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Novel of the Year

1.

On May 22 of this year, six weeks before the official publication date of Alice Sebold’s debut novel, which is narrated from Heaven by a fourteen-year-old girl who’s been raped and murdered, the novelist and former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen appeared on the Today show and declared that if people had one book to read during the summer, “it should be The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. It’s destined to be a classic along the lines of To Kill a Mockingbird, and it’s one of the best books I’ve read in years.” Viewers did what they were told and seemed to agree. Within days of Quindlen’s appearance, Sebold’s novel had reached the number-one position on Amazon.com, and her publisher, Little, Brown, decided to increase the size of the first printing from 35,000—already healthily optimistic for a “literary” first novel by an author whose only other book, a memoir of her rape, was a critical but not commercial success—to 50,000 copies; a week before the book’s official publication date, it was in its sixth printing, with nearly a quarter-million copies in print.

One week after publication, after Time magazine’s book critic Lev Grossman had declared the novel “the breakout fiction debut of the year,” the book was in its eighth printing, and there were 525,000 copies in print; two weeks and three additional printings later, the number was just under a million. By the end of September, it had become clear that the book was a phenomenon of perhaps unprecedented proportions: an eighteenth printing of a quarter-million copies, itself more than seven times the number originally planned for the first printing, put the number of copies in print at over two million. Such figures suggest that this may be more than merely the novel of the year: the Barnes & Noble fiction buyer has declared that “a book like this comes around once in a decade.” If not, indeed, longer. Little, Brown’s marketing director has commented that it’s “one of those books that rarely comes along, that reminds you why you chose this business.”

Reviews of The Lovely Bones have been almost uniformly good, ranging from very warm (Michiko Kakutani, in the Times, called it “deeply affecting”) to ecstatic (The New Yorker called it “a stunning achievement”), but the pattern of the book’s remarkable rise to preeminence among novels published during the past year, if not the past few years, suggests that it owes its success to word of mouth. Indeed, it must be remembered that its spectacular rise was achieved without the help of the now-defunct Oprah’s Book Club, which floated more than one small first novel onto the best-seller lists.

So there can be no question that the book’s popular appeal is deep and authentic. One measure of this is the fact that while the novel has, in its fifth month after publication, finally fallen to the second spot on the Times bestseller list, and to the fifth on Amazon .com, it has received a remarkably high number of customer reviews—842, as of this writing—this being perhaps the real measure of reader engagement. By contrast, Ian McEwan’s Atonement (a best-selling book, according to Amazon, that readers of The Lovely Bones are also buying) is number thirty-five in ranking, with less than a quarter of the number of customer reviews that Sebold’s book received; Austerlitz, by Sebold’s near namesake, the late W.G. Sebald, has a ranking of 2,073 and a mere thirty-eight customer reviews. Proust’s ranking is 9,315, with fifty-seven reviews.

In an interview with Publishers Weekly at the end of July, when the true extent of the book’s success was just coming into focus, Michael Pietsch, the publisher of Little, Brown, suggested that the book’s appeal lies in its fearless and ultimately redemptive portrayal of “dark material”: “grief, the most horrible thing that can happen in a life.” The author concurred, suggesting, in an interview on The Charlie Rose Show at the end of September, that her first-person approach allowed her to do some serious “truth-telling” about the terrible things that happen in her novel. “I mean, there’s no bullshit in the fourteen-year-old perspective, and so I think readers are drawn to that. ‘Here’s something horrible. Let’s look at it.’” And others trying to account for the novel’s remarkable popularity have made special mention of Sebold’s ability to “tell you the most heartbreaking things with grace and passion,” as one Barnes & Noble official put it. As various commentators have noted, certainly one of those heartbreaking things is that terrible violence is often done to young girls: the novel appeared soon after a highly publicized series of horrifying abductions, some in broad daylight, of girls who were subsequently murdered. This, of course, is merely a bizarre coincidence—Sebold started work on The Lovely Bones in 1995—but one that has made the novel “very timely,” as the fiction buyer for the Borders bookstore chain noted in July, and as both Sebold and Rose noted during the course of their discussion.

2.

And yet darkness, grief, and heartbreak is what The Lovely Bones scrupulously avoids. This is the real heart of its appeal.

