Bookslut pointed out this review of The Lovely Bones at the New York Review of Books. I just finished reading Alice Sebold’s first book, her memoir, Lucky. The most interesting aspect of the memoir was it’s narration of Sebold’s changing relationship to her own victimhood, and the ways that her attempts to deny and repress the emotional impact of being violently raped hobbled her emotional and artistic life for many years.
I haven’t read The Lovely Bones yet myself, but I want to use Mendelsohn’s essay as a jumping-off place for a discussion (which I assume will be ongoing on this blog), about the the ways that fiction, like all art, must not simply reaffirm our perceptions of the world, but rather, must challenge us to re-examine our most deeply held beliefs, hopes, and fears. However, because we live in a welter of narrative, from blogs to television to novels to movies to the stories we tell one another at parties, because we are aswim in narrative constructs that have come to seem “natural,” we may not even be aware when we’re responding to the fulfillment of a story we wish to be told, rather than the story we must hear.
In his review, Mendelsohn argues that the critics have made precisely this mistake with The Lovely Bones. That after September 11, we were all so anxious to be reassured that we mistook Sebold’s story for the “fearless and ultimately redemptive portrayal of dark material” it was touted to be. However, Mendelsohn argues that in fact, “darkness, grief and heartbreak is what The Lovely Bones scrupulously avoids. This is the real heart of its appeal.” He argues that “It is hard to read … The Lovely Bones without thinking of … those TV “movies of the week” with their predictable arcs of crisis, healing, and “closure,” the latter inevitably evoked by an obvious symbolism.” He gives several excellent textual examples to support this claim, and goes on to speculate that part of the novel’s gigantic appeal is that in a nation traumatized by September 11, Sebold’s “fantasy of recuperation” has “a vital subconscious appeal,” especially for a “public … now able to see itself as an entire nation of innocent victims.” Finally he concludes by asserting that “Confidence and grief management are what The Lovely Bones offers … it too is bent on convincing us that everything is OK.”
So what, you ask, do I have against redemption? Against being OK? Well, nothing, of course. What I have is a gripe against these stories, these little narrative pills that tell us that “closure” and “healing” can be achieved without the true harrowing of the soul that they demand. What I have is a gripe against is the enormous cultural and professional pressure to create narratives in which “closure” and “healing” can be attained, narratives which posit that, in David Mendelsohn’s words, “we needen’t really be sad, that nothing is, in the end, really scary.” I also have a gripe against the idea that it is the purpose of fiction to explain us to ourselves, to wrap up complex experiences in tidy little packages in which the characters all neatly explain how they feel about the events that have taken place, in which the characters, like good little puppets, step forward and tell us exactly what it all means.
So what’s a writer to do? Of course, the only one who can actually answer that is each writer for him- or herself, but the question I’d ask is how can we use language, our only tool as writers, to create experience rather than simply describe it? Of the books I’ve listed in my Current Fiction Picks section is Mary Rakow’s first novel, The Memory Room. Now this is a book that dives deep into the wreck, a book in which it is always in question whether Barbara, the protagonist, will ever be able to make sense of the moral evil at the heart of her childhood, an evil she repressed for a very long time. The book is formally daring, it is utterly disinterested in the usual cause-and-effect conceits of traditional mainstream narration, opting instead for a collage of Barbara’s perception, memory, and evasion of memory, interspersed with fragments of Paul Celan and the Psalms. This is a harrowing, stunning novel. A novel that is often difficult to read, and yet is so beautiful that one is compelled to return to the text. This is emphatically not a novel that sets out to reassure anyone that the world is OK. In an interview with LA Weekly, Rakow discusses the form of the book: “I consciously changed the form, several times and quite radically based on my sense of the world. This meant I had to change how the pages looked so that when I looked at it there was no lying going on. For example … when I heard of these two young boys, a toddler and an infant, thrown over the bridge into the Los Angeles River in broad daylight, I could no longer write from one margin across the page to the right. It felt like a lie. I thought, Is this how the world is? Is this what I can say to that surviving toddler? And the resounding answer was, immediately and radically, No. From that point on, for several years, I wrote in what I called “dots” — two or three lines of text running across the top inch of the otherwise all-white page. I wrote thousands of these and eventually grouped them by color. I tied the piles with ribbon. Red, blue, yellow, black, white, green, blue, indicating their emotional timbre. … My ordering of the colored dots was like musial composition. … That early ordering was a huge task for me to get the sequence right, and took me probably over a year.”
It is one of the central tasks of any artist to to cleave to the story that must be told, despite the many many temptations one will encounter to tell the story people want to hear. If that means inventing new forms in which to tell those stories, then so be it. If that means writing odd fragments and spending years trying to figure out how they fit together, then one’s task is to have the courage to keep at it. If that means trying to find a path through the constraints of traditional narrative form, then again, one’s task is to have the courage to keep at it. But I’d ask you writers out there, to keep asking yourselves at every turn, what am I writing, the story that needs to be heard, or the story they want to hear?