06/11/2012 09:05 am ET Updated Aug 11, 2012

Summer Reading, Part 3: Remembering the Lovely Details of The Virgin Suicides

As my summer reading continues, I sometimes take time out to look at films. Something got me on a Sean Penn kick -- I suppose it was seeing a glimpse of him in When the Levees Broke, Spike Lee's documentary about Hurricane Katrina. I realized with shame that, though I like to think of myself as the world's biggest Sean Penn fan, I had missed a few of his movies. They were mostly early ones that hadn't been readily available at my local VHS stores: Crackers by Louis Malle; Racing with the Moon, co-starring a handsome Nicolas Cage with a full head of hair; and Judgment in Berlin, directed by his late father, Leo Penn. Now that we can rent movies online, I immediately streamed the films on Amazon.

Both Crackers and Racing with the Moon are forgotten classics. Crackers has the burden of carrying a group of misfits through the familiar paces of a bungled small-time heist, but what shines through is the fabulous acting of young Penn, Donald Sutherland, Wally Shawn and Jack Warden. The great Louis Malle (Murmurs of the Heart, My Dinner with Andre and, I think, a bunch of documentaries about India that influenced Wes Anderson's Darjeeling Limited) based Crackers on an Italian film called Big Deal on Madonna Street. As with other films of its kind (The Ladykillers and its remake, Rififi; Small Time Crooks; Sneakers; and Oceans 11, 12 and 13), the fun comes from watching actors pull off extreme characters. I'm pretty sure Sean Penn had his jaw wired to simulate an under bite -- the young disciple of Brando took the look of his character, a Southern musician, to the next level. On the set of Milk, I had a conversation with Emile Hirsch, no stranger to Sean Penn's approach to filmmaking, about how young actors often need to do some kind of crazy preparation to prove they are devoted to their craft. I guess Crackers inspired Sean to really go for it.

Racing the Moon is just a beautiful-looking film about two boys in the 1940s waiting to ship off to WWII. It highlights the talents of young Nic and Sean, two boys born into the film industry and bursting with potential.

On the book front, I have been reading reinterpretations of classics (Blood and Guts in High School) and books that deal with unconventional narrators (The Virgin Suicides). Kathy Acker's Blood and Guts, written in the late '70s and published in 1984, doesn't just reference Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter; it appropriates the book and retells it from the perspective of a wildly promiscuous -- or is she just wildly imaginative? -- girl.

The Virgin Suicides is a beautiful novel by Jeffrey Eugenides that Sofia Coppola made into a beautiful movie, albeit with a few changes. It was Coppola's first feature film, and she tried to be very loyal to the book in her adaptation. I don't know if Eugenides encouraged that approach, but he seems to have played some part in the production. Two key things changed when the story moved from one medium to another. The first is the location, which is central in the book. The film wasn't shot in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and doesn't reference the specifics of the city the way the novel does. The second is the narrator. The book is told in a collective voice whose identity is never really reified, but in the film we see the group of boys who are obsessed with the suicidal sisters. The novel isn't really focused on characters at all; it's a detective story whose outcome is known from the start, which really makes it an excuse for Eugenides to paint all the details of his hometown. In the book, the boys try to piece together who the girls were and why they committed suicide, but they know their task is both obsessive and futile, so what they end up doing is grabbing onto any detail that might enlighten them. Because the boys speak with a collective voice, we learn nothing about their individual personalities; instead we gain some general insights into the way the boys of a specific time and place thought and spoke and behaved. That is why place is so important in the book. You could say that the book is really about being young in Grosse Pointe in the 1970s, not about the sisters. Coppola set her movie in Grosse Pointe, but she didn't shoot there, so she couldn't delve into its details.

When I wrote about my hometown in my book Palo Alto, I too had an impulse to cling to the past. I wanted to hold on to the friends who had grown up or passed away. I wanted to remember the experiences I'd had at a specific time -- in my case the early '90s. Of course, I fictionalized most of it, or re-contextualized it so it had new meaning and emphasis, at least in my mind. I wasn't writing a social exposé about Palo Alto; I was using the place and the people as forms to house my stories and interests. My guess is that Eugenides was doing something similar, whether or not his intentions were the same as mine. He used his experiences to ground his story and make it specific. I doubt there were five sisters in Grosse Pointe who committed suicide when he was a boy, but placing such an extreme example of teenage behavior at the core of the book -- in the title, no less -- energizes the rest of the story. In effect, the suicides -- these hazy acts of violence at the center of the book -- enable him to write an otherwise flat narrative. That isn't to say the book feels flat, but its action, when charted, looks plain and drawn out: we know from the beginning, if not from the title, that all the sisters are going to kill themselves, so the climax is revealed at the beginning of the first chapter. The beginning of the book coasts on the suicide of the youngest daughter, Cecilia. Her death propels the book into motion. After that, there is really nothing left to do but spend pages and pages filling in the blanks about the mysterious sisters.

The other main action points are Trip Fontaine's courting of the second-youngest sister, 14-year-old Lux, and the subsequent excursion to the dance. Because Lux stays out after curfew, the girls are confined to the house like prisoners, and they spend the rest of the novel locked inside the house. Lux sleeps with men on the roof, and the girls and boys play records to each other over the phone, but nothing else happens -- nothing but the group suicides. That means the vast majority of the narrative is devoted to detailing whatever can be gleaned about the girls' lives and to describing the time and place. The boys are so obsessed that they collect artifacts like archeologists or crime-scene investigators. I see them as a stand-in for Eugenides, whose preoccupation with his teenage years is the novel's true originating impulse.

The faceless, collective narrators allow Eugenides to focus the reader's attention outward, away from the boys and onto the girls. The boys' obsession is represented as collective, not like the individualized obsessions the Compson brothers have for Caddy in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. In that novel, Benjy, Quentin and Jason are all consumed by thoughts of Caddy, but their passions manifest themselves differently based on their varying personalities and mindsets. Faulkner tells us who is focused on Caddy and how she affects each narrator. In The Virgin Suicides, the collective narrators are as ethereal as the mythic Lisbon girls. We never see any of these boys in private moments. Every so often, one of them will be named and we will get a glimpse of something he does, but never in a way that distinguishes him from the group. It isn't even clear if the named boys are part of the collective -- momentarily pulling away from the mob to be noticed for some awkward act, only to be sucked back in -- or if they are in fact separate from the boys who are telling the story. And how many boys make up this "we"? Trip Fontaine is the one boy who is definitely not part of the "we." The boys interview Trip when he is a grown man, suggesting that he does not belong to the inner circle but instead deserves to be questioned like the adults. He doesn't automatically supply info to the collective consciousness.

The extensive detailing that gives the novel its raison d'être makes me think of Vladimir Nabokov --- especially since Nabokov, in Lolita, was as eager as Eugenides is here to mix pop-culture references and incredibly apt metaphors. Nabokov's influence can also be felt in the treatment of memory in The Virgin Suicides. Nabokov, who titled his autobiography Speak, Memory, was obsessed with the power of memory, the way we recreate our lives through retelling, and the influence the passage of time has on our world. Nabokov said he tried to capture the world around him with perfect clarity, because one day the things that decorated and defined our world and our selves would all feel like antiques. I think that's a good description of what Eugenides did with The Virgin Suicides: he crafted a beautiful portrait of high school in a specific era and a specific place.