The novel begins strikingly. In the second sentence, the narrator declares that “I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.” The few pages that follow, describing Susie’s rape at the hands of a creepy neighbor, Mr. Harvey (he builds dollhouses in his spare time), are the best in the book. “As I shook,” the dead Susie recalls of the aftermath of the rape, which takes place in an underground chamber that Harvey has constructed in a cornfield near the high school Susie attends, “a powerful knowledge took hold. He had done this thing to me and I had lived. That was all.” This has the cold, flat feeling of real life, devoid of self-dramatization or false emotion. The authenticity of this brief scene, it must be said, surely owes something to the fact that the author herself was brutally raped as a Syracuse coed in 1981, an experience that was the subject of her first book, a memoir.

And yet the arresting quality of the writing in these few pages almost immediately disappears. Sebold’s decision to have the dead girl narrate her story—a device familiar from Our Town, a sentimental story with which this one has more than a little in common—suggests an admirable desire to confront murder and violence, grief and guilt in a bold, even raw new way. And yet after its attention-getting opening, The Lovely Bones shows little real interest in examining ugly things. Indeed, the ultimate horror that Susie undergoes is one for which the author has no words, and chooses not to represent. In the first of what turns out to be many evasive gestures, the author tastefully avoids the murder itself, to say nothing of the dismemberment. “The end came anyway,” she writes, and there is a discreet dissolve to the next chapter.

I use the word “dissolve” advisedly: it is hard to read what follows in The Lovely Bones without thinking of cinema—or, perhaps better, of those TV “movies of the week,” with their predictable arcs of crisis, healing, and “closure,” the latter inevitably evoked by an obvious symbolism. (In Sebold’s novel, Susie’s traumatized little brother will abandon a fort that he has built in the family’s backyard for a garden that he decides to plant.) Moments clearly meant to be powerful indications of how the characters are handling their grief are presented by means of a mannered shorthand that nowhere feels like real dialogue between living people; the rhythms of Sebold’s scenes are the pat, artificial rhythms of television. Here is the scene in which Susie’s beloved sister, Lindsey, young as she is, learns that only one body part has been found, and demands to learn which part it is:

Lindsey sat down at the kitchen table. “I’m going to be sick,” she said.

Honey?”

Dad, I want you to tell me what it was. Which body part, and then I’m going to need to throw up.”

My father got down a large metal mixing bowl. He brought it to the table and placed it near Lindsey before sitting down.

Okay,” she said. “Tell me.”

It was an elbow. The Gilberts’ dog found it.”

He held her hand and then she threw up, as she had promised, into the shiny silver bowl.

A great many of Sebold’s scenes end on little “beats” like this: it’s a kind of writing that coyly suggests, rather than vigorously probes, the feelings and personalities of its characters. The resultant tone, throughout the book, is not, after all, grief-stricken, or harrowingly sorrowful, as Sebold’s boosters would have it, but a kind of pleasant wistfulness, a memory of pain rather than pain itself. And we know, somehow, that the pain will make these characters stronger. It comes as no surprise that Lindsey emerges as the toughest, most resilient member of the Salmon clan.

Equally soft-focus are the novel’s sketchy attempts to confront the face of evil that Susie, and Susie alone of all these characters, has looked on directly: the killer himself, Mr. Harvey. Sebold perfunctorily provides some sketchy information that never quite adds up to a persuasive portrait of a sociopath. Harvey’s father abused and eventually chased away his wild, rebellious mother, whom the boy sees for the last time, dressed in white capri pants, being pushed out of a car in a town called Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. He sometimes kills animals as a means of avoiding homicide. And Sebold grapples with punishment—with, that is, the moral meaning and consequences of the crime at the heart of her book—as weakly as she does with the crime itself. At the end of the novel, in what is apparently meant to be a high irony, Harvey, who has managed for years to elude Susie’s increasingly suspicious family and the police, is killed accidentally: as he stands at the edge of a ravine, plotting to attack yet another girl one winter day, he falls when an icicle drops onto him.

This is meant by the author as a grim joke: earlier on, as Susie follows the careers of her sister and some high school friends, there’s an episode in which a bunch of gifted kids at a special camp is challenged by their counselor to plot the “perfect murder”; Susie, observing this from Heaven with what can only be called an admirable equanimity, suggests that an icicle would be the perfect murder weapon, because it melts away, leaving no evidence. The connection between the camp competition and the way that Harvey ends up dying suggests, again with a typical coyness, that a perfect retribution has indeed taken place; but it’s a cute, rather than morally satisfying, way to settle the murderer’s fate. The real irony here is unintended; without the set-up of the “perfect murder” competition, Harvey’s accidental end would have been interesting, and perhaps suggestive of the operations of a larger cosmic order; with Sebold’s laboriously constructed joke, however, the murderer’s death becomes one more piece of a narrative puzzle that falls, all too often, rather patly into place.

