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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Critical Thinking

The Babysitter’s dad likes to pretend he’s not handy. I’m not sure why. He is handy, and he’s perfectly willing to help with a home-remodel or landscaping, but he doesn’t like to be in charge of the operation. To date, I’ve helped his oldest daughter build a cardboard boat, helped his wife assemble her new flatscreen TV stand, and realigned the drawers of The Babysitter’s new desk when he and another friend put it together and found the drawers didn’t push in all the way.

It was when I was assembling The Babysitter’s new platform bed that I saw her library. On the shelf was a book I’d heard a lot about but had never read: Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. I asked if I could borrow it. She said yes, but it wasn’t very good. So I took it, and it sat on my fireplace mantel for a month.

A week ago, I finally started reading it. Half way through, I told Maj Tom I wasn’t too impressed. Now that I’ve finished, I can say that as far as I’m concerned, it deserves the hype.

You probably already know the storyline: in 1973, fourteen year old Susie is raped and murdered on her way home from school. Over the ensuing decade, she watches from heaven as her family and friends come to terms with her violent removal from their lives. It’s not a thriller, bent on revenge and excessive tension. It’s just about people taking the long, slow journey of adapting to a new world that isn’t quite as good as the one they left behind.

Obviously, the story has the potential to be a big, sticky pile of emotional angst. Fortunately, the writing keeps it from being so. Alice Sebold utilizes two very clever literary tricks to keep the story moving without letting the reader, or the characters, drown in misery.

The first I noticed was pacing. Intense, emotional scenes are cleverly and frequently interrupted with little back-stories or switches to another storyline. You don’t get claustrophobic in any given scene. A moment of horror is segued into a story about a hat with bells knitted into it or an explanation of a character’s relationship with a broken teacup. The little distractions not only relieve tension, they also give context to the actions and feelings of the characters.

All these little cut-aways would be distracting and disorienting if not for the second trick: Susie narrates the entire story from “her heaven.” This keeps the voice very even despite the ever-changing parade of focal characters.

It also allows us the benefit of an omniscient narrator. Susie knows the thoughts of the people she watches over. She knows what memories influence their actions, and their real feelings toward what’s going on around them. In order to gain this much insight in a normal novel, you’d have to deal with about twelve different POVs in very rapid succession.

Susie, safe in her heaven where she shares a duplex with a saxophone-playing Asian girl and gets to play with a pack of dogs every night, also manages to relate those reactions without judgment and without the complete emotional weight that the characters feel. I think this is the most important trick in the writing. We get to see her mother’s anchorlessness and her father’s all-encompassing grief, again, without drowning in it. That makes it easier to track their progression through the years, feel the subtle texture instead of being hit over the head with a few overly-intense scenes.

I was trying to figure out how this could relate to a sci fi novel, when the answer became obvious: have your narrator be your ship’s computer. (And now I’m getting a picture of the new novel of the millennium: My Life with the Smegheads by Holly.) You can make it as sentient as you like to get the desired emotional depth in your narration, but its position as a computer would substitute nicely for Susie’s safe, untouchable situation in heaven.

And your story need not be an over-arching tale of emotional healing and family dynamics. It could be the political evolution of a colony or the mental breakdown of the crew of a generation ship. Anything with several different characters, an intense situation that you want to keep from sinking into quicksand, and a broad storyline that encompasses a long time period.

Currently on the nightstand: Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars. Or: Astronauts: Cool Adventurers or Psychologically-Traumatized Handymen?

Kersley Fitzgerald doesn't care. She'd go to Mars, anyway.
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