e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


fiction watch, part two

Alice Sebold's The Almost Moon received awful reviews upon its release a few months back. See, for instance, the scathing NYTimes piece which calls the novel "emotionally and intellectually incoherent" as well as "banal" and "ludicrous" (the obligatory words of a negative review in the Times), all before getting to this one-two punch:
There’s no plot in this novel. It’s all free disassociation. “The Almost Moon” is really like one very long MySpace page. Sebold isn’t imagining people and events; she’s just making stuff up as she goes along...The real shame is that “Reading Alice Sebold” isn’t listed in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” After you’ve finished this insult to the lumber industry, your health care provider won’t cover your search for a cure.
Ouch. Critic Lee Siegel sounds like he wanted to start some kind of literary version of a Biggie-Tupac beef. Alas no such beef transpired. And the Times' fighting words didn't scare me off, either, as I finally got around to reading Sebold's poorly received third book.

Sebold once again begins a book with an act of graphic violence. Her memoir Lucky (an unflinching work of non-fiction that I've taught several times) begins with a painstaking, nearly unreadable account of her rape. Her debut novel Lovely Bones--whose nearly universal accolades partially explain critics' vitriol for her new book--starts out with the rape and murder of the fourteen-year-old protagonist.

In the first chapter (actually the first sentence) of The Almost Moon, the middle-aged, troubled, narcissist Helen smothers her elderly mother to death. This is Sebold's trope. Dispense with the gory and the graphic and then get down to business. Sebold is interested not so much in trauma as much as trauma's aftermath. The little girl at the center of Lovely Bones watches from heaven as her own gruesome death impacts her classmates, her family, her neighborhood, and her killer. In Lucky , she narrates the two decades during which she and her loved ones cycled recursively and chaotically through various stages of grief regarding her rape.

The Almost Moon has a much more surreal feel than her earlier books. Much more surreal, even, than a little girl looking down from heaven. Helen does one inconceivable, absurd act after the other. Many of these acts, including seducing her best friend's son, appear gratuitous and pulpy and over-the-top, and I can see why critics may not have approved. This doesn't seem like the work of a well-respected MFA graduate and Oprah guest. The present action careens wildly.

Meanwhile, Helen flashes back to key moments in her relationship with her mother, offering a not-so-subtle (nothing in this novel is subtle) psychoanalytic rationale for the scene-one matricide. I won't give away what transpires in these explanatory sequences, as they form the emotional center (!) of the paradoxically center-less book.

As with Sebold's other books, readers burn through The Almost Moon quickly. I read it in two sittings, which is unlike me. I suspect even the most vitriolic critics fell victim to the novel's poisonous readability. I loved the gonzo present action and thought that Helen's madness made sense. The novel--narrated by Helen herself--is mad because Helen is mad, despite her steely moments. I admire how Sebold finds Helen's voice and then allows her to speak no matter how blue her disassociative notions sound to us.

The flashbacks were a bit heavy-handed in their facilitation of Sebold's metaphors (Helen is a nude model because, you see, number one she's angry at her mom for giving her a body complex, and, number two, she's naked before us on the page...get it?). Like I said, subtlety is no where to be found here. The book is flawed and struggles to match the unabashed, total pathos of Lovely Bones. But it's a novel that sticks to its vision and voice.

1 comment:

bonnie lenore kyburz said...

i don't remember the plot exactly, but on the other end of the gore-pathos spectrum is Elizabeth Berg. i recall a novel of hers in which, during a flight (to? from?) her mother's funeral (death bed?) we get all of the flashbacks that explore/explain the tensions she feels over her somewhat callous thoughts of mom. i remember thinking that she handled it well, although it's been a while since i read Berg and might today find her too soft. i'll try to think of the title.

p.s. i love you, Bill, for loving Sebold for "sticking to her voice" (not quoting exactly, i think). yay.