Vanilla Comfort Dreams

"My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973."

Thus begins the most talked-about literary debut of the year, The Lovely Bones by UC Irvine creative-writing Program grad and Long Beach resident Alice Sebold. It's easy to see why the book, at this writing, sits atop the Los Angeles Times Bestseller List and is at No. 2 on the New York Times list. Not only do we get murder on the first page—these days, some lapel-grabbing device is virtually de rigeur for even the most serious and meditational of novels, as if readers (and, crucially, editors) will go narcoleptic without them—but we get the risky/spooky/high-potential conceit of a tale narrated by a dead person, la Sunset Boulevard or American Beauty. And in the opening chapter, our worst, most ominous apprehensions (confirmed, sickeningly, in real life by deaths like Samantha Runnion's) about how sweet, well-behaved girls can get murdered in this country are painstakingly laid out, though Sebold, a rape victim herself (which she wrote about in her first book, the memoir Lucky), is so empathetic toward a reader's potential queasiness that the violence is almost entirely suggested. And thank God for that because Susie's fate is to be lured into an underground hovel by her neighbor Mr. Harvey, where she is raped, murdered and dismembered, her remains stuffed into a safebox and transported to a sinkhole on the outskirts of town, where she is dumped.

That's her earthly fate, anyway, because Susie's soul flies up to heaven, or "my heaven," as she puts it, because in Sebold's imagining, everyone's heaven is different, corresponding to one's "simplest dreams." For 14-year-old Susie, heaven looks like a suburban high school built in the 1960s and includes a kind roommate, a wise "intake counselor" and a cheery gazebo, from which magical vantage Susie spends much of her time gazing down on Earth, longingly and helplessly, as her loved ones struggle to recover from the memory of her unspeakable death.

The best parts of The Lovely Bones deal with those struggles of her family and friends. Among them are Susie's mother, a woman disappointed in her domesticity even before her daughter's death, who escapes her grief by starting an affair with the detective investigating the case and then abandoning her remaining family altogether. There is Susie's father, the novel's most lovingly drawn character, whose torment combined with an unshakable but unprovable intuition about the identity of the murder leads him to alternately destroy the ship-in-a-bottle collection his daughter had helped him create, collapse into depression and ultimately suffer a heart attack. Then there are Susie's siblings: her little brother, Buckley, who grows up first sweetly, then increasingly stone-hearted, and whose only words to his mother when she finally returns are a terse "Fuck you," and her sister, Lindsay, who starts out stone-hearted, then reverses course, finding herself a kind, sympathetic boy with whom she falls deeply in love. There are friends, too: among them the dreamboat Ray, the only boy Susie had ever kissed before she died, and Ruth, the budding punk lesbian poetess Susie "touched" on her way out of this world, who as a result has a curious sixth sense about the places in which murders occur.

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The poignancy of the novel's strong characterizations is heightened not only by Sebold's careful, tasteful prose (she's a New Yorker contributor-in-training, for sure), but also by the fact that Susie knows, in watching their lives unfold in front of her, that her death is the cause of so much of their suffering. And Susie isn't able to do anything for them, though occasionally she "breaks through" the "Inbetween" separating heaven and earth to appear as a reflection in glass or hover in such a way that people can feel her presence.

What I found most moving of all was Susie's deeply envious reaction to Lindsay as she fell in love. Here, the heartrending fate of the dead in The Lovely Bones becomes most manifest: death means not only watching your loved ones suffer but also watching them be happy—and understanding that your loved ones must someday leave you beyond so that they can claim some small parcel of comfort for themselves.

On the other hand, I wasn't too crazy about the way-too-tidy way Sebold wraps things up. Near the end, Sebold violates the novel's rule that the dead and the living, however much they intuit one another's presence, don't actually interact—all in the interest of a lovemaking scene that cheapens the novel's air of metaphysical mystery into what feels like cute movie trickery. For another, Sebold seems to think that her characters—and the reader—after all they've gone through, deserve a sentimental ending, complete with a family reunion; perfect justice exacted upon Mr. Harvey; the transformation of the hard-drinking, wise-cracking granny into a heart-of-gold teetotaler; and—how's this for innovation?—the birth of a baby girl, Susie's niece, who will carry her name.

I'm sure there are people who'll say the book's a fable, it's not realistic, so what's wrong with a fabled ending. But when a fable veers this close to the vanilla comfort dreams of suburban readers (not to mention the bottom line visions of potential Hollywood producers), I smell manipulation.

And just to throw gas on this little fire here: Sebold's vision of heaven is pretty paltry. One problem is that it's simply underimagined—the paucity of physical detail about what things look like up there might be explicable—I'm sure Sebold would say it's meant to give us a sense of spaciousness—but I want to know what it feels like up there, and all I get is that it's warm and nice and ever-so-lonely at times. Promising early images of what Susie witnesses when she looks down on Earth ("there were souls leaving bodies all over the world") suggest a huge expansion of Susie's posthumous consciousness, especially since Susie will occasionally beg off her family and, like the angels in Wim Wenders' great Wings of Desire, check out some of the rest of humanity. How does this strange, literally otherworldly perspective change and deepen her? Not much, it turns out. Susie is an omniscient narrator—she knows and feels what everybody in the novel knows and feels, and she can go back in time as well—but her vision of things as the years pass doesn't appreciably enlarge. What she learns by the end of the novel is that the living must learn to accept death in order to go on to live and love, that in death, she has to learn to let go as well. In the end, Susie's heaven yields her no more wisdom than what she might have gotten from a few months with a decent earthbound therapist.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold; Little, Brown and Co. Hardcover, 328 pages, $21.95.

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