Eccentric Musings (jakaEM)

"I have undergone sharp discipline which has taught me wisdom; and then, I have read more than you would fancy." Emily Brontë


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Friend of My Youth
Alice Munro
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Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature
Margaret Atwood
The Almost Moon - Alice Sebold Rewrite: 10/17/08

My original review was long and rambling, and didn't defend the novel the way I wanted to. This one is equally long and rambling, but possibly more on point (?). If you are interested in reading the first review anyway, feel free to click here.

I enjoyed this book for Sebold's ability to create a complex character with a unique POV by describing scenes from her life in broad, evocative strokes. I disagree quite vehemently with the criticism levelled against The Almost Moon by those who claim the writing is bad, the main character poorly developed or her behaviour inconsistent. I'm not sure what book people like Lee Siegel, of The New York Times, was reading, but it doesn't seem to be the same one I read. He called The Almost Moon "morally, emotionally and intellectually incoherent," claims that he does not support and that I think are completely unfounded.

How can a novel be "morally incoherent"? Can someone explain that to me?

Sebold has created a character study of a person who lived a life entirely shaped--like the title image--by the gravitational pull and tides created by her mentally ill mother, and secondarily also her depressed/suicidal father. That character, Helen, commits a crime (she kills her mother on p. 14) and then, a) spends 24 hours in the aftermath of the act responding to it, leading her to a critical choice in the last chapter as to whether to run away, kill herself or face the consequences of her actions; and b) as she struggles through those 24 hours, reminiscing about her life, her relationships and how they led her to the point where killing her mother seemed humane and reasonable.

Helen's behaviour as described in the novel--although often erratic, irrational and vacillating between a fugue-like emotional bluntness, numb resignation and panicked 'acting-out'--is entirely consistent with her history, her state-of-mind and her own internal dialogue. It's not emotionally incoherent at all; if anything, the contradictions, irrationality and conflicts are rendered with exquisitive precision as one would expect from this character at that time in her life.

This book is an exploration of character, and of a very specific mother-daughter relationship. The latter theme cascades out from Helen and her own mother, to Helen and her ex-husband, her children and her father. Each dynamic is different, but each is informed by the other and especially, by the spectre of Helen's mother's mental illness that eclipses all.

The detailed scenes that Sebold uses to build character and tell the story are often jarring; told with a brutal, unadorned and, yes Mr. Siegel, possibly even 'amoral' honesty. These scenes almost appear at random among more mundane activities, or equally bizarre (but bizarre for a different reason) activities that Helen describes. This is intentional and it is also, if you have read [book: The Lovely Bones], part of Sebold's unique talent and style.

It is unclear to me if her writing leads her to tell the stories she does; or if the stories demand the style she uses. In any event, it's a symbiotic relationship between style and substance that generally works very well. It worked extremely well in The Lovely Bones; slightly less so here, but only because I think Sebold needed to push further into Helen's psychology than it was possible for her to do using that style and telling the story from the first-person point of view.

The flaws of the novel are not based on the quality of the writing, the characterization or any deficit in plot or structure (all of which Siegel and others have alleged), but rather the constraints imposed by a first-person but emotionally-neutral style that refuses to pass judgement on any of the characters (and Helen can't, of course, pass judgement on herself--we are privy only to her subjective assessments of her own behaviour, but also acutely aware--as she acknowledges at one point--that she may not be exactly a poster child for mental health herself). Here, different than in The Lovely Bones, Sebold is presenting the perpetrator of the crime as her central character, not the victim. This puts her writing skill and style to a different kind of test. There is no question of Helen's guilt, or--to the reader--of how horribly reprehensible the crime. We see that in all its brutal glory in the first 14 pages. The question we are forced to struggle with, over the next 277 pages, is why--what is her motivation? Naturally, that will lead a reader who is seeking to pass judgement on the act and on Helen to try to determine whether or not Helen's acts were "justified" or "rational."

But of course, this fundamental question is absolutely irrelevant to the quality or value of the novel. I went there myself: after Helen killed her mother, I thought..."oh, here we go. Sebold will now peel back all the layers of the onion, and we'll have a story of abuse and incest and all kinds of horrific stuff as an explanation and rationalization for why Helen did what she did." But...Sebold surprised me. She did something more subtle, and more complex.

Sebold has not written a "morally, emotionally and intellectually incoherent" novel: she has written a morally, emotionally and intellectually ambiguous one. There is no clear, black-and-white "answer" to the obvious question here, which would I suppose lead to the order and coherence that Mr. Siegel seems to desire. Instead, there are many shades of grey. Sebold is not asking us to pass judgement on Helen; she's asking us to understand her from a perspective that makes the rightness or wrongness of her actions irrelevant. She asks: how can a daughter love and hate her mother at the same time? What does a parent's mental illness do to the bonds among family members? How is personality forged in the crucible of family dysfunction and what impact does it have on a person's choices and actions?

I like moral ambiguity in a novel...or in any writing, for that matter. It forces you to clarify your own position vis-a-vis some of the larger and most important questions about character, personality and motivation. It takes you beyond obvious, but sometimes simplistic questions and their pat answers--if you let it--to a deeper understanding of human behaviour.