Imagining death

From Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones" to Stephen King's "From a Buick 8" to Haruki Murakami's "After the Quake," post 9/11 fiction offers readers consolation, harsh truths and a glimpse of the great mystery.

By Laura Miller

Published September 9, 2002 7:36PM (EDT)

Innocent, decent people sometimes die terrible deaths, by chance and also at the hands of the wicked and the stupid, and where they go afterward, if they go anywhere at all, is an unsolvable mystery. This reality has always been part of the human condition, but in America at least the people who encounter it do so individually. One reason the Sept. 11 attack harrowed the nation so deeply is that it forced us to experience this cruelty and loss collectively. Some cultures know how to do this as if it were second nature -- Russians and Sicilians come to mind, as of course do Jews -- but they are old societies and well acquainted with grief. It's part of the wonder of America that it refuses to accept as inevitable so many of the world's ancient evils, but in this case the matter's not open to negotiation; we can make life safer, but not entirely safe and to many of our most urgent questions we will get no answers.

Art is one of the ways people come to terms with this, so it's understandable that, when seeking an articulation of our trauma, we turned to artists. Shortly after the attacks, some of the nation's most respected novelists were hit up by publications (including this one) for written responses. At first it was surprising how often those writings seemed indistinguishable from the observations of everyone else. It shouldn't have been, though. Fiction, especially great fiction, is a long time in the gestation; it will probably take years for the shock of Sept. 11 to work its way through the imagination of an author and emerge as a book that finally does justice to how it felt and what it meant. (And then it will take some publisher a year to put the thing out.)

In the meantime, though, during this uneasy intermediary period after the shock has worn off but before perspective gives us a clear view, we have some strangely appropriate offerings. These are books conceived, started and in some cases finished before Sept. 11, and yet they seem to speak directly to our loss.

One, Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones," is a first novel published in July that has gone on to sell nearly a million copies. (Warning, I'm going to discuss the plot and ending of this book and others, so grown-ups only from here on.) It describes the aftermath of the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl named Susie Salmon, as told by the victim herself, from her vantage in heaven. The parallels between the novel's premise and the disappearances of several young girls this summer is the most obviously prescient thing about it, but more than one commentator (especially in the U.K., where "The Lovely Bones" has been less warmly received than it has been in the states) has observed that the book's success feels like it has something to do with Sept. 11 as well.

The response to "The Lovely Bones" has been like a big, collective sigh of "That's just what we needed." A book can take on a peculiar life of its own once it's let loose on the world and finds its way into the hands of a wide assortment of readers. This book in particular walks a razor-thin line between schmaltz and honesty, and as Katharine Viner noted in the British newspaper the Guardian, some critics praise its "unsentimentality" while others dismiss it as "candy floss" -- that's Brit for cotton candy -- and "very, very sugary." The more popular it becomes, the more those annoying people who pride themselves on bucking every trend feel obliged to rip into it.

For me, Sebold manages to strike a balance that works, though I do think the book goes awry at the end. In the middle, there's the convincing estrangement and separation of her parents that, at the book's conclusion, seems to be on the way to a much less convincing reconciliation. Even worse, Sebold stoops to Hollywood-style corn when she allows Susie's spirit to take over the body of another girl so that she can consummate her first and only romance.

This last scene violated my idea of Sebold's contract with her readers; the rule the author had set up, I felt, was that, being dead, Susie could not in any real way touch the world of the living, and that the only growth available to her character is to let go of the traces of her life. "You have to give up on earth," she's told by her celestial "intake counselor." The same person tells her, on Page 8, "You're dead and you have to accept it." To then allow Susie to return to life, however briefly, seemed like a failure of nerve on the part of an author who was afraid her readers couldn't handle what is, after all, the very nature of death. Still, I liked the blend of delicacy and tartness in Sebold's observations about ordinary, happy suburban life and how it warps in the face of tragedy, and in the final reckoning, the mawkish ending didn't irretrievably ruin that.

Other readers, though, found a different book between the covers of "The Lovely Bones." Instead of a parable about the adamantine wall between the living and the dead and the necessity for those on both sides to acknowledge it, they found confirmation of their own attraction to various versions of today's popular, quasi-secular "angel" mania. Jan Jarboe of the San Antonio Express-News spoke for this audience when she wrote, "What I liked best about the novel was the idea that Susie may have been dead but her spirit was not gone. In fact, she hovered from the other side, struggling to help her loved ones cope with their loss." Musing on friends who have lost children and yet who feel there's still some ongoing connection, she writes, "Listening to them, I am aware of how murky and mysterious the line is between the living and the dead."

Mysterious, maybe, but definitely not permeable -- at least not as seen from across the Atlantic, where this sort of thing is seen as typical American softness and hoodoo. (A 1987 poll by American Health magazine found that 42 percent of respondants said they'd been contact by someone from beyond the grave.) Viner reports that critics there "put the book's success down to September 11 and the consolation that, even if nearly 3,000 people were vaporised at their desks, they're alive and well upstairs somewhere," making a link to the attacks that, interestingly enough, Jarboe does too. There may not be a real epidemic of child abductions, she writes, but "there is an epidemic of grief ... I've come to think that there are two separate wars on terrorism: the one across the world against foreigners who threaten our homeland, and the one taking place at home against the sickest of the sick -- those who terrorize our children."

But if pretending that death isn't really the end may rob it of its sting, it also leaches death, and by extension life and grief, of its importance. It's both cowardly and dishonest to insist, simply because we want to believe it, that human existence is mostly a string of Hallmark moments, occasionally tarnished by something nasty, but all resolving into an eternal, wholesome Norman Rockwell-esque Thanksgiving dinner in the end.

