Friday, 6 September 2013

Reviews of Books I've Never Read

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

Just another day at the sacrificial virgin and iron ore smelting factory.
First off, let me say I saw the movie and it's nothing like the book I've never read. Secondly, I rarely read authors whose names I can't pronounce (e.g. Chuck Palahniuk, Michel Houellebecq, J.M. Coetzee, Maurice Chevalier, Dean Koontz, Boris Flinkbrot), but I am willing to make the exception and I heard this Eugenides fellow really puts out a tense page-turner, like John Grisham but not as sexy with the characters unless you like them malnourished and with the pallor of Cornish game hens before cooking. Well, I wasn't to be disappointed because as it turned out, this guy had me up to the wee hours of the morning, although my weak bladder and paranoid delusions also helped. The fact that he was able to blend mystery with literary leanings was kind of like using the meat of an extinct species for a fondue pot bubbling with Velveeta cheese. When I say extinct species, I'm not kidding. For this book is really about virgin sacrifice, not suicide as the title would suggest (you can't judge a book by its title or its remainder sticker price) and these days, that concept has about as much foothold in contemporary society as a rock climbing dodo or Mahatma Gandhi at an NRA rally.

The book opens in a seemingly terrific suburban enclave in Michigan, or maybe Wisconsin, I'm not sure which because the descriptions of lawns and mowing machinery would seem to suggest Grosse Pointe but then sometimes a buffalo or bison comes walking across the grass, so your guess is as good as mine. Although the leaf blower portrayals lean heavily towards the eastern side of Lake Michigan, down Bloomfield Hills way, almost spitting distance from downtown Detroit unless you're spitting hot lead from a Glock 26, in which case it's a little closer.

Mr. Eugenides relaxing on his ranch in downtown Detroit where he raises buffalo for Buffalo chicken wings and plays high stakes Parcheesi with other glittering literati. Here he's pictured with his favourite buffalo, Melba, who he has claimed was a major inspiration, along with his beloved lawn mower for this book. What a buffalo and a lawnmower have to do with five suburban virgins destined for sacrifice is a mystery and when asked in an interview Mr. Eugenides replied, "Hey, don't knock it till you've tried it," which only deepens the mystery. The ranch is open to the public every second Wednesday of the month and buffalo birthing gloves are supplied to all the kiddies.
I have to say that for a thin book and first novel to boot, Mr. Eugenides (pronounced "Eugene, at
ease," but if you bark it like a marine drill sergeant with a dolmades stuck between his teeth you'll come very close to how it should sound in the original Greek), has created not only a novel that has an inherent creepiness in its themes and situations, but is equally adept at crushing creeping silverfish that would dare feed upon its very pages while you sleep. Let me just say that a lot of silverfish died virgins beneath the impact of this book, impressive for something that weighs in at barely half a pound. A lightweight in the world of heavyweight tomes but a K.O. artist when it comes to going the distance on the ropes.

