Salman Rushdie once said, “A book that isn’t worth reading twice isn’t worth reading once.” He wasn’t the originator of the saying, and he couldn’t remember who first said it, but none of that detracts from the truth of the statement. There are about eight, or nine, books (novels) I have read more than three times. Of those, there are two I have read more than six times: William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (ten times, and I still don’t understand it all, thankfully) and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides (seven times).
The Virgin Suicides is the story of the five Lisbon sisters: Cecilia, Lux, Bonnie, Mary, and Therese. They all commit suicide. It begins with Cecilia and ends a year later with Mary. Their story is told by the neighborhood boys who lived next door to them. The same boys who went to school with them, who wanted to know them and help them. Ultimately, they are the boys who mourned them.
As if females were not enough of a mystery to males, the sisters possessed a greater mystique, and not just in their deaths, but in how they lived. The boys fell under their sway, as did most people who knew them, and were as helpless as the sisters in understanding it. As they recall the suicide year as middle-aged men, they’ve lost none of their love, or awe, for the Lisbons.
The Virgin Suicides is difficult novel to explain. I can tell you what it’s about easily enough, but it defies normal words in how it feels. It’s one of those books that works on levels of magic beyond ordinary literature. It is a mystery, a domestic drama, a story full of life and death, youth and age. If you read it, you will become as obsessed with the sisters as much as the narrators.
For years, if asked what my favorite book was, I would answer, without hesitation, Imajica by Clive Barker. It’s a great book, don’t get me wrong. It’s a wonderful epic fantasy, it blew my mind, and still does. But Imajica has never made me want to write. Naked Lunch and The Virgin Suicides have always made me want to put words on paper, in some form or another, and they have always made me want to write like Burroughs and Eugenides. There is a power in their works and they yield it like no other authors.
Of course, I’ve never been able to write like them. I will never be able to, and neither will anyone else. What I admire about these two authors, and these books in particular, is they made me experiment. They encouraged me to search, to do my best to find my own voice and style. They made me hunt for it. Have I found it? I don’t know. I’ve found something and hopefully it’s good when it clicks.
I first read The Virgin Suicides when it was published in 1993. I was sixteen-years-old and I devoured it in one sitting. It has stayed with me all these years later. With every reread, I feel like one of the neighborhood boys who misses the sisters and still mourns for them.