Saturday, September 12, 2009

Death Becomes Her (Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones)

Considering that The Lovely Bones features two of my least favorite literary devices -- serial killers and the afterlife -- I was surprised I took to it as much as I did. Add to this characters with cutesy-metaphorical names (starting with the protagonist, Susie Salmon), ghosts walking among the living, salt-of-the-earth seniors who drink and swear and tell it like it is, heavy-handed symbolism everywhere you look (watch out for that sinkhole), and narration from the Great Beyond, and small wonder it took me seven years to plunge into Alice Sebold's huge 2002 bestseller. The Lovely Bones isn't cynical, like Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd, in which William Holden voiceovers with the acid bemusement of a man drinking Scotch in purgatory and cursing his dumb luck. Quite the opposite, in fact. But the rough early goings would have been unbearable had the author framed them from a traditional third-person point-of-view. Filtering the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl from her own divine perspective dilutes the grisly details so we can focus on how the loss of that individual shatters those she leaves behind. For Sebold, that's the real tragedy of the tale. Also its potential for hope and renewal. The struggle to fill Susie's vacated space forms the real thrust of the approximately decade-long narrative, overshadowing the quest to apprehend her killer. 

It's not spoiling anything to reveal that Susie is killed (she spills the beans herself on page one), nor to announce that the culprit, Mr. Harvey, is a neighbor in her early-1970s Pennsylvania suburb (page two). Sebold's period detail is evocative, understated: we're given to understand that the idea of a predator in one's neighborhood was still unheard of at the time; that a person like Mr. Harvey, who lives by himself and builds dollhouses, might be considered an eccentric oddity and nothing more. Sebold's bravest stroke is to humanize Mr. Harvey. Assuming a literally omniscient perspective, Susie periodically shows us snippets of his tragic upbringing, his ability to craft an unassuming persona to fool others, his attempts to reform, his loneliness and the uncontainable violence that emanates from it. (Sebold herself is a survivor of sexual assault.)

But Susie spends most of the story watching her family pick up the pieces in her wake. Her father obsessively strives to bring her killer to justice (he suspects Mr. Harvey almost immediately), while her mother has a sad affair with Len Fenerman, the detective in charge of the case, and eventually flees to start a new life. Other key characters include her younger sister Lindsey, who shares her father's tenacity, and Susie's friend from school Ruth, a social misfit who has the ability to sense the dead. All of the characters are distinct and well-defined, while Susie's "heaven" is given disappointing short-shrift. Basically, heaven is whatever you want it to be; and your heaven can intersect with another person's in the afterlife, but you can't influence any actions on earth. Except when you can. I get that this is meant to derive from a young girl's idea of what the afterlife is like, but it's still a pretty limited concept -- so limited that Sebold makes the rules as vague as possible presumably so she can break them.

This leads to one of the weakest passages in the novel, when Susie "falls" to Earth and inhabits the body of another character. I don't think it's the author's intention to remind us of All of Me during this ostensibly moving sequence. Nor do I suspect she intended her villain's elaborately contrived denouement to recall Final Destination. The Lovely Bones is far from the glorious masterpiece its legion of admirers contend. Its best moments shake off Divine Providence and make the earthbound seem ethereal.

I decided to read The Lovely Bones after seeing the preview for Peter Jackson's screen adaptation, to be released over the holiday season. Following his stellar work helming The Lord of the Rings saga and the exhausting gigantism of King Kong (there's a great movie somewhere inside that overwrought mess), The Lovely Bones looks like a potential return to Jackson's primary strength -- finding the fantastical within the ordinary. (Think Heavenly Creatures, or The Frighteners pre-studio meddling.) His command of CGI may give the movie's version of heaven the imaginative landscape that the novel lacks. And a great cast will hopefully demonstrate his underrated touch with actors (e.g., the impassioned ensemble in Lord of the Rings, Naomi Watts giving the most vibrant performance of her career in King Kong). The gifted young actress Saoirse Ronan, who made a big splash as the prepubescent sexual hysteric in Atonement, appears to have the right otherworldly quality for Susie; while Mark Wahlberg, as her aggrieved father, has an opportunity to remind us of what a touching actor he can be. I'm unfamiliar with Rose McIver, playing Lindsey, but I look forward to what will be unquestionably her key scene, the high-watermark in Sebold's book. Michael Imperioli as a 70s-era cop seems a little on the nose. It's also depressing to ponder the significance of the still-striking life-force Susan Sarandon as "Grandma Lynn."


Mary said...

I agree with your assessment of the novel. I read it on the request of some friends who were a bit fanatic about it. I wasn't overly impressed with it, but have been excited about film as I'm a fan of Heavenly Creatures. It's definitely Jackson in his element, and I hope he pulls it off.

Craig said...

Mary, I agree. The premise is at once contained and limitless, which should go right down Jackson's wheelhouse. And given that we know he's not shy about bucking a sacred text, he may be able to improve some elements as well. We'll see.