In the fall of 1999, when the film The Sixth Sense was so suddenly and hugely successful, National Post columnist Len Blum, in one of his weekly columns, sought to grasp the movie's remarkable word of mouth reputation. While thinking that it obviously connected with our innate sense of unworthiness and fear of failure, he felt its major magic was to "tap into our desire to commune with loved ones who have died, to tell them we love them, to resolve things left unresolved." One suspects the wild success of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones mines the same cavern of unrequited longing in our oh-so-secular and cynical culture. In the midst of our high tech savvy and soft core luxuries we still seem to crave a design, a somewhat less divine sort of plan than the one advanced by fanatics but somewhat more spiritual than the usual, devoid-of-mystery allowed for by the debunking sciences.
The latest reports claim a million copies in print: the three library systems I checked each listed well over a hundred holds. Copies of Alice Sebold's first book, 1999's memoir Lucky cannot be had for love nor money. As one narrative has a heroine mauled and raped and the other one mauled, raped, murdered and dismembered, I sensed a connection, if not, indeed, an angle, and finally tracked down an excerpt on the web. Despite having read several "rape and recovery" memoirs when the genre first blossomed some years back, I was quite unprepared for the brutal frankness of the author's trauma recreated. Its raw and unapologetic victim-centred account reminded me uncomfortably of the kind of grim violence fetishised by certain male novelists who seem to know their market all too well, and it contrasted remarkably with the soft focus storytelling of Lovely Bones. As Sebold tells it, in an interview on that same web site, she wrote chunks of both works almost simultaneously: it's almost as if in reenacting the angry drama of virgin sacrifice along with the sanctified ascent of the soon-to-be beatified she was trying to have her cake and eat it.
Save for her pleasant, but regularly interrupted, residence at some entry level purgatory set aside for those victims of violent crime disinclined to bend themselves to vengeance but still besotted with the unrequited desires of youth, some of which power her many seemingly instantaneous trips back to family, school and neighbourhood, little Susie Salmon is merely the latest in a long line of ghostly protagonists, going back farther than Henry James' Quint in Turn Of The Screw and proceeding down through the decades through Julian Barnes's sublimely enigmatic A History Of The World In Ten And A Half Chapters, to Will Self's darkly sardonic How The Dead Live and Rebecca Goldstein's recent Properties Of Light, where romantic obsession is leavened with the yeast of quantum physics and the water of tantric practice to persuade the reader that poeticising the flow of consciousness is the stuff of life itself.
A more conventional vision of afterlife seems to motivate Ms. Sebold in her delineation of a teenager's eternity, a type that could much more easily be translated into film, which I strongly suspect is the destiny of Those Lovely Bones: an honourable fate for a novel which leaves much to be desired in the opinion of this reviewer. For despite its current reputation as some kind of afterlife revelation, the work shoulders its tragic burdens with a descriptive style more satisfying than challenging, and indulges all too often in soap opera sentimentalising, and creakily predictable plot mechanisms dragged into play by an author one suspects is attempting to save the postmodern novel from the pointless pirouettes of its own cleverness by grafting on snatches of spiritualistic truisms. And yet I must say, after decades of hapless authors skulking about the detritus of post modernism, believing all they have inherited about the death of god and the resultant absense of omniscience, it is quite refreshing to read one who glides about her plot with the defiant glee of a minor deity unapologetically imposing a grand design.
Through the filtered lens of the dead girl's perceptions, we watch as her family gradually disinters itself from the shallow womb of its innocence, although whether its particular devastation is ultimately any worse than the average traverse through the dark valleys of divorce, abuse and terminal illness is debatable. As the action takes place in small town USA in the early seventies, apt comparisons might have been drawn with families losing sons in Vietnam and the narrative thus invigorated, but Sebold generally opts for the more comforting icons of nostalgia.
What is relatively unique in her treatment of societal dysfunction is perspective: for although Susie Salmon worries about her family more like a fretful and fastidious auntie than an adolescent immersed in the turbulence of self-obsession, Sebold does permit us glimpses of how the dead can moulder in purgatories of their own choosing, ignore the advice of wise guides, and sweep earthward in the blink of a thought, to observe but rarely interact, buzzing multiple locations with the immaculate dexterity of a photon.
And like every wronged ghost in the annals of psychical research she craves the righting of the historical record, and whether it takes two or two hundred years seems not to matter. Her neighbour-assailant, assiduously carved from the usual deprived childhood cliches, moves untroubled through a myth of America, managing his homicidal tendencies with the kind of sociopathic efficiency with which we have already been numbed, and when he meets his just desserts, Sebold, like the smug omniscient narrators of old, manages his dispatch with a shaft of poetic justice others might shrivel at, and in place of the selfless poise that the pursuit of empathy might provide, we are handed the done deedła bad boy gets his comeuppance.
In 1641, Henry Fielding, as part of his sharp satire A Journey From This World To The Next, much in the manner of his day, has one of his characters, riding in the post-mortem coach to Elysium, ask another why "he was not diverting himself by walking up and down and playing some merry tricks" with his murderer. Alice Sebold, despite an earnestness which dulls the potential for a more sustained burst of illumination, has an intriguing answer. ņ