I came across this great article last week, “Does The Virgin Suicides Hold Up 25 Years Later?” by Emily Temple on @Lithub’s twitter and it really made me think, even though I couldn’t really relate to the initial argument (The first line points out that the novel debuted 25 years ago. I also debuted 25 years ago). The piece was timely, about hesitating to reread a nostalgic book in the political climate of today. She describes (apologetically, almost, as though embarrassed) reading The Virgin Suicides in high school after watching the Sofia Coppola movie version and remembering it as a book about those sexy and mysterious Lisbon girls.
Temple says, “A lot has happened in the last 25 years (honestly, even in the last 25 weeks), and much of it has rather affected the way I view the tropes that are essential to The Virgin Suicides. You know the ones: dead white girls, Manic Pixie Dream Girls, hyper-sexualized teenagers, the male gaze.” She goes on to explain that the male gaze takes on the imperative role in this book. It’s not just the narration, it’s pretty much the whole damn thing. And, most importantly, that the gaze calls attention to itself as a delusion. Upon rereading, she sees that the book couldn’t be about the Lisbon girls because they, as actual characters, are hardly in the book at all. The driving force is all from these grown men and their collective memories of infatuation with girls that they knew little about. She refers to it later as “a novel-length critique of the way men look at women.” It was really a well-done article.
I guess my surprise is that I didn’t realize that the argument needed to be made. Let me explain.
I first read The Virgin Suicides in a special topics creative writing class called “Surveillance State” that focused on works narrated by or featuring characters that were under or were performing some degree of surveillance. I knew going into the novel exactly what to look for and I had a professor and class discussions to lead me to that understanding. I guess what I’m saying is this: After a while of studying craft, you can forget that some (most) people are reading for the sake of reading. That we ourselves started off as those kinds of readers before deciding to pursue a career. Even more so, this article reminded me that I am extremely lucky to be studying in the midst of all the social reform I have grown up in. In the private-school-literary-theory bubble that was my undergrad experience, this critical view is second nature. It’s good to remember that this isn’t necessarily typical, and that interpretations outside of this can’t be dismissed. Had I read this a high schooler in the 90’s or even as a 21 year-old in 2014 that wasn’t studying writing, my thoughts on it might have been very different.
Temple says of her own revisiting, “Honestly, I thought that a novel so dependent on the male gaze would annoy me in 2018. (Like, haven’t I had enough? Why did I even decide to read this book by a white guy anyway?)” And I get it. I do. I spent the last four years in “Horsetown USA” (yes, literally) and had to drive past saloons with Trump signs on them twice a day. I managed a Johnny Rockets in a shopping mall. I know what it’s like to be tired of entitled white men—and most men, really.
Still, I think to really study craft and the reading experience and even just, like, what it’s like to be a human right now, these things have to be captured. This time we live in is important and as writers we have to believe that, regardless of what we believe in. I think it’s great that, despite her views going in, she still gave this book another chance. Especially because I think Eugenides took great pains to capture his problematic gaze as a critique on the problem without playing into the issue or feeding the characters into judgement. Perhaps the most effective part of this book is that the characters have grown and still don’t have the hindsight to see the role they played.
The only thing in this article that I don’t necessarily agree with is the statement that awareness has to ruin things for you. While that’s probably true to some extent, I think you can continue to enjoy things that you now understand to be tactless and maybe even inappropriate because they capture a time when you—we?—didn’t know better. I think those reminders are necessary to see that times have changed and don’t necessarily need to be banished to the part of our heart where we keep the guilty pleasures we pretend to shun. I also think a great writer can capture these offensive and real things in a way more advanced than villainizing them, and a good reader can understand the significance of humanizing those flaws. It is not a writer’s job to strive for moral rectitude by the resolution of their work, just like human nature does not act upon a static moral compass. We do things we know we shouldn’t. We like things and pretend we don’t. We worry about what people think. Some of the greatest writers have captured humans at their utter worst. Even worse, they make them just relatable enough that they cannot be condemned without first facing that quality in ourselves. My point? You can keep your problematic faves, but there’s no longer any excuse for pretending they aren’t problematic.
In that Surveillance class, I wrote a story in the collective first person about a bunch of lost twenty-somethings attending an engagement party of some high school acquaintances. I wanted to capture the dehumanizing observation, but I didn’t know how. I’ve revised that story so many times that I still don’t have a clue what to do with it. Since then, I’ve read a few novels that emulate this style. Alessandro Bariccio’s Emmaus, about some Catholic high school boys and the troubled wild girl they admire/objectify. We know the role of observer and we like it because we play it so often. In the faux intimacy of reality show “confessions,” watching celebrities Instagram Live Stories, the role we think we play in the lives of others. I couldn’t finish the story because I didn’t know where I fit into it.
So, would recommend: Accepting books as a magnificent works of art, reading criticism that explains to you why it was so good, and finding other things—novels, art, trash tv—that help you see it play out in real life. Then maybe, just maybe, you can finish that story you started four years ago.