Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Lovely Bones

There's an argument that The Lovely Bones is a gimmicky book. It's a tale of the disintegration of a grieving family told from the point of view of their murdered daughter. As she watches her family up from heaven with a sort of passive Buddha-like idiot benevolence, we become a sort of voyeur into one family's turmoil. It's pain porn, it's grand guignol melodrama. The story is mostly formless, a series of vignettes dipping in and out of the family's life over the course of several years. The reader doesn't even get to experience a good vicarious sense of vengeance when the murderer gets got. There's no violent death at the hands of a righteous family member or apprehension at the hands of dogged police pursuit. Instead, you get a tale of love and loss, intimacy and regret, growing up and growing old.

I enjoyed the hell out of it.

As I was reading the book, I started to realize that the framing device of the heavenly narrator wasn't actually necessary. She's dead when we meet her, she doesn't seem particularly angry at her murderer (which makes later declarations of outrage hit an oddly false note) and she sort of loves everything and everyone without hesitation. Yes, there is a scene where she inhabits the body of a friend to share a first kiss with her high school sweetheart, but I started to realize that that I had become emotionally invested in the family enough that I didn't need a serene POV walking me through the story.

Still it's unique and dreamy. It feels like the voice of a teenage girl; at once emotionally raw, completely honest, and self-mythologizing. I get harped on a lot in my writing (legitimately so) for injecting too much of an omniscient narrator into my book, and it hit me that author Alice Sebold figured out the perfect way to do this. Susie has a very intimate view of her family, but is distant enough to comment on their behavior as a narrator.

I can't help but feel like I'm going to get in trouble for this, but did anyone else think that Susie's mother was being a self-indulgent asshole for running away from her family?

I mean, okay, her father was entirely too fixated and sloppy about how he went about gathering information on the creep who killed his daughter. And families do fall apart after tragedies like this. But it also seems to me that screwing around behind your husband's back and running away in the manner she did was just straight messed up.

I was at a wedding the other day and, after a few trips to the open bar, me and my fellow bachelors who'd managed to avoid the garter belt were standing around and discussing the wonders of dating women. Someone...okay, me...said that the tricky thing about dating women was that there's a part of them that's always locked away, that always stares at you from across from a great distance. You can try as hard as you like but you can never quite get all the way close to them.

Sexist? Maybe. But when people talk about the mysteries of women, I sometimes think this is what they're talking about.

I tried watching the movie, which was a horrible idea. Aside from the murder and the beatdown in the cornfield and the break in at the murderer's house, not much happens in the story. When Petey Jay directed the flick, he really jazzed up the scenes in Heaven, but the book doesn't focus too much on Susie's afterlife, so tremendous amounts of quality character stuff gets lost in the razzle dazzle world of the movie.

A shame. This is really good stuff. I recommend this book for anyone with a taste for melodrama and a love of strong characterization. I'm going to take a lot away from this book. I hope you do, too.


John Dixon said...

CreatureCast: I enjoyed THE LOVELY BONES, too.

The narrative would probably work without Suzie, but the story would lack much of its impact and popular appeal. Her point-of-view colors the whole experience, and it's the sweetness of her omniscient musings that keeps the loss so central and real, allowing the quiet plot to unfold as it does. Gimmicky? Yes. Effective? Yes again.

On a first read, long ago, I hated the mother. This time around, I disliked and pitied her.

Good post.

Jennifer Loring said...

Re: Susie's mother. Here comes trouble. :P

In a word, no. Women were expected to give up their dreams and be content with raising a family. This worked for some women, but imagine all the others who might have done great things if they were allowed the opportunity. Women are still the ones expected to make the sacrifices when it comes to family. Never mind that Jack had emotionally abandoned them long before, with his obsession over Mr. Harvey. Because a woman dares to walk away from the gender paradigm, she comes off almost as a villain to many readers. A reaction caused, of course, by that very paradigm.

Rant over, at least until my own blog post!

Creature said...

I'm not talking about paradigms or theory. I'm talking about the behavior of one individual.

Jack is right. He knows that Mr. Harvey killed his daughter and he got away with it. That would drive anyone mad. The one women who actually listens to what he has to say, Ruana Singh, advises murder.

Mrs. Salmon's reaction is to run away, first to another man, then physically run across the country. She abandoned her family, leaving two kids who were shook up about their older sisters murder. Instead, she acted with selfishness and self-indulgence. Male or female, that makes you a punk.

Christopher Shearer said...

I didn't hate the mother. I can understand where she was coming from, as I see Jenn does. As for the novel, I wasn't a huge fan. The pieces were there--all of the pieces. It should have been great, but I didn't think they went together well.

Chris V said...

Looks like you've started quite a debate here, Joe! I'm of the camp that despises the mother for leaving. As horrible as a tragedy as it is to lose a daughter (and one I most certainly can't relate to), isn't the point (perhaps the biggest point) of having or being part of a family to support one another? And this would be a moment in which that support is needed the most. So whether you're male or female, you're pathetic if you abandon that. Especially if you created a family in the first place (you gotta know what you're in for before you do such a momentous thing, no?). So HAH!

Kristina said...

I hate, hate, hated her mother. Not so much for the affair with Len or anything like that, it was more how she behaved when she left. Even though we can see the symptoms and causes for her leaving, I still felt like she was selfish.

I'd probably hate her less if she didn't send all those postcards...and if she didn't come back to her family at all.

But that's me and my personal opinion!

Cin Ferguson said...

So funny you watched the movie, Joe. I still haven't and you're making me not want to. I watched "Hell House" after reading the book, and its one that should be redone. I found the film entertaining just because of the things they had to omit back then, but still it disappointed me.

I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed this book. I agreed with many of your points, and your post was most excellent. Write on. :)

Gina Greenway said...

I agree - the mom was easy to hate. I read the book years ago - and I didn't like her any better this time, either. That being said, the nightmare that wakes me up from a deep sleep gasping for air is the one where something happens to Nick, my only child. Zombies, ghosts, cancer - bring them on. If anything happened to him, they'd be digging two graves. I can understand how the loss of a child can unmoor your sanity for awhile and, if Susie'd been an only child, I can see where Mom might take off. Since she had two LIVING children who needed her at home, it's hard to sympathize very deeply.

A said...

I also enjoyed the book. And I agree that the whole thing does cast this serene feel throughout -- I never really thought about it, but Susie doesn't seem to be angry at all when we meet her. Interesting.

Also, I thought the mother was a bit heartless for her actions, but I guess everyone grieves and gets over things differently. Was Susie the glue holding them all together?

Anonymous said...

Hmm, as readers I suppose it's our job to pass judgement on the characters. Who doesn't judge anyway? But, I looked at the situation and thought what a horrible tragedy. I have NO clue how I would react to such stresses or pains. I would hope that I wouldn't have an affair or leave my loved ones and responsibilities behind, but who's to say I wouldn't? So, I can't hate her. I can hope that I wouldn't do the same and if that's my hope then, I suppose I dislike her on some level.

As much as Susie's narration worked as a fourteen year old, I felt like she was a fairly mature one. Maybe it was her zen like feel towards her earthbound family, friends and killer. They say once you're in Heaven you no longer have worry. Who knows?

I fought reading this book...I really did. I remember when it was all the rage and I usually don't like, "all the rage" simply because it's "all the rage." All I can say is it makes absolute sense as to why everyone loved it so much.

Espana said...
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