Novels employing an unreliable narrator ask readers to supply some of their own details about a story. There is no omniscient voice to either explain the behavior of the protagonist (Dickens) or outline a vast swath of historical backstory (Morante, La Storia). Neither is there a know-all, on-the-scene autobiographer putting story and plot in order, albeit from their limited point of view (Lolita, The Adventures of Augie March).
One novel that utilizes this device in an inventive and effective way is The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. Here the unreliable narrator is a collective, it’s a whole community; that is, an entire neighborhood equally transfixed and nonplussed by the enigmatic lives and inexplicable group suicide of the five Lisbon sisters. The boys who were infatuated with them, an old Greek lady waiting to die in her basement, daft and insipid parents, myopic news reporters, and clueless psychologists: all venture interpretations of why these lovely and bright and perfect girls chose death. However, none come across as particularly convincing; not to the reader and not to the core group of boys-become-men recounting events years later.
Ironically, the more testimony received concerning the Lisbon family’s tragedy – events witnessed, dialogues overheard and recorded – the more uncertain things become. This lack of understanding, the inability to piece the puzzle together, is expressed in a myriad of different ways. One of the pleasures of reading The Virgin Suicides is the varied and ingenious manner in which true comprehension of the Lisbon sisters’ motives is kept beyond the reader’s grasp, despite the plethora of heartfelt inquiry (page numbers based on the 2002 Bloomsbury paperback edition):
Recalling that time, Mrs. Higbie insisted that Mr. Lisbon, using a long pole, had closed the outside shutters. When we asked around, everyone agreed. Exhibit no. 3, however, a photograph taken by Mr. Buell, shows Chase ready to swing his new Louisville Slugger, and in the background the Lisbon house has all of its shutters open (we find the magnifying glass helpful). (89)
Meanwhile, a local television show focused on the subject of teenage suicide, inviting two girls and one boy to explain their reasons for attempting it. We listened to them, but it was clear they’d received too much therapy to know the truth. Their answers sounded rehearsed, relying on concepts of self-esteem and other words clumsy on their tongues. (97).
In any case, she is one of the few people we haven’t been able to track down, and in the characteristic irony of fate, one of the few people who might have been able to tell us something. For apparently the girls went to see Miss Kilsem (the school psychologist) regularly on Fridays, though we never saw them amid the paltry medical supplies of that poor excuse for a nurse’s office. Miss Kilsem’s patient records were lost in an office fire five years later (a coffee maker, an old extension cord) and we have no exact information regarding the sessions. (107)
We’d like to tell you with authority what it was like inside the Lisbon house, or what the girls felt being imprisoned in it. Sometimes, drained by this investigation, we long for some shred of evidence, some Rosetta stone that would explain the girls at last. But even though that winter was certainly not a happy one, little more can be averred. Trying to locate the girls’ exact pain is like the self-examination doctors urge us to make (we’ve reached that age). (179)
Thinking back, we decided the girls had been trying to talk to us all along, to elicit out help, but we’d been too infatuated to listen. Our surveillance had been so focused we missed nothing but a simple returned gaze. Who else did they have to turn to? Not their parents. Nor the neighborhood. Inside their house they were prisoners; outside, lepers. And so they hid from the world, waiting for someone – for us – to save them. (199)
In the next second she was running, holding on to Therese’s arm and murmuring what some people heard as, “Not you, too,” and Mrs. O’Conner, who had acted in college, as, “But too cruel.” (219)
But despite all this new evidence of the girls’ lives, and of the sudden drop-off of family togetherness (the photos virtually cease about the time Therese turned twelve), we learned little more about the girls than we knew already. (229)
For a Fiction File on literary conceit in On the Road click here.
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