Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Lovely Bones

Talk of The Lovely Bones is in the air at the moment, with Peter Jackson's movie coming out now, and so I thought I'd get on the bandwagon. Nice to keep up with popular culture and be relevant.

In anticipation of the seeing the movie, I decided to read the book. Luckily, my daughter's copy had recently been returned to her, so I was able to settle in. I hate getting books out of the library because it takes me ages to read a whole book - more weeks than a library is willing to give me. My daughter said that she had struggled through it; that it was boring. This gave me pause because I'd recently given up on the popular book The Life of Pi because it was boring. I hoped that I wouldn't have to give up on this one. And I didn't. I managed to get to the end, but I did indeed find it boring in the middle.

My principal frustration was with the purpose of the story. When I did my course on writing fiction, it was drummed into me that everything in a story must serve its purpose. It is clear by the end of the book that the story is about how a family learns to let go and allow itself to live beyond a tragedy - to give itself permission to laugh again and enjoy things without reference to the dead daughter/sister Susie. As a goal for a story, I like this very much. I think it's a brave goal, in that not many stories would attempt to find an ending beyond revenge and justice. It is positive and a grasp at real healing.

It captures an aspect of what Baha'u'llah calls detachment. By this, I understand him to mean raising ourselves up out of the story of lives in the world and finding ourselves in the story of the Cause, which is in the spiritual realm and which transcends the worldly story and evaporates it by infusing its components with new meaning. The book uses the transcendent vantage point of Susie's heaven to instill new meaning into the lives of the family members. It gives them and Susie permission to move on and find joy without the weight of a tragic memory chained to their souls.

I applaud author Alice Sebold for aiming at this for her book. She goes about it by filling the story with miniature slices of life from the many characters that are somehow connected with Susie. As expected, much time is given to each family member - mother, who has an affair; father, who is desperate to find the murderer; sister, who has to live with people looking at her and seeing Susie; the brother who is too young to be told anything; and the grandmother, who is an alcoholic. Then there is Susie's true love, Ray, who she's kissed once, and other kids at school. And there are the neighbours and, of course, the murderer, and the cop heading the investigation.

The book opens with the murder, which holds together well enough. But after that, it starts to come apart as it jumps all over the place to capture snippets from the lives of each character. After a while, you lose touch with where the story is going because there is no central theme to hold it together. At gut level, you want the story to take you to the identity of the murderer and sufficient evidence for his prosecution. But it consciously steps away from this and the murderer's story becomes just one of many. The trouble is that no theme strong enough steps in to replace it. The theme of healing through transcendence is an admirable one, but it needs to be anchored in a solid story line - one associated with one character in particular. As it is, there isn't really a main character, apart from Susie. But she is in heaven, which makes her role passive.

For me, things really came unstuck when Susie enters the body of her friend, Ruth, who acts as a medium, and has sex with Ray. This was too much for me. I have no problem with souls in heaven watching us, but when they take over bodies for the sake of a highly stylised scene of redemptive sex, my credibility is stretched too far. I suppose a 14-year-old girl might see romantic sex as union with God, but for me it was 'give us a break'. However, given the slow pace of the story, you find yourself saying: at least we have some action here! But as you can see, Sebold was forced to put Susie into Ruth's body to give her an active part. I think it was a desperate move to inject some life into the story and it shows up a structural flaw. Sebold would have been better to develop the story of someone on earth - Ruth, the medium, say - and make her the main character and wind it all around her.

I have other issues with the book, but these are to do with the style of modern fiction writing. I find it's too 'once over lightly' and much prefer to read the classics because they have more depth. I was listening to a professor of literature on the radio saying that modern fiction is written to a formula dictated by publishing houses, who edit and publish what they think will sell to a common denominator. I don't know enough about it, but this explanation fits with my very limited experience of modern fiction. It reminds me of the way that the administration uses Ruhi to dumb down the revelation. There's an assumption that the common person will not be able to engage with the complexities of the Word of God, and so a very simplified version is presented instead. This assumption is born of arrogance, of course, as Baha'u'llah says in the Iqan.

But back to The Lovely Bones, after reading the book, I assumed that Peter Jackson would have to mess seriously with the story to create a plot with sufficient force to push a movie along. From the interviews I've seen, Peter did say he struggled with the story and finding elements from it that would translate well on screen. One reviewer who has seen the movie says that Peter has greatly changed the focus of the story in the book. The reviews are divided, with some reviewers loving the film and others saying it's mostly a failure. I don't care what they say; having read the book, I'm keen to see what Peter has made of it, good or bad. One reviewer said it was What dreams may come version 2. If that is the case, then I will enjoy it for I like seeing people's imaginative impressions of the next world.

I was very interested to hear Peter Jackson and Susan Sarandon, at the press conference held for the release of the movie, on the subject of the afterlife. Both of them admit to believing in it. But both also stress that they do not have any time for organised religion. The Baha'is should wake up. In my view, Peter and Susan are expressing views that are representative of the middle classes in the West. They are very open to spirituality but not organised religion. Ruhi will never bring them in. It might draw in needy people, but not those who want to stand on their own spiritual feet. The tragedy is that Baha'u'llah's revelation has everything these people are looking for, but they'll never see this in the 'revelation' the Baha'i community sells.

Here's a link to the press conference about the movie.

Commentary on Tablet of the Son

 Commentary on Tablet of the Son