Bookslut notes that The Lovely Bones story lives on, and points to this totally inane conversation on Poynter which seems to argue that David Mendelsohn’s review could only be motivated by “backlash” against the book’s commercial success, and that critics should go easy on first novels, particularly if they are heavily promoted. There are so many holes in this argument that I don’t actually know where to start, so I think I’ll just start by saying, as an author, that any review which surpasses the level of “liking/disliking” and addresses the artistic ambition and accomplishment of a work is so rare that, once one gets over the shock, it must be a relief. I’m sure that if I was Alice Sebold, I’d be completely dismayed by the NYRB review, but on the other hand, who else is going to challenge her to set the bar higher with the next book? Sebold’s no frail flower, she’s certainly survived worse than one serious but critical review, and I have every expectation that her next novel will be interesting, and perhaps will avoid some of the pitfalls of the first one.
What I found useful in the NYRB review, however, was the way he used The Lovely Bones as a jumping-off place for a discussion of our current cultural mania for pablum comfort, for our desperate need to believe, in Mendelsohn’s words, that “we needen’t really be sad, that nothing is, in the end, really scary.” As one who wrote a dark novel, a novel in which everything does not work out okay, and everyone does not come out at the end feeling that chimera emotion “closure,” I can testify to the force of the cultural backlash against this particular idea. (At my 20th high school reunion last summer, you would have though from the reaction of the suburban moms, that I had actually taken a small child out into the woods and lost her myself.) Somehow in America, we have become incapable of acknowledging that things, more often than not, do not work out well, that life can offer up events from which we may never “heal,” that “closure” is a myth.
Which brings me to the inimitable Jeanne d’Arc and her discussion this morning of how prosecutors and the media have tapped into this powerful myth, how they have held the death penalty out as a carrot to the survivors of murder victims and have promised them that if they press for the death penalty, they will achieve this mythical state of “closure” upon the execution of their loved one’s murderer. Now, maybe it’s the Catholic in me, but I’ve never understood why, as a nation, we seem to sanction revenge in this way. Haven’t any of these people ever read the New Testament? Isn’t Jesus the guy who makes the radical argument that it is only in forgiving those who have trespassed against us that we are sanctified? But I digress, what I really wanted to point out here is the manifold nature of this myth of “closure.”
There is no closure.
People never “get over” heartbreak and grief. We simply learn to live with it the way one eventually accepts that the broken leg will always ache when damp weather moves in. It was the Buddha who taught that the First Noble Truth is suffering, and that it is our resistance to and denial of suffering which causes more suffering. Suffering itself isn’t “bad” — suffering just is. It is our attachment to the idea that suffering is bad, our attachment to the idea that suffering is to be avoided or denied, our attachment to the idea that suffering shouldn’t be happening to us, because we are such nice people, we did everything right, it isn’t fair that is the problem. As a nation, as a culture, I’d like to respectfully suggest that we all just grow up please.
Stories matter. It matters that The Lovely Bones elides the true nature of suffering. It matters because the fact that the book has sold millions of copies demonstrates how badly people want to believe that we can get through life without growing up, without facing the inevitable reality of suffering and injustice. Stories matter because in our desperation to deny that suffering and injustice are real, we promulgate false stories to the victims of real crimes. We hold out hope for a coherent narrative, a narrative in which everything will make sense, in which all the loose ends will be neatly tied together. Stories matter because our desperate quest for a coherent narrative leads us to participate in human sacrifice, to participate in a system where the point was simply to sentence someone, anyone, to death, so that we can claim “closure” and “healing” for the victims of crime.
George Ryan may have been a tarnished govenor (not the first in Illinois, by a long shot) but read the speech. He was willing to stand up and declare that we cannot, as a free society, afford the cost of this false story. That we cannot be a nation that is willing to offer up for public sacrifice the lives of these men and women, too many of whom are not guilty of the crimes of which they have been accused. That we cannot afford to be a society willing to kill innocent people. It was a brave and noble thing to do, and I for one, applaud him.