Lux Lisbon, On the Roof Again

"Grass-roofed house" by D-Stanley is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Lux Lisbon’s on the roof again. She crawls out every night. She went up day one, smoking cloves after sex, and the neighbor boys watch through their telescope.


Few books worm into my brain as Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides does. I first read it in the months after college graduation. My friend Charlotte and I didn’t want our minds to waste, and collectively we’d amassed a number of books to read in undergraduate fiction workshops. Somehow this one rose to the top of our book club list.

I’d never read anything by Eugenides and was magnetically pulled to the Detroit suburbs where a group of neighborhood boys spies on the Lisbon girls, five sisters aged perfectly thirteen to seventeen. The book is a reconstruction, as stitched together by artifacts pilfered from the Lisbon home (cult of Mary prayer cards and tampons, diaries and retainers) as by the collective first person voice that narrates. I found their gawking oafish and malignant, and I watched them watching the Lisbons to understand why they are so taken.

The book is a famous examination of the male gaze, but what also pulls me is how the boys mark time by catastrophes and mythic events. The girls are naiads whose suicides pinpoint the neighborhood’s downturn. They’re attuned to nature, the earth that’s been paved over by McMansions. Cecilia’s death comes shortly after the annual visit from the fish flies. People sweep the carcasses off sidewalks and the hoods of cars. Cecilia says, “They hatch, they reproduce, and then they croak. They don’t even get to eat.”

Reading The Virgin Suicides in 2016 felt prophetic. I was living in Hokkaido, Japan. In the weeks before the first snow and the American presidential election, yukimushi or snow bugs, clotted the air. At first, walking home from work, I’d think, “This is it.” The snow would start in November and coat the ground through May. But the bugs collected in my hair and on my skin, flittering before my eyelids. If I moved too quickly, bug guts smeared my sleeve. Which didn’t feel too consequential. The yukimushi completely disappeared before the snow came. I never saw them again.

Instead, I got the real thing, mountains of snow, snow banks that reached over my head. There’s no sense plowing the roads, so drivers are accustomed to the crunch and pull of ice and packed snow. Without a car, I depended on friends for grocery runs, ski trips, visits to hot springs to be outside. None of us had drying machines, and with cold apartments, most of the week we lived in caverns of hanging laundry, obscuring light.


While the book deals in tragedy and satire, natural forces to foretell private ones, a large stretch of the novel exists in purgatory. After Lux breaks curfew at the school homecoming, their religious parents pull the girls from school and lock them inside. This removal from public life echoes fairy tales, which makes sense with these boy/men narrators. They don’t have any real insight into the girls. They don’t have any way to understand them (they could never, of course, ask).

This is when Lux starts sleeping with men on the roof. The Sofia Coppola film brings this period an air of extravagance. It’s her star, seventeen-year-old Kirsten Dunst, on that roof. Examined through the telescope, she’s a specimen for the boys’ perusal. Their inability to really see the girls permeates the novel. Her midnight rendezvouses are mythic. In one makeout scene, she’s likened to an otter.

It makes sense that time can be marked by fish flies and suicides and the men who Lux invites over. They’re other people’s tragedies for the boys to spectate.


After our book club, we also did an essay swap, and Charlotte wrote about Eugenides’s novel. In her essay “Suicides, Psychokillers, and the Question of Audience” for Electric Literature, she writes, “When you are a boy, girlhood seems romantic. Eugenides’s narrators are awed by the glimpses of tampons and compact mirrors they catch inside the Lisbon house; the bric-a-brac become objects of enchantment.” There’s magic to these girls for them, one that glitters into adulthood as they never stop to know the girls. They’re more content “with dreams than wives.” Maybe the fascination, the novel’s staying power boils down to this: “Facing physical and psychic dismemberment at every turn — by psychokillers, by advertisers, by newspapers, by novelists, by readers — girls need to know they’ll survive. Seeing women as tragic waifs, as beautiful ephemera, is a privilege reserved for boys.”


The first time I watched the movie, I made a night of it. Book club left me inspired. Without a TV, I rested my laptop on my counter stool and ate dinner at my low table. Afterward, I downloaded the soundtrack by Air, listening to vibraphone on my walks home when snow blanked the sky.

A few weeks into quarantine, my boyfriend and I watched the movie. We’d watched movies most nights in together, so this one came to mind—it felt comforting, I’d talked up the novel as a gold standard of first person plural after our fiction workshop, and he hadn’t seen the movie in years.