Now let's get to the nitty-gritty of this suburban noir literary mystery and to do that we must start with the virgins. And I'm not talking just one or two but five, count'em, five virgin sisters romping through the pages of Mr. Eugene-At-Ease's pastoral and yet psychologically bleak landscape. Honestly, you need a bunch of virgins to keep people reading this morose thing. Of course the author is pretty smart sticking virgins right up there in the title because, let's face it, virgins sell like balloon animals at a swinger's party. As P.T. Barnum once said, there's a virgin born every minute and pair them with the suckers also being born every minute and you've got a marketing marriage made in heaven. Think of all the stuff with virgins. A virgin Caesar, virgin Shirley Temple, Like a Virgin, the Virgin Mary, the Virgin Islands, a virgin bride, Virgin Airlines, really you can't swing a dead cat without hitting some virgin thingamajig but Mr. Eugene-At-Ease uses his virgins for a higher calling. Namely as sacrificial victims to the god, Balalabub, a great and evil forgotten Aztec deity reborn as Hymie Kugelman who lives a few doors down from the virgin sisters and whose thirst for fresh virgin blood can never be sated except on Sundays when he's happy to just take his Cadillac out for a spin and maybe later watch a movie and have a nice grilled cheese sandwich and some sweet bread and butter pickles on the side, maybe some potato chips too although this sometimes gives him indigestion.
The great Balalabub (a.k.a. Hymie Kugelman) in all his radiant glory. Even cacti cower at his feet and virgins faint dead away as he takes them back to his suburban hideaway where he drains them of their blood and sometimes fits them for brassieres, not necessarily in that order.
Okay, here's how the plot pans out. The five virgin sisters, Rickie, Nickie, Mickie, Vickie and Rhonda (nicknamed Hickie because she lets all the boys suck on her neck), are the daughters of Renaldo and Pinky Lingmire. Renaldo is a sewer systems engineer and Punky teaches kazoo to neighbourhood children out of their home to bring in some extra cash. It's an affluent neighbourhood and close-knit community where everybody knows everybody except for some of the people they don't know and then some of those people don't know some of the other people so does anyone really know anyone or what they're doing in their rec-rooms, especially in underwear and easy access to a bubble machine? That's where this novel takes off like a jet plane in a whiny folk song and introduces the major themes of alienation, the pressures of social uniformity, the dark secrets of seemingly functional families that turn out more dysfunctional than that guy down the street who practices home taxidermy on neighbourhood cats, how the demands of a ten-pin bowling league and obsessive Hummel figurine collecting has affected that family psychology and the heartlessness of youth, especially regarding etiquette on escalators at the mall and the ridiculing of people's badly hemmed pants. Throw a washed-up Aztec god into the mix and you've got a recipe for meatballs in mole sauce along with a pretty good novel to boot.
Introduce a bubble machine into a rec-room setting and the sky's the limit. Unfortunately you can't always predict the outcome and, as in the case of Flip Minchford of Balousie, Mississippi pictured above, he was transformed into a gorilla suit-wearing deviant with a makeshift space helmet that helped him to recycle his own revolting fumes that he breathed constantly in his rec-room cave, inciting him into fits of rage and the urge to lick the bunions of elderly nuns. I mention this  to illustrate that just when you think you know your neighbours they go ahead and do something crazy like fornicating with bread pudding or selling top secret government information to Romanian gypsies. Just a word of warning next time your neighbours invite you over for some hors d'oeuvres and a game of Twister.
It's a intriguing narrative in that the story is told by a chorus of rutting teenage boys so it's not first, second or third person point-of-view but something I call twenty-second person perspective, give or take a couple of kids who disappear to summer camp or to the cottage for the holidays or come down with a bad case of food poisoning and aren't able to narrate the story because they're too busy vomiting into wastepaper buckets. Are any of these narrators reliable? Well, sure, though not around liquor cabinets or automobiles. Or virgin daughters for that matter. But their narrative descriptions are both sincere and somewhat innocent, tinged only here and there with depravity and singed with the spit of backyard BBQ hot dog grease. But what each of these narrators have in common is a fascination with the Lingmire sisters. If their understanding of the sisters is lacking, dictated by a skewed and hormone-swollen subjectivity where beauty is in the eye of the beholder except in the case of Chip Sundstrom, who has a glass eye and so, with the light reflecting off it he couldn't tell beauty if it hit him in the head with a two-by-four, at least they are still able to speak freely, lending an urgency to the characters' thoughts and desires, but as teenagers we are led to understand that they're still too stupid to comprehend the urges of the great Balalabub and his insatiable need for fresh virgin blood not to mention that it's an unemployed Aztec deity that is the driving force behind their community. New baseball diamond for the Little League team? Yep, that was Balalabub's doing. Bake sale to raise money to send odor-eating shoe inserts to poor children overseas? Balalabub again. In fact, there's no charitable organization or cause Balalabub didn't have a hand in or oversee. Though the community only knew him as just dopey old Hymie Kugelman with the bad toupee, always knocking on people's doors and asking for money, the smell of mothballs wafting off him stinging their nostrils as he stammered under their porch lights. Little did they know that the blood of virgins stained his shag carpeting.  
So many suburban backyard BBQ accidents involving grease-spitting hot dogs could've been avoided with the simple addition of a wiener rotisserie like the one pictured above. Why fill the emergency wards with teenagers spattered with wiener grease burns when with this simple and cost-effective appliance a community can be safe and happy again.
Who are these sisters, really and why do they keep disappearing one by one, their blood-drained bodies turning up behind Fortunato's Yogurt Silo with torn school yearbook pages stuffed in their panties? Is it a symbol of rampant consumerism, prevalent in the suburban landscape, that blood can be gulped up like so much fruit-flavoured yogurt with even a little left over to feed your overweight dachshund? And do the yearbook pages implicate the sisters' many teenage admirers as the perpetrators of these horrendous sacrifices, as Detective Horst Vactate believes over the course of his feeble investigations? But as every investigator knows, the focus should begin at home yet somehow Detective Vactate overlooks the obvious because he's a complicated man, twice divorced and taken to holding lederhosen parties that no one attends except for his idiot cousin, Gruenschveltz who thinks he's a Luftwaffe captain and regularly stuffs bratwursts up his anal cavity and dances polkas with an inflatable sex doll he calls Marie.
The author's fictional use of a yogurt silo works as both an excellent metaphorical device for intimating the fine line between abundance and gluttony along with adding some veracity to his story since yogurt silos such as the one pictured above have been popping up in strip malls all across the United States and are popular with both young and old alike. In this picture, Titus Blanchard, originator of the Yogurt Silo franchise, stands at the site of his first Yogurt Silo in Des Moines, Iowa. Behind the silos are the feeding tubes where for $1.89 a customer gets ten minutes unlimited feeding time. As Titus likes to say, "You can't get more natural than this. It's like sucking the yogurt straight from the cow's teat, without the fruit flavouring of course."
It is precisely Detective Vactate's shortcomings that lead him on a wild goose chase (literally, because for a while he believes that a crazed wild goose with a sharpened beak has been attacking and draining the blood of the virgins) when really, the answer is lying right under his nose but because of allergies and bad sinus congestion, we are led to believe that Vactate wouldn't know a rotting sardine from an apple blossom no matter how far you shoved them up his nostrils. For in the end, and this is the shocking truth, it's actually the father, Renaldo Lingmire, who offered up his own daughters to Hymie Kugelman (a.k.a. Balalabub) for sacrifice. How could a father do such a thing to his own children? Again Mr. Eugenides insinuates the moral complexities of the seemingly ideal suburban lifestyle and upbringing and the scenes involving Renaldo and his leaf blower that he uses to drown out his own miserable thoughts and motivations are especially poignant. In fact, it is Mr. Eugenides' economy of language and his attention to the mundane that makes this book so riveting. Take this passage for example:

"The day almost amplified the idea of mid-western life in its fetid breeze and pale sunlight that dappled the foliage where a raccoon had recently died after eating poisoned cheese. But this was of no concern to Renaldo as he strapped the leaf blower to his shoulder. Raccoons were one thing but sacrificial virgin daughters were a whole new ball game. The 30cc engine had the weight but the shoulder pad bore it well as it vibrated through Renaldo's body in the waning summer heat. The machine had a 485 CFM air volume and an air speed of 180 mph. Add to that a variable-speed trigger throttle and you weren't just blowing leaves, you were executing them. Much the way the Great Balalabub sacrificed virgins behind the naugahyde bar in his rec-room. If Renaldo listened closely, just beneath the thrumming of the leaf blowing machine, he could almost hear the voices of his lost daughters and likewise all the daughters in the community, offered up to Hymie Kugelman who oddly used denture cream to keep his toupee in place, a fact that he had hid from all three of his wives, even after they had divorced him because he felt a man who has lost both his hair and his teeth was really broadcasting his lack of virility, especially when some good-looking broads were on the menu that evening. But if guilt were a three-piece suit worn by a moribund salesman peddling flange gaskets for a phosphate mining factory, then you could easily put Renaldo on that sales team and book him into a motel on the outskirts of Kapuskasing where a hooker is still the same price as a dozen doughnuts from Tim Hortons and a man's word is as good as the blood that floods his mukluks after a snowmobile has crushed his feet. Still, in Wisconsin, the buffalo continue to roam, their snorts and mucous drips and the mighty swings of their scrotal sacs holding sway over the warp and weave of the prairie grass and the inhabitants feel the weight of the land and sky pressing to their temples like an ice cream headache. Renaldo blew the leaves to hell and back somehow wishing that it was himself that he was blowing to the underworld instead, so great was his remorse and his soul felt under the waning Detroit sun, misted with the vaporous debris from the automotive factories, as stained as Satan's underpants after a Szechuan buffet."