So having the murder victim be the protagonist offers no special view of evil, or guilt. I asked myself, as I read The Lovely Bones, what could be the point of having the dead girl narrate the aftermath of her death—what, in other words, this voice could achieve that a standard omniscient narrator couldn’t—and it occurred to me that the answer is that Susie is there to provide comfort: not to those who survive her, to whom she can’t really make herself known or felt, but to the audience. The real point of Sebold’s novel isn’t to make you confront dreadful things, but, if anything, to assure you that they have no really permanent consequences. This is most evident in the author’s vision of the “healing process” that takes place after the murder, a process that furnishes the book with the bulk of its matter. Susie herself must undergo it, we learn: she has to be weaned of her desire to linger in the world and “change the lives of those I loved on Earth” in order to progress from “her” heaven to Heaven itself. (The cosmology is vague—more shades of Our Town here—but that’s the gist of it.) But The Lovely Bones is devoted even more to the aftermath (which is to say healing and closure) of her death as it is experienced by her friends and family.

These are a fairly predictable bunch. There is Ruth, the class misfit (“her intelligence made her a problem”), who’s “touched” by Susie’s spirit as it rushes across the cornfield on that fateful night, en route to Heaven, and who hence develops a special sensitivity to the ghosts of murdered females, which she tends to see while wandering around New York City after she leaves her hometown. And there’s Ray Singh, another misfit, a handsome Indian boy who’s Susie’s great junior high school crush, and who goes on to become a medical student with (again) a special intuition about the souls within the bodies on which he operates.

These characters aren’t particularly textured or original—it comes as no surprise that buxom Ruth is a latent lesbian and ends up living in a closet-sized room in the East Village—but they are part of the milieus that Sebold does have real flair for describing: the suburbs, with their submerged but powerful hierarchies and taboos (Sebold is good on the way Ray’s family, to say nothing of Harvey, are quietly marginalized by their more “normal” neighbors); and the abstruse social worlds of high school kids, which the young Susie, in some of the novel’s soundest passages, is just learning to navigate when she meets her death.

More importantly—for this, of course, is the meat of the novel—is the healing process that Susie’s family must undergo. The novel follows the Salmons over the course of the ten years after Susie’s murder, ten years during which her mother, Abigail, has affairs and breaks free of the family, only to return at the end; her father implacably pursues Harvey, whom he knows instinctively to be the killer, and has a heart attack but doesn’t die; her sister Lindsey grows up, marries her high school sweetheart, and has a baby; and her younger brother, Buckley, a toddler at the time of the murder, gets to have a climactic, but not devastating, expression of his resentment at their mother for abandoning her family (he’s the one who ends up gardening). Abigail has returned, by this point, to care for her husband after his heart attack, so that the novel ends with a family reunion.

This very brief description of the overall shape of Sebold’s narrative should suggest the extent to which this writer likes to stitch improbably neat closures for some very untidy wounds. And indeed, from that initial evasion of the details of the actual murder and dismemberment to its childish vision of Heaven as a cross between a rehab program (Susie gets an “intake counselor” when she arrives) and an all-you-can-eat restaurant where “all you have to do is desire” something to get it (the dead Susie is delighted to find that peppermint-stick ice cream is available all year round, post-mortem), to the final pages in which Susie’s family, fragmented for a time after the murder, comes together ten years after her death in a tableau marked by a symbolic redemption and rebirth (her sister’s newborn daughter is named after her), Sebold’s novel consistently offers healing with no real mourning, and prefers to offer clichés, some of them quite puerile, of comfort instead of confrontations with evil, or even with genuinely harrowing grief.

The most egregious, and the most distasteful, example of the latter is the climax of the novel, a scene in the final pages in which Susie “falls out” of Heaven in order to inhabit the body of Ruth for a while. Why does this happen? If the cosmology for the workings of this bizarre scene is, yet again, vague, the psychology—or perhaps it’s the sociology—is not. After the startling scene in which Susie returns to earth, we learn that she has assumed corporeal dimensions once more so that she can enjoy an afternoon of lovemaking with Ray Singh, who even as he is having glorious sex with “Ruth” understands that something is amiss—that the body of his living friend is occupied by the spirit of the dead one. (This is when he starts having a sixth sense about souls—about things that science cannot know, etc.) Only after Susie gets to know what really good sex is like can she “let go” of her earthly existence.