After everything of 2020—its dumpster fire, its sequestering of few inside, watching others eschew science—I couldn’t stop thinking about the nests the girls build. After Cecilia’s death, their priest finds them camped out on the bathroom floor and in the tub. Then, when they’re grounded, they pile into a bedroom. Using a mirror with various light settings to mimic the outdoors, Mary shows Bonnie how her face would look made-up in different weather. They aren’t preparing to go out, just passing the time. The mirror counts among the specimens the boys will collect. For them, it’s just an artifact, not a secret channel to life beyond.

Since the pandemic began, my sister joined the throngs on Animal Crossing. I downloaded the Sims, both simulations for us to control life at distance. In The Virgin Suicides, there’s something extravagant, mythological, to the unintelligibility of the girls. Yet actually spending time with the mirrors, the prayer cards, the time on the roof, the hunger underneath reveals itself so much more apparently. Trapped inside their home all day, of course this is how they spend the time. How different are rooftop soirees and hours whiled away with hobbies like this one?


The girls’ effects litter the stairs and hallways, but they retreat into a tighter and tighter knot, one that Lux tugs from the roof, yanking rope from her spot on the shingles. She’s still on the property, just figuring out how far it can take her.


Photo at the top of the page: “Grass-roofed house” by D-Stanley is licensed under CC BY 2.0. 

SELFIE INTERVIEW | Michael Colbert

Michael Colbert loves horror films (his favorites are Candyman and Silence of the Lambs) and coffee (his favorites are Ethiopian and Costa Rican). He’s an MFA candidate in fiction at UNC Wilmington, and his writing appears or is forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Atlas Obscura, and Barrelhouse, among others.

Eckleburg: What captures your interest most in your work, now, as a reader of your work?

Michael Colbert: I love stories about rabbit holes where the character’s obsession starts to influence the storytelling, stories that really believe in what worries their protagonists. 

Eckleburg: What are you working on now?

Michael Colbert: Currently, I’m at work on a novel about two friends who, during a summer working at a coffee shop, fall into overlapping love and friendship triangles. In terms of nonfiction, I’m interested in writing about pop culture and horror film, and I have an essay coming out soon about Lizzie Borden. 

Eckleburg: Who and what are your artistic influences?

Michael Colbert: My favorite writers are Laura van den Berg, Jia Tolentino, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Jeffrey Eugenides. I think a lot about Trick Mirror and Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams; I love nonfiction that really digs into an idea and mucks around in it. I find inspiration in film as well. The aesthetics and storytelling of The Favourite have been on my mind for a long time, and I watch a lot of horror films. I’m interested in writing that straddles literary and speculative genres, like the work of Carmen Maria Machado and Lesley Nneka Arimah. 

Eckleburg thanks Michael Colbert. Do you have new work published here at Eckleburg or elsewhere? Add your Selfie Interview and share the news with our 10,000+ reading and writing community. If you have a new book out or upcoming, join our Eckleburg Book Club and let our readers know about it.

Guadagnino’s Ivory Tower: Setting, Intellectualism, and Desire in Call Me by Your Name

Call Me by Your Name could have easily drowned in its own pretension.

Italy. Lombardy. Summer. The 1980s. Bright bathing suits and plenty of Italian Europop. Luca Guadagnino’s film takes up residence in an idle northern Italian 17th-century villa and tells the story of Elio Perlman, a precocious seventeen-year-old who spends his days transposing music, reading, and hanging out with other young summer residents. His primary responsibilities include partaking in the social engagements that his highly-educated parents ask him to attend and occasionally entertaining guests with his killer piano abilities. The family employs a cook and maid, Mafalda, and a groundskeeper, Anchise. Oliver, “the usurper,” enters their isolated, ethereal world. He is a 24-year-old graduate student spending the summer as Mr. Perlman’s live-in assistant. Together, Oliver and Elio read endlessly, engage in hyperintellectual banter near various bodies of water (they dredge up an ancient statue from one of them), and eat plenty of fresh fruit. They lead lives of leisure far-removed from the vast majority of modern audiences.

