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Highbrow Horror : THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, <i> By Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $18; 256 pp.)</i>

<i> McCloy is the author of "Velocity" and has just completed her second novel, "Some Girls," which will be published next year</i>

In the hands of someone else, the story of five teen-age girls, all from the same family, taking their own lives might be a dreadful tale, dark and depressing. But despite the ghoulish nature of his subject, or perhaps because of it, Jeffrey Eugenides never loses his sense of humor. Mordant to be sure, and always understated, Eugenides’ sense of the absurd is relentless (he describes one of the girls, Bonnie, as being “a foot taller than any of her sisters, mostly because of the length of her neck which would one day hang from the end of a rope”). After the first suicide, in which the youngest sister, Cecilia Lisbon, leaves a party in the rec room to hurl herself out of a window and onto the standard white picket fence below, one of the invited guests remembers to call across the lawn, “Thank you for the party, Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon.”

The other outstanding feature of Eugenides’ novel is its voice: first person plural. The narrator speaks, always, as a collective “we,” a pronoun that stands for all the neighborhood boys who witnessed the Lisbon girls’ lives, and deaths, from the vantage point of their lawns, treehouses, attic and bedroom windows. As the anonymous-boy-next-door, that “we” manages both an exacting and fascinating account of every possibly relevant detail, with no witness’ account deemed too trivial. It recalls a suburban community that no longer exists, in which everybody takes his turn as informant, from Skip the plumber’s assistant who finds Cecilia’s diary “by the toilet,” to Peter Loomis, who delivers the funeral flowers for FTD.

From the beginning, we are told of the sisters’ impending suicides; the mystery of this book lies not in when, where or how they did it, only in why, and this story is told as recollection by the group of boys, now grown into men. Still obsessed with the Lisbon girls, they determine for once and for all to gather all the available data for this ultimate analysis.

In the investigation that follows, the book traces a history of adolescence; it’s a little like thumbing through a yearbook with someone who adds brief postscripts to faded faces, such as Mike Firkin’s, “who later became a missionary and died of malaria in Thailand.” We hear about Trip Fontaine, who loses his virginity to a 37-year-old blackjack dealer named Gina Desander while on vacation in Acapulco with his father and his father’s boyfriend. He comes back a different creature. “When (Trip) returned we heard his new deep voice sounding a foot above our heads, apprehended without understanding the tight seat of his jeans, smelled his cologne and compared our own cheese-colored skin to his.”

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Transformed into the school dreamboat and later interviewed at a drying-out rehabilitation center somewhere in the desert, Trip Fontaine’s claim to relevance is the brief love affair he had with Lux, the Lisbon sisters’ erotic siren. One night after he has contrived to spend the evening at the Lisbons’, watching television under Mrs. Lisbon’s strict tutelage, Lux attacks him in his car. “Years later he was still amazed by Lux’s singleness of purpose, her total lack of inhibitions, her mythic mutability that allowed her to possess three or four arms at once.”

He never finds out if this episode is the cause, but Lux is thereafter immediately grounded. It is around this time that the neighbors begin to chart the growing disrepair of the Lisbons’ house, as if the ever-increasing captivity of those four remaining girls were the cause of its decay. “The blue slate roof . . . visibly darkened. The yellow bricks turned brown. Bats flew out of the chimney in the evening. . . . Other than to school or church, the Lisbon girls never went anywhere.”

At this point, there is a movement at the high school to somehow acknowledge the tragedy of Cecilia Lisbon’s suicide, and thus ensues the Day of Grieving. “Teachers passed out mimeographs related to the day’s theme, which was never officially announced, as Mrs. Woodhouse felt it inappropriate to single out the girls’ tragedy.”

Again and again, the adults in the book emerge as an incompetent, embarrassed presence in the face of trauma (after Cecilia’s first, unsuccessful attempt at suicide, psychiatrist Dr. Hornicker’s advice to her parents is that they allow the 13-year-old to wear makeup).

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Determined in the way that only the lust-stricken can be, Trip Fontaine finally takes matters into his own hands and asks Mr. Lisbon’s permission to take Lux to the Homecoming. In the face of Mr. Lisbon’s inevitable denial (“he and his wife had certain rules, and he couldn’t very well change them now for the younger ones, even if he wanted to his wife couldn’t let him, ha ha”), Trip comes up with a brainstorm. “What if it was a bunch of us guys?” he asks. “And we took out your other daughters, too, like in a group?”

Thus he sets in motion the only unchaperoned date the Lisbon girls ever had. In many ways, this date is the climax of the book. The Lisbon girls, outfitted in homemade dresses purposely sewed several sizes too big, are finally brought into the light, and the mostly random group of boys chosen to escort them are “overwhelmed by the Lisbon girls’ volubility. Who had known they talked so much, held so many opinions, jabbed at the world’s sights with so many fingers?”

The girls dance, they kiss their dates and drink Peach Schnapps beneath the bleachers, and when Trip and Lux are voted King and Queen of the prom, “even girls in $100 dresses applaud.” When one of the boys asks Mary Lisbon if she’s having a good time, she seems to be speaking for all of them when she answers, “I’m having the best time of my life.”

Unfortunately, as the 11 o’clock curfew rolls around, Trip and Lux are nowhere to be found. According to drunken Uncle Tucker, who lives across the street, Lux arrived two hours later, alone, in a taxi.

After this episode, the Lisbon girls are taken out of school, and Mrs. Lisbon shuts the house “in maximum-security isolation.” The story takes on a certain poignancy here, as it details attempts at communication with flashing lights and songs played over the phone. It’s girls and boys, the eternal duet.

When the boys finally receive a written note that says only, “Tomorrow. Midnight. Wait for our signal,” they’re ready. Armed with Chase Buell’s mother’s car keys, they sneak over to the Lisbon house and make Lux their offer: They’ll take the girls to Florida. She seems to accept, but shushes them and asks them to wait for her sisters. “We’ve got a lot of stuff,” she says.

They wait and wait, but the house only grows increasingly silent. Finally, they sneak down to the basement, which hasn’t been touched since the ill-fated day when Cecilia killed herself. “A brownish scum of punch lay caked in the cut-glass bowl, sprinkled with flies. . . . A profusion of withered balloons hung from the ceiling on thin ribbons. The domino game still called for a three or a seven.”

It’s only when Buzz Romano begins to dance, kicking up a sewage smell from the inch of floodwater covering the basement floor, that the boys see “the only thing that had changed in the room since we left it a year before. Hanging down amid the half-deflated balloons were the two brown-and-white husks of Bonnie’s saddle shoes. She had tied the rope to the same beam as the decorations.”

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Like the rest of her sisters in the house above her, Bonnie has committed suicide. “We had never known her,” the author writes. “They had brought us here to find that out.”

In the end, despite the constant thread of humor woven throughout, what this book captures is the utter bewilderment of those left behind--the painful inconclusiveness of medical explanations or psychological diagnoses (the ever-lame Dr. Hornicker’s hypothesis that the girls all suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder following Cecilia’s suicide).

“It didn’t matter how old they had been,” Eugenides writes, “or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling.”

In the end, the author seems to be saying, suicide is only a testimony to love wasted.


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