THE LOVELY BONES by Alice Sebold / A Negative Review of THE LOVELY BONES by Alice Sebold

An Analysis of The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold) by Joseph Suglia

Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (2002) is the type of book that effortlessly mounts American bestseller lists.  It is impossible to deny that the book serves as a symbolic reaffirmation of the traditional values of the now-vanished American middle class.  Any sober analysis of the book must take this into account.

Much like other smash-hit novels, the book fetishizes children / younger teens and their alleged innocence.  When readers first encounter the novel’s protagonist, fourteen-year-old girl Susie Salmon, she has already been raped and murdered and is gazing down on the earth from the Bel-Air comfort of her personal Heaven.  During the recreation of Susie’s murder, the narrative oscillates between Susie’s violation and killing and a description of charming details from Susie’s life.  While this tactic might seem emotionally manipulative, there is no question that Ms. Sebold is shrewd.  Only the toughest eyes will be able to hold back their tears.

Ms. Sebold recreates the voice of a fourteen-year-old girl exceptionally well at the beginning of the novel.  Her character’s syntax and diction become more sophisticated as the novel spins along.  The voice is emotionally manipulative perhaps, but not everyone can psychologically maneuver little lambs via the written word.

Not merely is the book’s milieu white, American suburbia.  Its norms are also very suburban, very white, and very American.  Unsurprisingly, the book’s Heaven (a place where every little girl’s dreams come true) resembles an upper-middle-class country club, with “soccer goalposts in the distance and lumbering women throwing shot put and javelin.”

The slobbering enemy of the work–Susie’s butcher, Mr. Harvey–is what critical theory used to call (and sometimes still does) “the Other.”  He is an outsider to the world that Susie and her family inhabit, the kind of man who “never married and ate frozen meals every night and [was] so afraid of rejection that [he] didn’t even own pets.  The kind of man you read about in health class.”  Such is the novel’s attitude toward anyone who falls too far outside of its particular status quo.

Those of foreign descent are welcome in the novel’s world, on the proviso that they support its middle-class values.  Susie’s former boyfriend, Ray Singh, for instance, is Indian and yet gives a guest lecture at the University of Pennsylvania on “Suburbia: The American Experience.”  It does seem rather odd that an Indian teenager would care very much about this topic.  And since when are teenage boys arbitrarily invited to give lectures at major American universities?

The novel also displays an uncharitable attitude toward other-sexual male desire.  Looking down from Heaven on her former friend Clarissa, Susie is disgusted by what she sees: a young boy palming the girl, groping for “a little mound of love.”  The book presents the sexuality of men as if all male lust were despicable or homicidal.

How did Mr. Harvey become Mr. Harvey?  Was Mr. Harvey violated as a young boy?  If Susie Salmon survived, would she have transformed into someone like Mr. Harvey?  Victims of abuse too often become abusers themselves.  The Lovely Bones does not explore these seamy depths.  If it did, it would not be an Alice Sebold novel.

Joseph Suglia

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A Critique of David Foster Wallace: Part Two: A Supposedly Fun Thing That I Will Never Do Again / “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” / “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All” / “David Lynch Keeps His Head”

An Analysis of A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia

I have written it before, and I will write it again: Writing fictionally was not one of David Foster Wallace’s gifts.  His métier was, perhaps, mathematics.  David Foster Wallace was a talented theorist of mathematics, it is possible (I am unqualified to judge one’s talents in the field of mathematics), but an absolutely dreadful writer of ponderous fictions (I am qualified to judge one’s talents in the field of literature).

Wallace’s essay aggregate A Supposedly Fun Thing that I Will Never Do Again (1997) is worth reading, if one is an undiscriminating reader, but it also contains a number of vexing difficulties that should be addressed.  I will focus here upon the two essays to which I was most attracted: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a conspectus on the director’s cinema from Eraserhead (1977) until Lost Highway (1997).  Wallace seems unaware of Lynch’s work before 1977.

In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace warmly defends the Glass Teat in the way that only an American can.  He sees very little wrong with television, other than the fact that it can become, in his words, a “malignant addiction,” which does not imply, as Wallace takes pains to remind us, that it is “evil” or “hypnotizing” (38).  Perish the thought!

Wallace exhorts American writers to watch television.  Not merely should those who write WATCH television, Wallace contends; they should ABSORB television.  Here is Wallace’s inaugural argument (I will attempt to imitate his prose):

1.) Writers of fiction are creepy oglers.
2.) Television allows creepy, ogling fiction writers to spy on Americans and draw material from what they see.
3.) Americans who appear on television know that they are being seen, so this is scopophilia, but not voyeurism in the classical sense. [Apparently, one is spying on average Americans when one watches actors and actresses on American television.]
4.) For this reason, writers can spy without feeling uncomfortable and without feeling that what they’re doing is morally problematic.