The scholarly, luxurious world of the Perlman’s villa almost guarantees Guadagnino’s inability to engage with the intersection of race, class, gender-identity, and non-normative sexual identity (with the notable exception of Elio and Oliver’s shared Jewish identity). There are certainly grounds for arguing that the queer love story illustrated in Call Me by Your Name only provides representation for the upper echelons of society and should therefore not be viewed as the coming-of-age queer story of our time. There is also an argument to be made that, because the film is more palatable for easily-shaken audiences—those who may write off a film that challenges them on more than one front (in the way that Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight engages with race, class, and notions of masculinity)—Elio and Oliver’s story more effectively sways these viewers’ understandings of queer relationships. These are questions that must be asked of queer cinema, but we are not asking those today.

Instead, we ask how Guadagnino’s erudite protagonists and ethereal setting contribute to the central thrust of the film—Elio’s process of acknowledging his own desires, articulating them to another person, and having those desires be fulfilled. The political rumblings beneath the surface of “somewhere in northern Italy” become more and more apparent throughout the film and mirror Elio’s internal conflict in understanding his sexuality. Furthermore, Elio’s verbal limitations during his interactions with Oliver challenge the notion that Elio is the incredible linguist that the film sets him up to be. These tensions in setting and language heighten viewers’ understanding of Elio’s sexual awakening.

“Somewhere in northern Italy,” 1983.

There seems to be no better place for Elio to learn about his sexuality than Italy, which has always occupied a liminal identity. Former center of the Roman Empire but a country struggling with its Constitution and party strife in the 1980s in its first forty years as a nation after WWII. Seat of the Vatican and Catholicism, yet also known for its beauty, sultry romance, and passion – the same passion that constitutionally let honor killings off easy until the early 1980s. Until 1981, if someone killed their spouse and their lover caught in the act of an affair, jurisdiction could be more lenient because of a perceived sense of honor that needed to be upheld.

Similarly, though Italy may feel open and free as Oliver and Elio dance and kiss in the streets of Bergamo near the end of the film, the next day they share a hug at the train station, unable to kiss in public. Italy lags behind Europe in terms of gay rights, and acts of homophobic and transphobic hate crime remain common. Italy is ripe with contradictions and dualities, providing Elio with a space in which to explore his sexual identity beyond a binary understanding of love: he finds pleasure with both Oliver and Marzia and allows himself to explore both relationships.

Throughout the film, Italians on TV and at the table discuss Bettino Craxi and the Historic Compromise, an important shift in government coalitions in the 1970s between the Christian Democracy and Italian Communist Party, a shift that people disagree about and fight over its importance years after it occurred. A shift spearheaded by Aldo Moro, leader of the Christian Democracy, that led to his kidnapping and murder in May 1978. The 80s brought the pentapartito—a coalition of five parties—the beginnings of the EU, and important focus to economic development. Individualism called for more free-market and less state, and Italy became an important economic player on the world stage.

And yet, Italians in town don’t have anywhere to be: they drive tractors and do manual labor, drink coffee, and go out with no sense of urgency or needing to accomplish anything in particular. Everybody just exists. Instead of being the movers and shakers, Italians around Elio think and debate. The 80s were a time of change in Italy, yet the background of Elio’s summer is stagnant, in suspension with its lazy bike rides and quiet mornings in the town square. Change may have been happening a short trip away in Milan, but in the countryside people luxuriate in the thick of summer.

When Elio and Oliver visit a woman’s house for a glass of water, a framed poster of Mussolini hangs above the threshold. The classics surround everyone as well, dredged up from Lake Garda, observed in slides in Elio’s father’s study, in conversations between Elio and Oliver. In inhabiting Italy, people occupy an identity influenced by the glory, honor, and disgrace of the nation’s history. Italians operate within the gray areas, accepting blurry definitions of state, self, and identity. That people inhabit a space of political in-between underscores Elio’s process of asking himself what his feelings towards Oliver are as they begin to surface. If Elio sees people dwelling in liminality in other arenas, why not allow himself to think about his own definition of sexuality as well? His own sexual awakening—exploring love with Oliver, Marzia (and the oft-cited peach) simultaneously—comes to mirror Italy’s own nuanced understanding of self.

The tensions arising from setting become even more personal as the film progresses. As Elio and Oliver become closer, the realities of summer ending become even more apparent. Perhaps the most devastating disruption to the ethereal setting is the eventuality of Oliver’s departure.

“Is it better to speak or to die?”

