The Mother Smotherer

Photomontage Courtesy of Gerald Slota/Hasted Hunt Gallery, NYC

Alice Sebold’s debut novel, The Lovely Bones, was a feel-good book about a terrible crime. It operated via a kind of emotional S&M. The story of a 14-year-old-girl narrating her own rape and murder from the safety of heaven offered both massive trauma and deep comfort—a quantum wound healed at the precise moment it was being inflicted. Although it had a few obvious and major flaws (epitomized by Chapter 22, in which the narrator descends from heaven to ethereally get with her old junior-high crush), its core was solid and genuinely moving. It went on to become a publishing miracle: Without even a whisper from Oprah, every single citizen of the United States spent the entirety of 2002 committing it to memory.

With her second novel, The Almost Moon, Sebold seems to have been crippled by the anxiety of her own influence. Even the most wildly creative artists, of course, get locked into imaginative patterns, but the parallels between The Lovely Bones and The Almost Moon are ridiculous. They extend all the way from the books’ titles (The Disyllabic Adjective Monosyllabic Noun) to the minor details of scene and phrasing and character. It’s as if Harper Lee had decided to follow up To Kill a Mockingbird with To Manhandle a Cardinal, the story of a Mississippi lawyer who defends a Hispanic migrant worker from racist accusations. The new novel begins, as The Lovely Bones did, with an outrageous crime, bluntly stated—“When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily”—then proceeds (as The Lovely Bones did) to trace that crime’s fallout in shifting small-town suburban Pennsylvania. It also features (as, yes, The Lovely Bones did) a teenage girl enjoying her first kiss from a high-school saxophone player, rash post-tragedy sex as a mode of amnesia, the old schoolyard chant “K-I-S-S-I-N-G,” and the strange sensation of feet sinking into mole tunnels. Both narrators cherish totemic photographs of once-beautiful young mothers who’ve been stunted by domesticity; both have mild, loving fathers who playfully parachute the kids’ sheets at bedtime. In The Lovely Bones, the narrator is murdered in a place called Stolfuz cornfield; in The Almost Moon, the local bar is owned by a family called Stolfuz.

It’s tempting to think that Sebold is self-plagiarizing strategically here, Faulkner style, in order to knit the books meaningfully together—but unfortunately there’s no real evidence of this. I wonder, instead, if her imaginative territory is just so small that we’ve already had the full tour. It’s like watching one of those cheaply animated cartoons in which the hero passes the same snowy mountain 34 times and uses the exact same hand gesture to brush his teeth, wave hello, throw Frisbees, and shoo away rabid bats.

The novels’ similarities are extensive but superficial. The Almost Moon retains (and even extends) all of The Lovely Bones’ faults without offering any of its virtues. Perhaps to spite the highbrow critics (some of whom attacked her first book as a cutesy fantasy of pseudo-therapy that skimped on the horror it pretended to explore), Sebold has given us the opposite of The Lovely Bones: a charmless, feel-bad portrait of non-nurturing discomfort. It’s all wound, no healing. Helen is a middle-aged, divorced artists’ model who has spent most of her 49 years shackled to a manipulative, insulting, agoraphobic mother. (“Don’t tell me you have cancer too,” the mother says when her adult daughter gets a haircut. “Everyone has cancer these days.”) The book opens with the mother, now 88, soiling herself and collapsing on the stairs, to which Helen responds (after mentally describing her as “a passed-out bag of bones who reeked of shit”) by smothering her with a towel. The rest of the novel slogs through the aftermath: Helen puts her mom’s corpse in the freezer, fantasizes about dismembering it (Sebold, it is clear, has spent a creepy amount of time thinking about the disposal of dead bodies), lures her ex-husband out from California to help cover up the crime, has impulsive sex with her best friend’s 30-year-old son while staring at some evocative nuclear towers, does some nude Degas posing, and remembers, in exhaustive detail, everything that has ever happened to her or to anyone she’s ever met. In Sebold novels, every little narrative event inspires three paragraphs of precious memories.

But while the plot of The Lovely Bones was a tightly calibrated symphony—a police procedural, family saga, murder mystery, and cosmological thought experiment (the narrator’s heaven had an intake counselor and smelled like a skunk)—The Almost Moon is a long, meandering solo on a broken plastic trumpet. Sebold has an Olympic pole-vaulter’s instinct for going over the top; occasionally my eyes were rolling so hard I had to hold the book directly over my head to keep reading. The best moments are self-contained and probably should have been salvaged as short stories: the agoraphobic mother watching, catatonic, as a boy who’s been hit by a car dies in front of her on her lawn, then sending her daughter out to deal with the mob of men who come to protest her heartlessness; the narrator’s detached and depressive father sneaking off to his decrepit childhood home in an abandoned town to build imaginary families out of plywood.

Part of The Almost Moon’s diminished power might be that, since (and partly because of) the wild success of The Lovely Bones, this genre—the American suburban gothic family dysfunction saga—has become even more of a tired pop-cultural reflex than it was before. (The trend may have reached its nadir in the glossy, fashionable “horrors” of Desperate Housewives.) These days, everybody puts Mom in the freezer. If Sebold had really wanted to shock us, she would have opened her novel with a sincere kiss on the cheek and some competent hospice care.

The Almost Moon
By Alice Sebold. Little, Brown. 291 pages. $24.99.

The Mother Smotherer