July 4, 2012 § 2 Comments
I just finished reading a novel entitled The Virgin Suicides. In absolutely haunting prose, the author, Jeffrey Eugenides, tells the story of five teenage sisters who all end their lives, for reasons that remain sketchy to the neighborhood in which they lived. A group of boys, obsessed with the sisters, attempt to piece together an understanding of the girls’ lives, and are left with more questions than answers.
I bought this book at at a Salvation Army last summer. It cost $1.00, not including tax. The glossy white cover boasted that it had been a national bestseller in its heyday and had spawned a major motion picture starring Kirsten Dunst. I took it and an armload of other books to the register, intending to read them all. I would have, too, had I not read the first chapter of this particular book, sensed too many triggering, too-close-to-home plot points, and stashed it beneath my bed for a time when my heart was not so wounded.
This summer I came around to the idea that being wounded is no good reason to let a perfectly nice book go unread. A book potentially filled with ideas and truths that used to scare me. I read it over a long car ride, something I rarely accomplish out of fear of being carsick. And it was slow, how I felt about this book. I suppose about two hundred pages in I thought, wait, I really like this. The feeling grew as I kept reading, turning page after page. It wasn’t like those suspenseful books where one flips feverishly through, desperate to reach a melodramatic conclusion. Instead I was floating along with the author’s words, with his use of language, drifting through images of young, blossoming girls trapped in a withering suburbia. The narrator had me under a spell of sorts, and I was listening to his every word, feeling the same strange obsession with these mysterious five sisters. It’s hard to describe, but their sadness, or the way I perceived their sadness, ached in my heart, which said, yes, yes I know this. I’d find myself nodding my head in agreement, with what I wasn’t sure, but I knew I agreed. I felt like I understood somehow, deeply, completely, but couldn’t say precisely what it was I understood.
This is the way I read. I don’t dissect, at least not much. I don’t go hunting down Biblical allusions or symbols that foreshadow a key twist in the plot. It doesn’t mean I don’t pick up on them, but to me, they’re like flour and sugar in a cake. Well sure, they’re there, and without them there’d be no dessert. But what’s important is the actual dessert, right? Dig in and see how it tastes.
It turns out The Virgin Suicides has a lot of symbolism. A lot of everything, really. Allegories and the like. I know this because I looked up some analytical essays after I had finished reading. I found it all very interesting. Some things I had thought of, others I had not. But I kept feeling like these essayists were missing something. They were missing the feeling, the most important part, the whole thing. Zeroing in on decorations in the icing instead of stepping back to take in the whole bakery.
I can’t nail down this process of mine, this feeling of books. It could be that I gravitate towards something I relate to and cling to it, ignoring the author’s real intentions. I could be the one in the wrong here. Perhaps I’m too self-centered, transforming all these works of art into my own in a way, defining them by the way they’ve made me feel.
But isn’t that the nature of art, anyway? Isn’t that the way this works? It’s never just been all the creator. It’s also about the one experiencing the creation. It’s the price artists, writers pay. The readers get to think what they want. Take away what they want. It’s a give and take, a relationship.
So I feel, and maybe what I feel is similar to what the author feels. And maybe not. But that’s okay, because I’m still responding. Still experiencing. Still opening my heart.