That's Susie's fantasy Heaven, yes, but even Sebold (who has told interviewers she doesn't believe in God and isn't sure there's an afterlife) makes it clear that this is a child's dream. When Anna Quindlen declared "The Lovely Bones" to be a classic of the same ilk as "To Kill a Mockingbird," she was lumping the novel with one that most people read in their early teens, a naive take on race relations meant for young minds not yet ready to face the sometimes ugly truth. And that's fine for children, but surely most of the readers of "The Lovely Bones" aren't kids, even if some of them choose to read it as if they were. If submerging ourselves in the most juvenile interpretation of this (admittedly ambiguous) novel is our way of assimilating Sept. 11, then we aren't assimilating it at all; we're wallowing in escapism without admitting to ourselves that's what we're doing.

Oddly enough, the antidote I've found to this cant comes from Stephen King, a writer generally considered to offer a grisly breed of escapism. His new novel, "From a Buick 8," to be published later this month, tells how a troop of Pennsylvania state troopers come into possession of a strange car that isn't really a car -- it's a portal to another dimension. The details of the Buick itself don't matter much for the purposes of this argument; it's really a symbol for what the troopers know, what their job shows them about life. Likewise, though Sept. 11 isn't dealt with explicitly (the novel was completed earlier this year), its relevance is obvious.

The troopers in "From a Buick 8" patrol the edges of the seemingly safe world where the families in "The Lovely Bones" (oddly enough, also set in Pennsylvania) live. Sudden, meaningless death and free-floating human malevolence are things they encounter all the time on the highways. Their unending task is to keep this stuff at bay, shut up in a shed like the unholy Buick, where the threat can only be minimized, never eliminated. Then they wipe the blood off the asphalt "because John Q. [Public] and his family didn't want to be looking at it on their way to church come Sunday morning."

The troopers tell their story to a teenager, the son of one of their own, a boy orphaned when his father gets hit by a drunk driver while on duty. The death of Curtis Wilcox is a senseless thing, but the boy wants sense to be made of it, just as his father wanted to discover the true nature of the Buick and just as, I suppose, some readers want to be shown the redemptive potential in the murder of a 14-year-old girl. The message of "From a Buick 8" -- repeated perhaps a bit too insistently -- is this: "You have to stop waiting for the punchline ... the world rarely finishes its conversations." There may be no explanations, but there's plenty of work to be done, and "when it comes to dealing with the unknown, there's a great deal to be said for police training." Training won't help when a trooper visits a former commanding officer hospitalized with Alzheimer's disease and, in a rare moment of lucidity, the old man says matter-of-factly, "I'm in hell, you know. This is hell." But when these men can do something to lessen the sum of the world's distress, the training sure does come in handy.

Even though "From a Buick 8" is a bleaker book than "The Lovely Bones," I found it more heartening; whatever bullshit there may be in the troopers' notion of stoic heroism, it's functional bullshit. Their code doesn't pretend the world is a better place than it is, but it gives them a way of envisioning their arduous lives that makes it possible for them to go on. They struggle not to wrap themselves up in a cocoon where death doesn't matter and people are never really separated from those they love. That's because in order to perform their small part in containing life's horrors, they can't afford to lie to themselves. You can be the protected child or the protecting adult, and the toughest thing about adulthood is realizing that the protection you offer can never be perfect.

Both "The Lovely Bones" and "From a Buick 8" wrestle with the more private side of grief; for a sense of how a great writer responds to collective tragedy, there's no better example on the "New Books" table right now than Haruki Murakami's "After the Quake." Murakami, a lover of Western detective novels and jazz, and a bit of a loner, had long felt like a misfit in his native Japan, but in 1995, when the country was battered by an earthquake that killed about as many people in the city of Kobe as were slain on Sept. 11 -- an event followed by the terrorist sarin-gas attacks in the Tokyo subway -- he returned to his homeland from a self-imposed exile in the U.S.

"After the Quake" is a collection of stories, a masterpiece of the form and a portrayal of the way a national tragedy affects people in ineffable ways. None of the characters in these stories is in Kobe or close to anyone lost there, yet the earthquake (the stories are set before the gas attack) rearranges the foundations of their lives nonetheless. And just as events that don't directly involve us can make us feel somehow united with strangers who share our grief and bewilderment, so are the characters in "After the Quake" only superficially separated from each other.

What does it mean that the same images and themes run like filaments through all these tales? That's impossible to say. Part of Murakami's greatness is that he understands that the central mysteries of life can never be penetrated, only intuited and marvelled at. The numinous connections sensed between these stories is a kind of miracle, as the bonds between any human beings are. The catastrophe that destroys someone else's life motivates us to reenvision or even change our own. Or, if we're lucky, it shows us that, as one of Murakami's characters puts it to another character grappling with the challenges of middle age and haunted by an old hatred, "If you devote all of your future energy to living well, you will not be able to die well ... Living and dying are, in a sense, of equal value."

And, of course, the uncanny relevances of "After the Quake" also tell us that our collective tragedy is not so different from Japan's, or the blows absorbed by any other people since history began. That's what the rest of the world has been trying to tell America for quite some time now: We aren't exempt, we don't get a special dispensation that permits us, even after death, to go back and finish what we left undone, to say a proper goodbye. Paradoxically, it is only through making an effort to die well -- that is, with an honest respect for death's finality and unknowability -- that we will ever be able to live well.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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