been a thirteen-year-old, girl."
But that's as far as the reader gets. Eugenides does not include any further dialogue between Cecilia and the doctor—even though she seems ready to admit her complaints to anyone who will listen to her. Cecilia and her sisters get to remain pretty and mysterious, a source of longing to the boys; and they can remain pretty as long as they don't shed light on their petty complaints and longings about everything.
This reminds me of the character Alec Leamas from John le Carré's novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, published in 1963. In the course of the plot, Leamas goes to prison for assault and battery. The other inmates hate him because he can do what they cannot do—remain a mystery: "He preserved from collectivization, some discernable part of his personality." By inference, if Leamas actually lacked a personality, he could guard that from the other prisoners, as well.
And that basically explains why the Lisbon sisters want to remain a mystery, because they have no sense of self and lack the perspective and psychological insight to comprehend the ins and outs of the experience. Basically, Virgin Suicides describes an instance of girls entering puberty. When we enter puberty, we become sexual. Boys can become a dad, girls a mom; but something is also lost—our childhood sense of self, the only life we have known up to that point.
If you took a piece of chalk, you could draw a little girl's face on a blackboard; but at age12 to 13, you have to take an eraser and slowly erase that cute little girl's face. You have to explain to her that she may feel like a nobody for a period of time, or she may feel like a little girl entering a foreign, unknowable arena of life that makes her want to retreat.
Virgin Suicides atrracts young female readers because it voices a long but fleeting complaint about puberty—in a passsive-aggressive format. By the time they start college, or some greater stage of selfhood, they will seldom look at it again. They may actually dislike Eugenides's clever, truncated, slightly dissimulating chronicle of that experience.