Guest Post: “A First Novel Is Really Really Really…”

Posted on September 14, 2010

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Ladies and germs of the blogosphere: I say, it’s never too early to have a guest, especially when that guest is Angeleno librarian-on-the-make Dolly Moehrle. I encountered the divine Miss Loather on Twitter about two years ago after doing a Twollow search for librarians (not as dirty as it sounds). Then and now, her feed ranks in my top five for being so damn dark, sharp, and funny. We’ve never met, but I know a writer when I read one. She’ll come out for real some day. For the time being, sample this ditty.

“Some women wait for Jesus, and some women wait for kings.”—L. Cohen, “Last Year’s Man.”

Leonard Cohen is honestly too fucking cool

When I first started thinking about the various novels that really set fire to my brain and left the scorch marks to prove it, it became embarrassingly clear that I am not a First Novel Person. My favorite books tend to be mid-period. Lolita was fairly early in Nabokov’s career…in English. Edith Wharton had published many times before and after The Age of Innocence, as did Steinbeck after East of Eden. But unquestionably I love those three books more than their other works.

There are some first books I liked: Less Than Zero and Mysteries of Pittsburgh, though both authors had better work coming. (I’ll leave you all to debate what those better works were.) Maybe there’s a curse to first books. Maybe it’s better to have your first work be great, as Heather has already postulated, but not brilliant, an obvious prelude to better things. Which brings me to The Virgin Suicides.

Jeffrey Eugenides published his debut novel in 1993, when he was 33. Middlesex, to date his only other novel, was not published until 2002. I don’t know too much about Eugenides, which you can blame on his disinterest in publicity and my own general ignorance. I don’t know if he took nearly ten years to publish a second book because the shadow cast by his first was too long, and I don’t know if he even likes writing novels, since he has only published short stories since. Has he lived up to the glory of his debut? As good as Middlesex is, it feels rushed, lacks the confident, elegant structure and pacing of his debut.

Dolly M. hearts this book more than you

The Virgin Suicides is all about memory, and the damned limitations of our perspectives; try as they may, the narrators will never understand why the girls killed themselves, never be able to see the world as they did. The girls were unknowable for many reasons, none more so than the fact that they were girls, those mysterious creatures who are both objects of desire and endless confusion. (As a side note, enough has been said about the use of first-person plural in the novel, but a Greek chorus they are not.)

If Heather has Joe Strummer, I have Leonard Cohen, because I am a desperately sad person, and in some ways he is, too. A few years ago I went alone to watch Cohen, who is in his seventies, perform for three hours, seemingly without pause, and consider it the defining experience of my time in Los Angeles. Is there a more deceptive song than “Dance Me to the End of Love,” inspired by the Holocaust and repurposed as a love song? Or “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” an ode to a suicidal afternoon that Cecelia Lisbon could probably appreciate.

Perhaps it’s overkill to pair a novel like The Virgin Suicides, already shot-through with sadness, with someone as starkly depressing as Cohen; Sofia Coppola chose the gauzy French band Air for the soundtrack of her excellent film adaptation of the novel. But I love Cohen for the same reasons I love the novel: both are eloquent in their misery.

Eugenides is a brilliant writer, and Virgin Suicides is a brilliant novel, more than just a First Novel. Is there a better work somewhere within him? Perhaps. But when you’re responsible for a work so staggering, maybe it doesn’t matter if you ever match it again, and that, too, is another bit of First Novel risk.

Blogging Soundtrack:

  • Songs of Love and Hate, Recent Songs, and, OK, the entire Leonard Cohen discography

Editor’s Note: Eugenides is a righteous dude, Dolly. He granted Library Journal a long interview upon the publication of Middlesex, and I ran into him twice at BookExpoAmerica in 2003. I believe we talked about junk food and bathrooms (again, not as dirty as it sounds).

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