No one ever dares to admit it, but books aren’t all that good, a lot of times. Even the “culturally relevant” ones that clog up GCSE curricula with pages upon pages of metaphor analyses (when you’re 16, a leaf is never just a leaf) can sometimes make for disappointingly dull reading. Then there are the ones that are supposedly a bookshelf favourite, but by God, should come with a warning sticker (White Teeth actually left me brain-damaged). And don’t get me started on the lowbrow fare that involve inadequately heeled heroines, sunkissed Italian lovers and flowery descriptions of the male genitalia, or political conspiracies that are teeming with post 9/11 patriotism….
Hence, unimpressive as this may sound, it takes a certain kind of genius to produce two genuinely brilliant books in a career. Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist and short story writer Jeffrey Eugenides has done exactly that, and the fact that some of you will probably now be wondering who the hell he is saddens me to no end. Eugenides has never been too fond of the limelight, unlike other authors whose teenage wizards and shimmering vampires can’t hold a candle to anything he has ever written. But for a wordsmith of his calibre, it never was, and never will be, about the fame.
If you do recognise the name Eugenides but not from an actual book cover, then you’ll probably recall a certain Kirsten Dunst movie, The Virgin Suicides, which was based on his first book of the same title. It’s a cliché, I know, but the book is infinitely better than the film. The Virgin Suicides is quite simply one of those novels that cannot transition well onto the silver screen. And at the risk of sounding like a misogynist, I must admit that the woefully miscast Kirsten Dunst is just not as attractive as I had imagined Lux to be…
Set in a typical, American suburb just on the outskirts of Detroit city (Eugenides’ home, and favourite setting), the story revolves around the strange and tragic suicides of the five enigmatic Lisbon sisters. Though the subject of teenage suicides, particularly teenage group suicides, could easily have descended to soap opera levels of maudlinism, Eugenides handles it with graceful tenderness and humour; for example, the book opens with the initial suicide attempt of the youngest Lisbon sister, but the scene of her floating in a bath tub of bloodied water is described surreally and minimally, with subtle horror rather than an overt attempt to shock.
Moreover, Eugenides artfully shirks the tradition of omniscient or first-person narrators by telling it from the collective perspective of an unnamed group of young boys; their fixation with the Lisbon girls seems stalkerish at first, but it’s only a matter of time before we too are hopelessly enraptured with the sisters, hunting for the tiniest clues as to why they decided to end their own lives in such a gruesome fashion. Was it their overbearing parents? Or simply the apogee of suburban boredom displayed in an act so frighteningly desperate that no one could ever have fathomed it? Ultimately, it is up to us, the readers, to decide.
The Virgin Suicides is a black comedy at its finest, dark, twisted, and never willing to outright expose itself. Yet, it is Eugenides’ second novel, Middlesex, which really established him as one of America’s greatest contemporary writers, and rightfully earned him a Pulitzer Prize. Most people would squirm at the thought of reading a weighty novel about an intersex person, but rather than morphing into a polemic against gender stereotypes, Eugenides’ narrative takes the beguiling form of a family saga, tinged with surrealist allusions to Greek mythology. Meanwhile, we are introduced to the lesser known challenges of Greeks that had immigrated to America during the 1920s, often to escape the horrors of the Greco-Turkish war, and guided along their ascent up the social ladder, to a happy, middle-class existence that is all too reminiscent of the Lisbon sisters’ lives (in fact, it’s set in the same region).
Like The Great Gatsby, Eugenides perfectly encapsulates the American Dream in this magnificent coming-of-age story, but with the delightful twist of a main character whose sexual and romantic explorations are complicated by more than just than the trauma of puberty. Never had I cared about a character as much as I cared about Cal as he grew from a broody, confused teenage ‘girl’ to a moustachioed diplomat who had long given up on finding true love.
I guess what I adore so much about Eugenides is his ability to approach difficult themes (teenage suicides, intersex individuals) without beating his readers over the head with sentimentalism. And there are just not that many writers out there who can string together a sentence as naturally and beautifully as him. Thankfully, though Eugenides doesn’t boast the biggest bibliography in the world, he has just recently released his third novel, The Marriage Plot. It’s currently sitting on my bookshelf like some kind of Holy Grail, waiting for a time when I am not bogged down in coursework and can actually, fully immerse myself in another one of his masterpieces.
Perhaps, Eugenides will never enjoy the celebrity of his many, less talented peers, or feature as prominently in the academic world, but at least he is the one of the best at what he does, and that’s why he is one of my favourite writers of all time.