Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Floating Around on Her High Cloud

I didn't like The Lovely Bones. I didn't read it in high school when all the girls I knew couldn't stop raving about it. I didn't read it after the movie came out, and I didn't see the movie. But Peter Jackson directed the movie, and I thought maybe I wasn't giving the book enough credit. So, when this came up as a required reading, I went into the story with an open mind, and when I finished it, I watched the movie with only a slightly less open mind. After the reading and viewing, I still didn't the story.

Two things really disrupted my reading of this book. The first was the POV, which is easier to explain than the other. After giving some thought to the POV and discussing the issue with friends on Facebook, I concluded there are two problems with head hopping or reasons why writers are steered away from it: logic and clarity.

Logic is the reason in the story the narration jumps from character to character. It tends to be the reason writers use when arguing against head hopping, but it’s actually less important than clarity. Let’s face it, if a story flowed smoothly and was understandable, readers would have little problem with head hopping. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves serves as an example of this. Many readers would argue the story makes sense without a logical explanation of spinning around the heads of the characters. Writer’s can get away with head hopping as long as clarity is not an issue.

The real problem with head hopping is readers do not stay grounded. They don’t grow attached with a single character and are constantly floating around trying to understand how they’re supposed to be relating to the story. Logic comes second to clarity, and although The Lovely Bones explains the head hoping through the presence of a ghost, it lacks the clarity of a cohesive story. Basically, the reason the narrator's POV is a ghost feels like a gimmick to add logic to the head hopping, and the explanation does nothing for readers as they try to keep track of who is thinking and doing what at what point in time.

My second issue with the book was a bit more tricky to pinpoint. Bear with me as I try--the voice of this book comes off as an arrogant teen. On top of that, the voice takes on a too-wise intelligence, which causes the narrator to sound worse and more irritating than the epitomical conceited teen from Dawson's Creek or some other unrealistic teen melodrama.

Susie was not a vampire, but I associated her with to two vampires in popular fiction: Claudia from Interview with the Vampire and Eli from Let the Right One In. The difference between these two girls is wisdom. Claudia gains wisdom and matures due to it--she becomes an adult stuck in a child’s body. Eli does not gain wisdom and does not mature into an adult. Both characters are interesting and demonstrate the paths immortals can take. Susie’s voice attempts a third unbelievable route. She dies and almost immediately gains a superior intellect. She still partakes in childish games, like chasing dogs, but when she looks down on humanity, her balanced emotions are too mature. For instance, watching one’s mom have an affair and leave his or her family or watching one’s sister make love would incite a great deal of emotion in most people. A character such as Susie, preciously naive, should not become whimsical yet so astute, kind of like the Dalai Lama, just through death. She did not work as a character and fell apart as a narrator.

I also want to touch on the climax. Susie came back to earth just long enough to make love. This supposedly balanced her death by giving her the kind side of the physical act of love. The movie changed this scene to a kiss, and I'm glad they did. Beneath the teen romance, the book sent a terrible message regarding the types of sexual assault. Susie possessed a girl and made love using her body. The owner of the body did not consent to this act. A person intoxicated with alcohol or other drugs is not in a frame of mind to consent, and likewise, Ruth was not conscious to consent to this act with her body, so the book’s attempt to idolize this act was inappropriate. Regardless of how the book handles the topic, this form of rape is still rape. Again, the movie version used a kiss, which still worked and was much more acceptable.

The Lovely Bones was not clever, the POV did not work, and a terrible message was buried under the text. The only kudos I can give the book relates to the reactions of the family. Their reactions came off as realistic because unpredictability rings true in tragic situations. If the narrator had been a living family member, I wonder if I would have enjoyed this novel more.


