-plot problems v. plot-point problems
-premise problems: good fiction v. not-good
Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, published in 2002, sold over a million copies, which is probably a big part of what makes it so polarizing. The popular book is often held up as a quintessential example of bad writing, yet for every person who hates it there are probably two that love it (that’s a guesstimate; I didn’t do an exact poll).
Even those who dislike it often concede the first fifty pages are extremely compelling. Our first-person narrator, Susie Salmon, announces that she has been murdered and then shows us the scene of how, when a creep from the neighborhood, Mr. Harvey, lures her into a cave in a cornfield near her house. Narrating from heaven, or an In-between place close to heaven, Susie watches, and is occasionally able to reveal small signs of herself, as her family tries to cope with the tragedy of her loss. Her sister Lindsey almost immediately gets a new boyfriend who helps her cope and whom she marries by book’s end; her mother, having regretted sacrificing so much of herself to motherhood before Susie’s death, eventually has a brief fling with the lead investigator on the case then flees to the west coast; her father, instinctively ascertaining Harvey is the killer, slowly unravels with no evidence to prove it; her brother Buckley, only 3 at the time of her murder, struggles with his father paying more attention to an absence than a presence, which comes to a head years later when his father won’t let him use some of Susie’s old clothes, a confrontation that causes the father to have a heart attack. Upon hearing about this heart attack, Susie’s mother returns from the coast, falls back in love with the father, and reunites the family, though Buckley does show some resistance. Oh, and in addition to watching her family cope with her death, Susie watches her almost-boyfriend Ray and almost-friend Ruth, who becomes obsessed with Susie and death in general, and is able to psychically ascertain where other women have been killed. At one point after many years, Susie is able to cross a barrier and come back to earth, taking over Ruth’s body to have sex with Ray. This taste of the life and flesh she’s so desperately missed enables Susie to finally let go of her hold on life, accept that she’s dead, and move on, which is intimated to reciprocally help her family move on by the end. Susie also periodically watches Harvey, who is never caught but eventually killed by a falling icicle in the course of pursuing another victim.
One criticism leveled at the book is that the premise–a dead girl narrating the aftermath of her own death–is good, but the execution weak. Another criticism is that the premise itself is bad.
A subset of the first criticism is that the book has no real plot, that there is nothing driving the action, that the scenes that we’re getting are random. This criticism is off-base–the plot arc is the family’s and Susie’s parallel struggle to deal with and move on from the murder. Each individual character has an arc that then intersects at the end, exemplifying how the family initially deals with the tragedy in isolation but then eventually united in unexpected ways that would not have been possible without the murder, which gives us our title:
These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections – sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent – that happened after I was gone. And I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it. The events that my death wrought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future. The price of what I came to see as this miraculous body had been my life.
So the criticism that there’s no plot is baseless, but that doesn’t mean the plot doesn’t have problems. Reading the book in class, we tried to identify early on what questions were driving the plot, what the reader wanted to know that kept them turning pages. We said these questions were whether or not Harvey would be caught and if/how Susie’s family, and Susie herself, would get over the murder. The precise clock these questions set was unclear, and the more time passed, as is a general rule, the less tension there was.
Another plot problem: The chronic tension of the book would seem to be Susie’s murder; even though the first chapter is dedicated to describing it, it technically happens before the book starts, as Susie’s already been murdered in the book’s first lines:
My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.
That makes the acute tension…the family dealing with the murder. Which would be to say, the acute tension is the dealing with the chronic tension. But this shouldn’t really be how acute and chronic tension work; in this configuration, Susie’s death is functioning more as the acute tension, the inciting incident that causes the rest of the action to unfold. Which now means there’s no chronic tension. The chronic tension would presumably be the preexisting state of the family, and all we’re given on this front comes largely from Susie’s mother Abigail and her lack of fulfillment as a mother. So the acute tension of Susie’s murder brings this to a head, causing her to flee. Okay, so the bones of a plot are there.