Whew! I don't know about you but when I read that passage the blood drains from me like a chicken under the knife of a kosher butcher in Poland, circa 1883. By 1884 the chickens weren't as tasty and by 1885 you couldn't find a decent chicken in Poland if your life depended on it. It wasn't until 1939 before any good chickens returned to the country but then the Nazis arrived so that's the end of that story. Anyway, the interplay of soul-stirring prose and semiotic coldness is as much a structure for the author to hang his carefully chosen words on as it is a warm, cozy bathrobe that Renaldo Lingmire likes to wear when he's down in the sewers drawing up new blueprints for his engineering firm. What everyone doesn't know, except for Renaldo of course, is that he owes his job to the Great Balalabub who got him an interview at Corky's Sewage Engineering and Pipe-Fitting, thus facilitating his happy upper-middle class existence and all the trappings that a bubble machine and a fancy cheese tray can bring (besides supplying Balalabub with sacrificial virgins, Renaldo also poisons all the neighbourhood raccoons as the above passage describes, using a lovely combination of Roquefort, Wisconsin cheddar and a Trappist monk hard cheese that he orders directly from the Our Lady of the Bleeding Gums Abbey in Berryville, U.S.A. and for this he has no regrets as his mother was killed by a family of raccoons when they tipped a load of bricks on her head as she was spying on one the workmen doing renovations to the family mansion in Montauk where she suspected him of lolling around naked, smoking cigars, eating corn dogs and drinking whiskey when he was supposed to be building a wall, and so she had slid beneath some scaffolding, which required that she too had to remove her clothing so as not to snag any fabric on a stray nail and there they were both found, naked as jaybirds and the family of raccoons chittering merrily over their crushed skulls). So Renaldo has made a pact with the devil, or balding and toothless Aztec deity in this case and when Balalabub begins demanding fresh virgin blood, Renaldo offers up his own daughters for sacrifice. Then, once they're gone, Renaldo must continue to procure more virgins using his Margaritaville Minivan Tour as enticement and sometimes when he can't find any girls he lures some teenage boys and dresses them up in wigs and yoga pants after he knocks them out with a large, frozen salami he keeps under the front seat of the minivan next to the Margarita mix and Balalabub, who really likes his peppermint schnapps, doesn't seem to notice after six or seven shots. And Detective Vactate continues to believe each one of these cases is a suicide instead of a sacrifice plus, to complicate matters, he's also fallen in love with Pinky Lingmire, which just goes to show you love is blind, especially when that love is unrequited and the object of your affection throws hot pork dumplings at your eyes. It's not completely Vactate's fault though working the suicide angle because Renaldo, once Balalabub is through with the bodies, poses the corpses over various sewer gratings in such a way and with certain objects that makes suicide look like the only deductive option. And even when Pinky Lingmire discovers her husband's indiscretions and murderous abetting ways, she so much loves the leather seats of her Lexus that if she were still of child-bearing age, would definitely continue to procreate to provide more virgin daughters for the great Balalabub and thus maybe trade up her Lexus for a Maserati not to mention upgrading their home entertainment system and kitchen appliances.
An Aztec Vienna Sausage Harvest Season hat as worn by the high priests during the gathering rites. The ceremony originated when the first wave of Viennese sausage-making refugees washed up on a raft in the Gulf of Mexico, escaping a plague of psychiatrists that had descended upon the Austrian capital, accusing the cocktail wiener makers of acute penis envy coupled with an Oedipus Complex that would make any mother blush. The image is courtesy of Al's Aztec Party Hats and Ritual Sacrificial Supplies, Fort Wayne Indiana.
As for Renaldo, his semen is still seaworthy when it comes to navigating the uterine lining and so Balalabub urges him to carry on various illicit affairs with married neighbourhood women in order to keep up a steady supply of virgins for future sacrifice, no mean feat when those women know you make your living crawling through sewer systems in a bathrobe that's covered in rat feces. Fortunately Balalabub bestows upon Renaldo his ancient purple sparkle hat, once worn by Aztec high priests during Vienna Sausage harvest season and no woman can resist its shimmering charms and hypnotic effect. Thematically, the novel follows some very well-trod post-modern tropes, trod in hiking boots I might add and so there is a heavy-handed or more precisely, heavy-footed plotting afoot along with some theoretical shenanigans that insinuate themselves into the narrative like an unwanted house guest who shaves over the kitchen sink, the paradigms shining like kidney stones passing and plunking into a well-lit toilet bowl, but Mr. Eugenides makes these muddied trails his own through his own particular brand of dark humour and some imaginative uses for barbeque tongs. Really, this novel would just be another Stephen King door-stopper but in the adept hands of Mr. Eugenides it becomes an in-depth examination of the American Dream gone sour like a block of Wisconsin cheese left too long in a barn on a back road long forgotten by farmers and poets, politicians and torque-wrench salesmen and all sense of control by a nation gone awry has been left in the palsied hands of aging and decrepit deities who nevertheless impress us with their dusty and denuded plumage like peacocks parading through a delicatessen, their now paltry feathers reeking of corned beef and pastrami while somewhere a group of virgins lick Total-Care toothpaste off the eyelids of perfectly posed dead Civil War re-enactors. That's the kind of dream Mr. Eugenides is talking about and if this puts you ill-at-ease then perhaps you should crawl back to your Socrates (pronounced Sock'R'Tease) because obviously Mr. Eugene-At-Ease is not the kind of author you're looking for. 
The author taking a break from a hard day of writing, spending a little quality time with his beloved buffalo and his partner, Mitzi, wearing her famed buffalo horn cocktail hour headdress.