Spoiler alert: Elio (thankfully) does not die. He does speak, though. As he and Oliver encircle the World War I monument for the Battle of Piave, Elio circuitously professes his interest in Oliver. Until the statue scene, like the knight who debates professing his love for the princess, Elio is unable to express his feelings for Oliver. That Elio is fluent in so many languages renders his own speechlessness with Oliver more poignant. His intricate knowledge of the external (history, literature, music, art, language, etc.) has not quite aligned with an understanding of his internal state. Part of the journey of Call Me by Your Name is witnessing Elio transpose his external knowledge—the stuff that he is familiar with—into a language of love that acknowledges the internal rumblings he feels as soon as the usurper, Oliver, enters his world.

Elio uses music, history, art, and literature, as jumping-off points to express his interest in Oliver. Because he is more familiar with the language of intellectualism, engaging in intellectual discourse with Oliver seems most natural. Furthermore, it allows Elio to minimize the vulnerability that comes with directly discussing his feelings with Oliver. Early in the film, when Oliver asks Elio to play a song on the guitar, Elio is emboldened to hike up his jean shorts and tell Oliver to follow him. He proceeds to play the same song in a range of styles: young Bach’s version, Liszt’s alteration of Bach’s version, Busoni’s alteration of Liszt’s version. Elio’s performance is an attempt to impress Oliver, which it seems to do. The scene ends with Oliver folding himself into the couch, in awe of the young musician. The piano scene is one of Elio’s first attempts to grab Oliver’s attention through a familiar medium—music. Although Elio grabs Oliver’s attention, he hasn’t yet clarified his interest in Oliver (to himself or to Oliver). The chaotic range of emotions, which the various versions of the song convey, reflects Elio’s confusion with his own identity. Does Elio feel more of the jolting Busoni version of the song toward Oliver? Or perhaps the mellower Bach version. The scene is indicative of Elio’s ability to replicate the external but inability to listen to himself and share his own version of Bach’s melody with Oliver.


Before he communicates his desire to Oliver, Elio must acknowledge that those desires exist within himself. Guadagnino expertly tracks Elio’s slow recognition (made possible by Timothée Chalamet’s commanding performance) in the film’s iconic dance scene. Elio watches Oliver kiss Chiara as they dance.  He overhears his friends’ typical teenage reactions to a dance floor make out; the conversation is almost comically adolescent in the way it unfolds. One of the boys says that he wants to be in Oliver’s shoes. Another boy cheers on his efforts. Elio tries his best to not engage in the conversation. One of the women says, “Who wouldn’t want to be in her shoes?” An example of James Ivory’s masterful writing, the question maintains the conversation’s heteronormativity while allowing Elio to have his own, quiet answer to that question through Guadagnino’s visual storytelling. Midway through the question, Guadagnino cuts to a medium shot of Elio, who very much wants to be in Chiara’s shoes. As Elio shifts his eyes and smokes his cigarette, he continues watching Oliver on the dance floor. Elio leans into the camera, which creates an intimate close-up. His confusion, let-down, and realization of his feelings for Oliver have never been clearer. As he shifts in his seat, the camera fails to maintain focus, reflective of Elio’s internal chaos—his biting realization that his admiration for Oliver is not quite normal.

It takes a nudge from parents to push him to speak. The Perlman family curls up on the couch on one of the few rainy days in the film to read a 16th century French romance novel (that is written in German but translated into English, courtesy of Elio’s mother) about a knight who fails to profess his love to a princess. Elio, in one of his more vulnerable moments in the film, tells his parents “I’ll never have the courage to ask a question like that” to which his father supportively responds, “I doubt that.” His parents introduce a particularly relevant novel to their son. They perceive that something is going on with him – whether they know that it specifically has to do with Elio’s feelings toward Oliver is unclear. Either way, his parents exhibit an understanding of Elio’s need to intellectualize his own feelings in order to enter into them; they create a new language, one that merges a shared language of intellectualism with musings on unspoken love. The story becomes an entry point for Elio to understand that it may, in fact, be better to speak, and his parents’ support gives him the courage to consider doing that.


