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  • "A story we could live with":Narrative Voice, the Reader, and Jeffrey Eugenides's The Virgin Suicides
  • Debra Shostak (bio)

Reviewers of Jeffrey Eugenides's first novel, The Virgin Suicides, were quick to single out its unusual first-person plural narrative voice as one of the book's most distinctive features.1 Eugenides has repeatedly identified his fascination with "impossible narrative voices"—a reference to both The Virgin Suicides and the more recent Middlesex, narrated by the protagonist, a hermaphrodite who not only is unstable as to gender but also bears witness to events that occur before his/her birth ("Sex, Fate").2 The collective voice in The Virgin Suicides, "impossible" in its counterintuitive proposition of a group speaking as one, offers Eugenides a rich resource to probe cultural conditions, psychological effects, and the reading process. Some two decades after the year of the five Lisbon sisters' suicides, the men who narrate have set themselves the task of reconstructing a history of the girls who continue to haunt them, a project that causes them incidentally to construct a history of their own adolescent selves. They become readers of their own incomplete memories, of the contradictory eyewitness testimony they collect in interviews with a variety of participants in the original events, and of the many "exhibits" they assemble, including such material remains as battered high-tops, dried-up cosmetics, a microscope, and yearbook photos [End Page 808] as well as such documents as a diary and a psychiatrist's report. In this intensely imagined novel, the "we" voice thereby produces an inquiry into desire and the intractability of otherness.

The novel's approach to otherness becomes its central problem of representation. As a corollary, its central interpretive and ethical problem concerns how a reader should judge the representation of the others who are the sole focus of the narrators' inquiry.3 Given the situation—the male gaze turned on beautiful, doomed females—the potential for passing judgment against the narrators and the novel they govern is significant.4The Virgin Suicides thus provides a special opportunity for thinking about the relationship between narrative voice and the reader's response. An offhand comment a colleague made to me, to the effect that The Virgin Suicides is a misogynistic work, makes the novel's challenge plain: to explore one's relation as a reader to the narrators' control of perspective—to the vision these men possess and the story they choose to live with. In doing so, I would argue, one may conclude that The Virgin Suicides is anything but misogynistic; that conclusion hinges, however, on Eugenides's complicated use of the "we."

Because the narrators are both readers and storytellers, The Virgin Suicides not only provokes questions about perspective by means of its formal strategies but also represents them actively in the diegesis of the text. The narrators at once explicitly interpret evidence for themselves and organize it for the consumption of the unknown narratee to whom, according to the premise of the novel, they wish to confide their perplexity. In the collective voice's unresolved struggle to find a coherent story in the Lisbon girls' suicides, The Virgin Suicides thus offers an allegory of reading. The narrators' efforts highlight the acts of both interpretation and storytelling as communal, transactional, and highly relative.5 The plotting of the story they tell is determined by both the storytellers' distance from the object of contemplation and the theoretical presuppositions inevitably brought to any act of reading or telling. Eugenides's use of the collective voice enables a kind of perspectival vertigo. Because the voice is plural, it promises to offer a more reliable point of view than one might expect from a single voice, and the assumptions that determine its interpretations would, for the same reason, seem to have social legitimacy. Yet the authority conferred by numbers is undermined by the narrators' confession of their common puzzlement—as, for example, when they begin a chapter, "We didn't understand why Cecilia had killed herself the first time and we understood even less when she did it twice" (32). Indeed, rather than merging the multiplicity of conflicting interpretations through an implied coincidence of viewpoints, the...


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pp. 808-832
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