  1. Not only did you hit the nail on the head, Ryan, but you drove it home with one slam. There simply has not been enough life lived to gain wisdom at the teenaged years. Puberty is not the arrival of hormones and Eternal Wisdom despite the yammering of teens everywhere. It’s simply the arrival of hormones…and zits. Smart kids, sure, but unsophisticated. Wasn’t it possible to write an equally spiritual book using an adult protagonist, one who has the tools and capacity to come to grips with the horrifying death of a family member? Matheson’s Stir of Echoes did just that. Why the crutch of (yet another) angst ridden teenaged girl????
    “Lots of money to be made with that.”
    As can be made via scientific experimentation upon animals.
    Just saying.
    Most annoyingly, the audience isn’t witness to the evolution of Susan Salmon from twittering teen to fountain of wisdom. All we get is: traipsing along the empty field; raped and murdered; a reboot complete with an upgrade to Very Wise. (Just ignore the giggles.)
    I also agree with your finding that the head-hopping lacks clarity and meaning. However, it could be argued that, since the teenaged audience often flitters to and fro at any given time, the anchorless head-hopping was a tool to keep the butterfly light mentally of the addressed readership attached to the story. (“The issues presented are—oh, look! Squirrel.”) That a great number of adults happily graze in the pastures of YA fiction is a truth that gives me a headache. I grieve for the apparent absence of substantive literary thought. Not an extinct function, but a vanishing one. (“Ooh, shiny…”)

    “… the book’s attempt to idolize this act was inappropriate. Regardless of how the book handles the topic, this form of rape is still rape.”

    Yes!! And I thought that was just me. Coming from a childhood full of similar ghastly acts, and almost a victim of the Hillside Strangler himself, I tend to react badly to similar things while others appear oblivious to these abuses. So, THANK YOU RYAN for calling this out. Uggh and double uggh! This type of nonsense doesn’t need to be portrayed as okay to teens of either gender. (The recent HS football players are an excellent example.) Consent is required, people! Don’t assume it. Get it.
    And no, it’s not okay to take/use/borrow another body for a sexual experience.
    Shame on Sebold for portraying rape in a positive light.
    Shame on Back Bay Books for publishing it, an act that indicates tacit agreement.

    With horrible messages like this permeating our culture, it is no wonder more and more daughters are becoming pregnant at such young ages. But that’s another digression.

  2. How odd that your post reflects so much of the mentality from my own for this book. Usually, from the books we've read so far, your perspective and mine are polar opposites. Lol.

    :) I see though that time has dulled your vehemence on this book since you last brought it up. I only wish I had a comfortable pocket of time to do the same before I had to post. Oh well.

    Honestly, I'm surprised that no one else that I've seen so far has commented on the obvious(at least to me) implication of rape in this story. Susie is raped, and then essentially becomes the rapist, wrongfully using the one girl who's been idolizing her since she died. ...I just don't know how that can make her anything other than a terrible person.

    This story just really did not work for me.

    1. I'm not sure my vehemence has dulled any, but I did invest a tedious amount of time articulating myself so I didn't sound like a belligerent buffoon just out to bash this book. No one would take me seriously then.... Well, I'm not sure they take me seriously now--with good reason--but that would have to be worse.

  3. Oh my, the POV issues were crazy horrible in this book. I get it. I get what the author was going for, it just didn't work for me. It left me uncaring for most of the characters because I never really got a feel for any of them. Great post!

  4. You put it so clearly ;) Yes, I had to reread parts because head hopping was getting in the way. I think it's a poorly executed technique to show how Susie could watch everyone. But it got old quick. And yet, it's something I do all to often in scenes involving multiple people.

  5. Man, Dawson's Creek does not get the love it deserves. That was a brilliant show that satirized the teen drama as a genre.

    But I do have to agree that Susie is an unrealistic narrator. The head hopping was bad for me, I had no trouble following it, but the personality was too two sided that she felt different people were talking at various points.

    I'm also glad you brought up the possession part, because not only was it a terrible writing decision, it also felt pushed in because Susie never acted in the entire book. Like Sebold realized all she did was have a disembodied voice and forgot to make an actual ghost for her story.

  6. I'm glad you brought up the vague sense of arrogance in it all, because the underlying smugness was something I regretted not approaching into my own response. Like you, I had trouble identifying where exactly that feeling was coming from, and as I think it over it seems like it has as much to do with detached, transcendent voice (which you covered) as it does with the detached, transcendent plot. Sebold seems more interested in painting her characters as unique and grounding the events in overbearingly somber realism than she does in ever actually taking the story anywhere. After pages and pages of unique-ifying her characters by telling us how they're feeling for pages at a time, it's hard not to eventually reach a point of, "Oh, fuck you. Get off it and tell me a goddamn story."