Seemingly inspired by story time with his parents, Elio makes tentative moves to share his feelings with Oliver when he brings up the French love story with Oliver as they lounge by the pool. The princess and knight’s story becomes an allegory for whether Elio will tell Oliver of his interest in him beyond friendship. Elio sits yards away from Oliver, who is perched on the pool ledge with his back facing Elio. The camera starts from Elio’s point of view to remind viewers of his limited ability to read Oliver’s reactions during the conversation. In a conversation already ridden in subtext, Guadagnino’s blocking of the characters heightens the sense that neither character has a clear understanding of where the other is coming from. Guadagnino cuts to a close-up of Oliver during the conversation. In a film with very few close-ups, this one stands out. The framing mirrors the close-up of Elio during the dance scene (in the dance scene, Elio occupies the left side of the frame and in the pool scene, Oliver occupies the right). In both instances, the shallow depth of field ensures all eyes are on the subject and his processing of the scene. In the same way we begin to understand Elio’s attraction to Oliver in the dance scene, the close-up of Oliver at the pool is the first clear evidence that he seems deeply affected by what Elio has to say. In other words, Oliver seems in on the subtext, and viewers begin to understand that more clearly, even though Elio’s positioning makes it so that he can’t be as certain.

When Elio reveals that the knight “fudges” telling the princess about his love for her, Oliver jokingly says, “Figures, he’s French.” The subtext continues—Elio is (part) French. Does Oliver think that because of that, Elio lacks confidence to share his feelings? Within that single joke, there are layers and layers of complexity removed from an actual discussion of their feelings for one another: they are talking about fictional characters (and not themselves); Elio himself is ambiguously French; and to top it off, the idea is delivered in a joke, which is inherently difficult to understand as either serious or lighthearted. The limitations of allegorical conversations are clear: when speaking in allegory, Elio cannot be sure whether Oliver is on the exact same page as him.

Simultaneously, their pool conversation highlights the benefits of speaking allegorically. Communicating through the lens of a fictional story allows Elio to not be as vulnerable with Oliver, which provides a layer of protection in case the feelings are not mutual. Furthermore, if the opposite is true and Oliver seems to engage with Elio on the subtext, then Elio has permission to be more honest about his feelings. From Elio’s point of view during the pool scene, Oliver’s level of engagement lies somewhere in between, as it often does with subtext. Whether Oliver is engaging in the subtext or not, the main sentiment that Elio can derive from Oliver’s response to the story is that Oliver would prefer speaking over fudging. Oliver, an American, mocks the French for not having the confidence to share their feelings. Elio gleans a bit of knowledge about Oliver in a conversation that is seemingly purely academic. As a result, he is better able to gauge how Oliver may respond to a more explicit discussion of his interest, although there is certainly still a chance that Oliver made his remark about the knight without Elio in mind.

The boys bike to Piave. Elio moves into the realm of the more explicit as they explore the town. Although the language Elio uses to explain his desire is still quite enigmatic, it is in this scene that Oliver understands. As in previous scenes, Elio’s entry into the conversation as they encircle the fountain is made possible by a discussion of his academic knowledge: Elio clarifies the history of Piave’s World War I monument. When Oliver rhetorically asks, “Is there anything you don’t know?” Elio says, “If you only knew how little I know about the things that matter.” When Oliver asks him to clarify, Elio slyly responds, “You know what things.” Oliver, who is walking on the far side of the fountain, physically crosses through Elio, who is in the foreground of the shot. Guadagnino indicates a shift in their understanding of one another. Instead of operating in a world of subtext and ambiguity, their relationship has entered into the realm of honesty and openness. They meet at the other side of the fountain, a physical unification that symbolizes their unification of understanding.

“Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine.”

After they unite in their understanding of one another in Piave, Elio and Oliver create a new language to express their desires—one of openness, self-discovery, and dancing. The film’s titular scene may bewilder viewers, but it is tailor-made for Elio and Oliver to be intimate with each other. Together, they experience the chaotic excitement of a new relationship, all the while knowing that the end of summer looms.

Call Me by Your Name is wrapped up in heady discourse—“Somewhere in Northern Italy” could just as easily be “Inside the Ivory Tower.” Yet the Italian backdrop asks us to uproot our understanding of place, to dwell in contradictions and duality, to give ourselves over to Elio’s processing of himself in a liminal space. In understanding how the languages, the novels, the World War I statues that populate Elio’s summer actually embody tools he needs to become familiar with his own desire, we learn that their purpose is not to rarefy his world and mystify us. They exist to empower Elio, a seventeen-year-old who has to figure out how to navigate a world that doesn’t allow him to easily understand homosexual desire. In the end, Elio’s erudite understanding of the world challenges us to engage, to learn how to understand this depiction of queer desire, and to learn to welcome other stories of queer romance onto the screen.


Source of photo at top of page: