When people began emailing me Monday night to let me know there was something screwy about Lee Siegel‘s review of The Almost Moon, the long-awaited new novel from Alice Sebold, in this weekend’s NY Times Book Review, I wasn’t entirely sure what they were talking about. Yes, it’s true, the entire second half of Siegel’s review reads like a dress rehearsal for his forthcoming book, Against the Machine, which Spiegel & Grau is publishing next spring (and which, in the interests of full disclosure, he and I chatted briefly about at an S&G luncheon last week), from the accusation that Sebold is “mining a popular and lucrative vein in contemporary fiction” by writing a story about a woman who, no longer able to cope with her elderly mother’s dementia, kills her to the broader charge that “writing callously and sunnily and profitably about tragedy is now an established American genre,” on into the dimissal of the novel as “like one very long MySpace page” that just might be rooted in “an impenetrable moral narcissism.” Fine: He clearly doesn’t like the book, and doesn’t appear to have much regard for Sebold, either. But is it really fair to call that messed up, and, more importantly, is there really any story to it, beyond it being a prominent example of how Almost Moon is dividing literary critics across the nation?
I wasn’t sure, but then I hadn’t started reading the book yet, so I had to have the situation explained to me while I got hold of a copy. One of the planks on which Siegel builds his indictment of novel and author is “the juvenile contrivance of Mom in the freezer,” which inspired the headline the Review gave the article, as well as the Henning Wagenbreth illustration you see here. Except that, and this is somewhat important, the protagonist never puts her mother in the freezer.
Oh, she thinks about it, all right, but at the end of the relevant scene (pages 58-61 in the hardcover edition), she realizes she isn’t capable of cutting up the body so it will fit in the meat locker. So when Siegel quotes from a later scene on pages 137-142, where her ex-husband arrives to help sort out the mess—
“She tells him what happened, and they have the following exchange: ‘”What did you think putting her in the freezer would achieve?” “I don’t know,” I said… “I don’t know.”‘”
—it’s a crucial misreading of what the protagonist has done, made somewhat more glaring by the fact that the ex-husband says later in that scene that “I crawled in that window and saw her in the basement.” (Italics mine.) “The error isn’t like getting a character’s hair color wrong,” says one reader who alerted me to the issue. “It’s more along the lines of saying Desdemona is a whore because she slept with Iago.” For this reader, it’s a crucial point, speaking to a sense of moral responsibility remaining in the protagonist that Siegel doesn’t see—although one might well be able to argue that the overall thrust of Siegel’s attack on the novel holds up despite this weak link in the chain. (I’d have to wait until I actually finish the novel before I could say whether that argument would be persuasive.)
Little, Brown, Sebold’s publisher, is handling the matter with public grace. “Alice doesn’t write about perfect people or perfect situations,” director of publicity Heather Fain says about Siegel’s attack on the novel’s fundamental premises, “and she’s always been upfront about that.” The main concern that Fain voiced when we spoke about the review yesterday was that the “mom’s in the freezer” spin might be “making light of the macabre nature of the subject matter,” but she doesn’t begrudge Siegel his take. Meanwhile, rumors had floated my way that the NYTBR staff had only discovered the problem after the issue had already come back from the printers and were fiercely debating what, if anything, they could do about it, given how prominently they’d elevated the freezer imagery. (Just to speculate: If history is any precedent, what they’ll probably do is give Sebold a crack at reviewing anything she likes next month.) My efforts to reach editor Sam Tanenhaus yesterday afternoon were, however, unsuccessful.