…but not before New York book reviewer Sam Anderson, one of several critics who came away from Alice Sebold’s The Almost Moon with the distinct impression that the protagonist had put her dead mother’s body in the freezer, explains how they all made the same mistake. (This, by the way, would seem to answer the question several people asked me yesterday, about whether it might just be possible that the body was in the freezer in the ARC, then rewritten onto the floor at the last minute, with a resounding no—and just to make sure, I asked Little, Brown, and was assured there had been no changes on that front.)
The only point that I’d argue with him over is whether or not Lee Siegel was being ambiguous or misreading the novel: If you accept the premise of Siegel’s review that “Mom in the freezer” is a “juvenile contrivance,” then, yes, as Anderson points out, “[it’s] a juvenile contrivance whether it actually happens or is just a dark fantasy.” I’d merely suggest that the way in which Siegel frames that specific criticism—”You find yourself struggling simultaneously with the juvenile contrivance of Mom in the freezer, the icy cynicism of such a conceit and the utter unreality of the conversation”—indicates that the “contrivance”/”conceit” of what he later calls “the freezer moment” was read as something that actually occurs in the story, just as the conversation about it does. As Siegel sets up the offending dialogue (“She tells him what happened”), the implication seems clear when he segues to Jake’s questioning Helen about what she thought putting the body in the freezer would achieve that she’s just told him the body’s in the freezer.
All the quibbling over the placement of the corpse masks the larger issue, though. As Anderson asks,
“Does the mistake matter (beyond, of course, making certain reviewers look silly)? Is freezer vs. floor an inconsequential question of logistics, the equivalent of asking what color of towels Helen uses to smother her mom? Or is it freighted with all kinds of thematic and moral consequences?”
I think the realistic answer is that it depends on how much significance the reviewer gave the body in the freezer at the time. Anderson mentions the event he imagined in passing and invokes it again for a closing gag, but Siegel uses it to construct an entire argument about the characters, about the novel, and about Sebold’s alleged “impenetrable moral narcissism.” Is that argument, as I asked last week, undermined by a weak link in the chain? That’s for anybody who’s read both the novel and the review to decide for themselves.