Wallace: “If we want to know what American normality is – i.e. what Americans want to regard as normal – we can trust television… [W]riters can have faith in television” (22).

“Trust what is familiar!” in other words.  “Embrace what is in front of you!” to paraphrase.  Most contemporary American writers grew up in the lambent glow of the cathode-ray tube, and in their sentences the reader can hear the jangle and buzz of television.  David Foster Wallace was wrong.  No, writers should NOT trust television.  No, they should NOT have faith in the televisual eye, the eye that is seen but does not see.  The language of television has long since colonized the minds of contemporary American writers, which is likely why David Foster Wallace, Chuck Klosterman, and Jonathan Safran Foer cannot focus on a single point for more than a paragraph, why Thomas Pynchon’s clownish, jokey dialogue sounds as if it were culled from Gilligan’s Island, and why Don DeLillo’s portentous, pathos-glutted dialogue sounds as if it were siphoned from Dragnet.

There are scattershot arguments here, the most salient one being that postmodern fiction canalizes televisual waste.  That is my phrasing, not Wallace’s.  Wallace writes, simply and benevolently, that television and postmodern fiction “share roots” (65).  He appears to be suggesting that they both sprang up at exactly the same time.  They did not, of course.  One cannot accept Wallace’s argument without qualification.  To revise his thesis: Postmodern fiction–in particular, the writings of Leyner, DeLillo, Pynchon, Barth, Apple, Barthelme, and David Foster Wallace–is inconceivable outside of a relation to television.  But what would the ontogenesis of postmodern fiction matter, given that these fictions are anemic, execrably written, sickeningly smarmy, cloyingly self-conscious, and/or forgettable?

It did matter to Wallace, since he was a postmodernist fictionist.  Let me enlarge an earlier statement.  Wallace is suggesting (this is my interpretation of his words): “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!”  The first pose is that of a hipster; the second pose is that of the Deluded Consumer.  It would be otiose to claim that Wallace was not a hipster, when we are (mis)treated by so many hipsterisms, such as: “So then why do I get the in-joke? Because I, the viewer, outside the glass with the rest of the Audience, am IN on the in-joke” (32).  Or, in a paragraph in which he nods fraternally to the “campus hipsters” (76) who read him and read (past tense) Leyner: “We can resolve the problem [of being trapped in the televisual aura] by celebrating it.  Transcend feelings of mass-defined angst [sic] by genuflecting to them.  We can be reverently ironic” (Ibid.).  Again, he appears to be implying: “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!”  That is your false dilemma.  If you want others to think that you are special (every hipster’s secret desire), watch television with a REVERENT IRONY.  Wallace’s hipper-than-thou sanctimoniousness is smeared over every page.

Now let me turn to the Lynch essay, the strongest in the collection.  There are several insightful remarks here, particularly Wallace’s observation that Lynch’s cinema has a “clear relation” (197) to Abstract Expressionism and the cinema of German Expressionism.  There are some serious weaknesses and imprecisions, as well.

Wallace: “Except now for Richard Pryor, has there ever been even like ONE black person in a David Lynch movie? … I.e. why are Lynch’s movies all so white? … The likely answer is that Lynch’s movies are essentially apolitical” (189).

To write that there are no black people in Lynch’s gentrified neighborhood is to display one’s ignorance.  The truth is that at least one African-American appeared in the Lynchian universe before Lost Highway: Gregg Dandridge, who is very much an African-American, played Bobbie Ray Lemon in Wild at Heart (1990).  Did Wallace never see this film?  How could Wallace have forgotten the opening cataclysm, the cataclysmic opening of Wild at Heart?  Who could forget Sailor Ripley slamming Bobbie Ray Lemon’s head against a staircase railing and then against a floor until his head bursts, splattering like a splitting pomegranate?

To say that Lynch’s films are apolitical is to display one’s innocence.  No work of art is apolitical, because all art is political.  How could Wallace have missed Lynch’s heartlandish downhomeness?  How could he have failed to notice Lynch’s repulsed fascination with the muck and the slime, with the louche underworld that lies beneath the well-trimmed lawns that line Lynch’s suburban streets?  And how could he have failed to draw a political conclusion, a political inference, from this repulsed fascination, from this fascinated repulsion?

Let me commend these essays to the undiscriminating reader, as unconvincing as they are.  Everything collected here is nothing if not badly written, especially “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” a hipsterish pamphlet about Midwestern state fairs that would not have existed were it not for David Byrne’s True Stories (1986), both the film and the book.  It is my hope that David Foster Wallace will someday be remembered as the talented mathematician he perhaps was and not as the brilliant fictioneer he certainly was not.

Joseph Suglia