That a novel with the pretensions to moral, emotional, and social seriousness of this one should end up seeking, and finding, the ultimate salvation and redemption in a recuperative teenage fantasy of idyllic sex suggests that cinema, or television, is the wrong thing to be comparing it to. Sebold’s final narrative gesture reminds you, indeed, of nothing so much as pop love songs, with their aromatherapeutic vision of adult relationships as nothing but yearnings endlessly, blissfully fulfilled—or of breakups inevitably smoothed over and healed with a kiss. Just after Ray and Susie/Ruth make love, Susie’s estranged parents are reunited on her father’s hospital bed, weeping and kissing each other.

The level of Sebold’s writing, it must be said, does not often rise above that of her moral seriousness. The prose wobbles between a grotesque ungainliness (“The time she’d had alone had been gravitationally circumscribed by when her attachments would pull her back”) and a nervous tendency to oversaturation with “lyrical” effects. Horror, Susie opines, is “like a flower or like the sun; it cannot be contained”—nonsense that has the superficial prettiness you associate with the better class of greeting cards. Sometimes it achieves both, as in this description of the lovemaking between Susie’s distraught mother and her police detective lover: “I felt the kisses as they came down my mother’s neck and onto her chest, like the small, light feet of mice, and like the flower petals falling that they were.” Two lines later, the author is inspired to find yet a third comparandum for those kisses, likening them to “whispers calling her away from me and from her family and from her grief.” The novel may be about a killing; stylistically, overkill is the name of the game.

3.

That Sebold’s book does so little to show us a complex or textured portrait of the evil that sets its action in motion, or to suggest that the aftermath of horrible violence within families is, ultimately, anything but feel-good redemption, suggests that its huge popularity has very little, in fact, to do with the timeliness of its publication just months after a series of abductions and murders of girls had transfixed a nation already traumatized by the events of September 11. It is, rather, the latter catastrophe that surely accounts for the novel’s gigantic appeal.

For who is Sebold’s public, but one that has very recently seen innocents die horribly, one to whom Sebold’s fantasy of recuperation and, indeed, an endless, video-like replay has a vital subconscious appeal? (“One of the blessings of my heaven is that I can go back to these moments, live them again,” Susie comments, “and be with my mother in a way I never could have been.”) A public, moreover, that is now able to see itself as an entire nation of innocent victims? Immediately after the September 11 attacks, the writer Susan Sontag was widely vilified for having called, in The New Yorker, for a thoroughgoing examination of the “self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators” in the wake of the event—a “campaign to infantilize the public.” Our leaders, she went on,

are bent on convincing us that everything is O.K. America is not afraid. Our spirit is unbroken…. Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management. Politics…has been replaced by psychotherapy.

Confidence and grief management are what The Lovely Bones offers, too: it, too, is bent on convincing us that everything is OK—whatever, indeed, its author and promoters keep telling us about how unflinchingly it examines bad things. “We’re here,” Susie’s ghost says, in the final pages of the novel. “All the time. You can talk to us and think about us. It doesn’t have to be sad or scary.” The problem, of course, is that it does have to be sad and scary; that you need to experience the badness and fear—as Sebold’s characters, none more than Susie herself, never quite manage to do—in order to get to the place that Sebold wants to take you, the locus of healing, and closure: in short, Heaven. And yet what a Heaven it is. In the weeks following September 11, there was much dark jocularity at the expense of those Islamic terrorists who, it was said, had volunteered to die in order to enjoy the post-mortem favors of numerous virgins in Paradise. But how much more sophisticated, or morally textured, is Sebold’s climactic vision of Heaven, or indeed of death, as the place, or state, that allows you to indulge a recuperative fantasy of great sex?

That for Sebold and her readers Heaven can’t, in fact, wait is symptomatic of a larger cultural dysfunction, one implicit in our ongoing handling of the September 11 disaster. The Lovely Bones appeared just as the first anniversary of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks was looming; but by then, we’d already commemorated the terrible day. September 11, 2002—the first anniversary of the attacks, a day that ought to have marked (as is supposed to be the case with such anniversary rituals) some symbolic coming to terms with what had happened—was not a date for which the American people and its press could patiently wait. Instead we rushed to celebrate, with all due pomp and gravitas, on March 11, something called a six-month “anniversary.” In its proleptic yearning for relief, and indeed in its emphasis on the bathetic appeal of victimhood, its pseudo-therapeutic lingo of healing and insistence that everything is really OK, that we needn’t really be sad, that nothing is, in the end, really scary, Sebold’s book is indeed timely—is indeed “the novel of the year”—although in ways that none of those now caught up in the glamour of its unprecedentedly high approval ratings might be prepared to imagine.

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