It’s the plot points that might more problematic than the plot itself. Perhaps the most commonly cited one (from Goodreads reviewers anyway) is Susie’s getting to come back down to earth, take over Ruth’s body, and “make love” to Ray. It’s not terribly clear what prompts Susie’s ability to return at this particular moment; it happens while Harvey is passing by Susie’s burial site at the same time Ray and Ruth are, so I guess we’re supposed to think this particular convergence has caused a rip in the cosmic fabric? At any rate, what’s not random is what this event, Susie’s bodily reconnection with Ray, ultimately enables: one last taste of the flesh and she’s able to let go, and once she relinquishes her grip on the family, they relinquish their grip on her. Perhaps the cathartic moment that enabled the climactic letting-go could have been something else, but what’s there, however corny, is serving a clear purpose, narratively.
For me the most problematic plot point has to do more with an entire plot thread, or character arc, which is Lindsey’s. Lindsey gets a new boyfriend two weeks after Susie’s murder, one she’ll essentially keep forever. Here’s Susie’s reaction at the two-week mark:
He put his hand on her forearm and – Wow! – what I felt when he did that. Lindsey had a cute boy in the kitchen, vampire or no! This was news, this was a bulletin – I was suddenly privy to everything. She never would have told me any of this stuff.
Susie’s reaction is to be happy to get to see and know stuff she wouldn’t have otherwise, but it seems like this ability opens up possibilities that Sebold basically ignores. Susie’s reaction is to be happy to be able to witness, but what are her feelings about what she’s actually witnessing–about the fact that her still-living sister gets to galavant around with a cute boy two weeks after her own brutal rape and murder? A little bitterness might be nice here, for the sake of drama. Lindsey’s character arc is missing plot’s lifeblood: conflict. The situation seems like it could be rife for conflict both between Susie and Lindsey and between Susie and her boyfriend Samuel. But any emotional problems Lindsey might have suffered in the wake of what happened to her sister don’t lead her to have any problems in her relationship with Samuel, as it seems like, logically and narratively, they might. For Lindsey, it’s pretty much all smooth sailing; the problems she has, like being made uncomfortable when kids at camp play “The Perfect Murder” game, seem superficial. This might be fine if her relationship with Samuel was part of the Lovely Bones that formed in the wake of Susie’s murder–ostensibly what the plot is supposed to be showing us/focused on–but that would have to mean the relationship would not have happened if Susie hadn’t been killed. But there’s nothing that indicates Samuel is pursuing Lindsey specifically because of the murder or circumstances that the murder created.
So the execution has some problems, but is the premise itself, the very thing that makes it stand out and that likely contributed to its astronomical (book-wise) sales, bad and/or problematic? Novelist Ali Smith argues yes, identifying an intriguing reason as to the book’s widespread popularity:
Perhaps the reason The Lovely Bones has been such a hit in the US is something to do with the aftermath of public mourning after last year’s terrorism, the reassurance and satisfaction of being able to hear the voice of the gone and to piece together the future after cataclysm.
Smith goes on to compare Sebold’s book to AM Homes’ The End of Alice, released six years prior:
The End of Alice was itself a critical examination of the uses and acceptabilities of blandness – a dialogue between a bombastically voiced elderly male convict and his apparent opposite, a bland-talking straight-A college girl, both revealed by Homes to be equally horrifying paedophiles. But now clearly isn’t the time for anything so discomforting. The Lovely Bones is so keen in the end to comfort us and make safe its world that, however well-meaning, it avoids its own ramifications.
This comparison definitely invokes David Foster Wallace’s quote (from a teacher’s quote) that “good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” After 9/11, we were disturbed and needed to be comforted, but the comfort this book offers is, let’s say, a little delusional: that those we’ve lost are still with us, watching from heaven. Perhaps after 9/11 we should have dwelled longer in the disturbance, for it might well have been our being too comfortable that brought on the disturbance in the first place. The comfort The Lovely Bones offers is as hollow as any religion’s, which probably explains its gargantuan mass appeal. It has the potential to offer a good story, but it is not, by this definition, good fiction .