Oh, Mom, Poor Mom, The Critics Left You in the Freezer and I’m Feeling So Numb

By Neal Comment

In response to Thursday’s item about the fumbling of a significant plot point in Lee Siegel‘s review of The Almost Moon, Boston Globe blogger Joshua Glenn points out that Siegel’s not the only one confused by the scene. And, heck, at least he didn’t get it as wrong as Susan Salter Reynolds did in the LA Times Book Review:

“What to do with the body?” Reynolds writes. “First, Helen chops off the long braid… Then she throws the body down the basement stairs and puts it in the meat freezer.”

Wrong: Helen doesn’t shear the braid with a scissors until after she has carefully carried her mother’s body down the staircase, at which point she contemplates the freezer, even gets as far as opening it, but doesn’t follow through with the impulse. But three other reviewers in New York City alone reached the same erroneous conclusion about the body, so we have to ask: Is the scene as Sebold wrote it so ambiguous as to generate all this confusion on the part of the readers one expects to give the text their most careful attention? I don’t think it is. The opening line of the fifth chapter, you should pardon the expression, lays bare the corpse’s fate (“While my mother lay on the floor…”); Helen leaves the basement two pages later without touching it again, and there repeated references later in the novel to how the body is found by several different parties in the basement, not the meat locker. And there is no possibility that the body gets put in the freezer “off-camera.” I suppose there are artful ways that Sebold could have been more explicit about Helen’s actions in the basement, but critics can’t really say that what she put down on paper misled them unless they want to admit they weren’t paying attention.

Enough about the layout of the crime scene, though. The more important question is: Is Siegel’s review as wildly off-base as everybody who described it to me last week made it out to be? Well, after reading the novel over the weekend, I don’t agree with him, for what that’s worth…

Ultimately, I think one of the more useful touchstones to use when considering Siegel’s review is Leon Wieseltier‘s assault on Nicholson Baker. That review of Checkpoint appeared in the NYTBR three years ago, shortly after Sam Tanenhaus took over the section, and the two pieces share a tendency to trample their ostensible subjects with the reviewer’s own ideological hobby horses. It should be noted, though, that, freezer aside, Siegel does a much better job of connecting his already-held opinions to specific elements of Sebold’s novel than Wieseltier did. I may think his interpretation is distinctly flawed—there’s plenty of evidence, for example, that Helen is not, as Siegel sneers, “cool with murdering her mother”—but at least he’s consistently attempting to extract his argument from something in the Almost Moon text. Still, I can only give him so much benefit of the doubt: “Peg your book to some heartrending tragedy or act of violence,” he sniffs, “and you’re almost sure to be greeted with moral seriousness, soft reviews and brisk sales.” What, you mean like An American Tragedy? Heck, I’m not saying Sebold is as good as Dreiser—let history be the judge of that—but it’s not as if writing about coping with the consequences of a single, impulsive act of violence is a bold literary transgression at this point, and just because Helen doesn’t behave like the narrator of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” after committing murder doesn’t make her an amoral sociopath.

If there’s a problem, I’m wondering if it’s with the Review rather than the review, in that the section’s editors, at least at the very top, may be encouraging its contributors to make outrageously provocative assertions like calling The Almost Moon “so morally, emotionally and intellectually incoherent that it’s bound to become a best seller” or Checkpoint a “scummy little book” for the sake of the buzz they generate rather than for the sake of advancing a genuine literary sensibility. (See also, in this context, that list of ‘great’ American fiction.) But I’ll be honest: These are the only two prominent cases that sprang to my mind…well, okay, maybe the review where Curtis Sittenfeld said calling Melissa Banks a chick lit writer was “not unlike calling another woman a slut,” then went ahead and did it anyway… and maybe the time Joe Queenan dismissed A.J. Jacobs as “a bag person’s Dave Barry.” And to me those two examples don’t feel nearly as brutal as the Wieseltier and Siegel pieces, but if I were Banks or Jacobs I suppose I might feel differently. I’m sure you can come up with your own examples, though.

And then you have to ask yourself, well, fine, maybe the NYTBR is just trying to get itself noticed, and what’s so bad about that? Which is way too philosophical a question about the business for me to face first thing Monday morning.