January 24, 2008

Book review: "The Almost Moon," by Alice Sebold

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The Almost Moon
By Alice Sebold
Hachette/Little, Brown and Company / ISBN: 978-0-316-67746-2

I freely admit it; that as a man, there are sometimes things that women do that utterly baffle me, and will probably continue to baffle me until the day I freaking die, just like it is with women regarding men. And that's because, avoiding any kind of qualitative judgment, I think we can all agree that there are fundamentally different ways that men and women sometimes react in different situations, based on a variety of criteria and societal concerns, and that in some cases such actions and behaviors can seem incomprehensible to the other gender. You don't hear of too many men, for example, who just lose their marbles one day, drive their kids to a nearby lake and calmly drown them; not too many male jilted lovers go on insane cross-country drives in the middle of the night, with bizarre weapons in tow and while wearing adult diapers so that they don't have to make bathroom breaks, all in the name of some crazed crackpot scheme thought up in the middle of the night regarding stabbing their lover's new lover then turning the knife on themselves.

The Almost Moon, by Alice Sebold

It is one of these very topics, in fact, that fuels the entire storyline of acclaimed author Alice Sebold's latest brilliantly twisted dark little novel, The Almost Moon; in fact, that's what the very first chapter of the book is devoted to, is a real-time blow-by-blow accounting of a middle-aged woman suddenly going insane one day and murdering her senile, sh-t-covered old-age mother, just randomly one afternoon while over at her house and preparing to clean her like a baby for the thousandth time in a row now. What the rest of this delightfully wicked story is about, then, is a fascinating and detailed look at the decades leading up to this moment, told in a non-narrative "hyperfiction" style that jumps from early-childhood to just yesterday at the blink of an eye, painting one of the deepest portraits you'll see in contemporary literature of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship, and of all the teeny, tiny, strange, entertaining, depressing, hopeless, fascinating ways the relationship affects the way the woman deals with each and every other person in her life too. It is utterly a female story, the kind that can only be told by a female author, but told in a way so that I as a male reader can get it too; I love such novels, as I've mentioned here before, and am always glad to come upon another one like I have this week.

So why does Sebold's name sound so familiar, you're thinking? Well, because she's the mousy dark novelist who seemingly appeared out of nowhere in the early 2000s to write The Lovely Bones, an emotionally devastating crime thriller and meditation on loss that happened to have been written from the standpoint of a murdered teenage girl as she watches the proceedings from heaven. I read it too when it first came out, and like many others it made me openly weep in public; it became not only a runaway bestseller, but is also slated to be the next movie by Lord of the Rings impresario Peter Jackson. Oh yeah, that Alice Sebold!

This is only her second novel, after taking a break between them to pen the true rape memoir Lucky; and it is the best kind of second novel to write, to tell you the truth, one that captures every ephemeral thing that's great about that author while changing all the logistical details of the actual story. Do you know what I mean? Ultimately it's a tricky thing that an audience wants from a surprisingly successful first-time author, when it comes time for their second novel; they don't want a repeat of what they saw before, but they want a repeat of everything that made it so page-turning, and they desperately want that author to be smart enough to understand the difference themselves and deliver it, without them having to spell it out for the author. And if the author in question gets all of this even slightly wrong, the usual reaction is to be disappointed; there's a reason, after all, that they call it the "sophomore slump."

For example, like The Lovely Bones, Sebold in The Almost Moon has an almost magical way of finding the inner intimacy of a moment, the absolutely most still part of an event where there is nothing but that person and their conscience, a place where she holds us and lets us watch what goes on in such a moment; but unlike Bones, here Sebold puts us in a much more normal situation, one that a growing amount of creative projects these days concern themselves with, which is the dilemma of a middle-aged child caring for a dementia-addled parent who was otherwise a raging monster to everyone for the eight previous decades they were sane. It's nice to see Sebold take on a much more believable and ho-hum subject like this, because it would've been so tempting I think to try to duplicate the "edging to the line of gimmicky" hook she uses in the so-admired Bones; having a cutesy gimmick at the core of your story, though, like a dead girl narrating the story of her own murder investigation, is affecting the very first time you see it, diminishingly so each subsequent time, something I wish to f--king God someone would tell M Night Shyamalan.

But this is what I mean by this being such a great second novel; that although Sebold has picked a much more normal subject to base a story around this time and a much more normal way to tell it, she's infused it with the same sparkling dark touch that made Bones such a tear-jerker; it's the story of a woman dealing with this horrid curse-shrieking monster day in and day out, over and over and over, week after week and year after year, for a decade in a row for no help before one random day she just simply snaps. What are we to think of such a woman? And now that you have the answer to that, how are we to think of her if she starts doing crazier and crazier stuff that makes her less and less sympathetic? Like, snip off one of her dead mother's hair trusses and put it in her purse? Or try stuffing her dead mother's body in the basement freezer because she suddenly starts irrationally worrying about the idea of the cadaver rotting before the police arrive? In this, then, The Almost Moon is not really the story of the act itself, a tragic accident that could easily be forgotten in a lot of situations after a legal slap on the wrist; it's instead the story of a woman who goes profoundly more nuts after the crime of passion itself, who ends up making it abundantly clear that this was a deliberate act and that she will need to face some type of punishment in order for justice to be served.

Like I said, the way Sebold tries to explain this, then, is by spending the next 24 hours of the woman's life looking back at the last 50 or so years of her past, of her relationship to her mother over all that time and of the various ways the woman was a complete and out-of-control monster. Because make no mistake, the dead senile mother in question here (Clair Knightly is her name) is the kind of role that Bette Davis would play if Bette Davis were still alive; a cackling kind of old-woman bitterness and anger, a cruelty that makes complete strangers frown and shake their heads when exposed to just a few seconds of her at a public supermarket or the like. Clair is the kind of woman who, when finding out her husband suffers from depression, not only refuses to help the situation but constantly utters things to hasten a suicide attempt, just so she can prove that she's the emotionally stronger of the two; the kind of woman who spends her late dementia screaming random curse words in public and defecating herself in awkward situations, leading you to swear to God that she's doing it all on purpose.

Clair's daughter Helen deals with all this in a variety of ways over the decades, from defiance to acceptance to avoidance and all the rest; and like I said, a big part of this book is also devoted to showing the ways this relationship has affected Helen herself as an adult, not only her own failed marriage but her piddling "career" as a nude model for the local community college, her own two daughters whose relationships are strained at best, her life in the same drab low-class Pennsylvania town where she was raised, living in fact just a few miles away from where she grew up. This is one of the most wonderful things about Sebold as a writer, in fact, or at least in my opinion; she is a master of the deep character study, presenting us in this case with a 290-page portrait of a 50-year-old suburban mess, showing us step by step and page by page how this one overwhelming crisis (the murder of her mother in an unthinking moment of extreme stress) could just snap such a woman's brain like a light switch and send her officially right off the deep end.

It's an utterly fascinating read, just utterly fascinating, much too delicate at points to be a big hit with everyone, but certainly something destined to be a favorite among those who like delicate writers. Given what a big fan I was of The Lovely Bones, I'm relieved and happy to report how great her second novel is, something not only destined to make her a lot of new fans but sure not to disappoint existing fans at all. It gets a big recommendation from me here, especially when adding the final detail of it being a book by a woman and about distinctly female issues, something I admit I don't get to feature enough here, so am always glad when I again get the chance.

Out of 10:
Story: 8.3
Characters: 10
Style: 9.5
Overall: 9.4

Read even more about The Almost Moon: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:25 PM, January 24, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |