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Tuesday, October 30, 2007
Mom in the freezer, redux
A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about Lee Siegel's NYTBR review of "The Almost Moon," Alice Sebold's new novel. As the blog GalleyCat pointed out, Siegel's review contained a factual error, one that might or might not make Siegel look pretty bad. Unlike other bloggers, who piled onto Siegel and the Times Book Review, I pointed out that he wasn't the only "Almost Moon" reviewer who thought that the protagonist had stuffed her mother's corpse into a meat freezer.
To his credit, New York Magazine's Sam Anderson, one of the misguided reviewers on my list, responded a few days later with a mea culpa. But Anderson also defended Siegel:
In Siegel's defense, he never actually claims that Helen puts her mom in the freezer. All he does is quote some dialogue ("What did you think putting her in the freezer would achieve?" "I don't know") and issue the following judgment: "You find yourself struggling simultaneously with the juvenile contrivance of Mom in the freezer, the icy cynicism of such a conceit and the utter unreality of the conversation." This is all indisputably true. Putting Mom in the freezer is a juvenile contrivance, whether it actually happens or is just a dark fantasy. Siegel's ambiguity only looks like a misreading when it's sandwiched between a deceptive headline and a garish illustration, both of which were probably out of Siegel's control.
Like I said in my original post, I'd like to let Siegel off the hook. So I'll buy this.
UPDATE: I shouldn't have suggested -- as I might seem to do, in this post -- that GalleyCat was one of the blogs that "piled on" Siegel. GalleyCat, in fact, deliberately refrained from making sock puppet jokes, unlike Brainiac. I was talking about the other litblogs out there...
PS. Here's a less rambling version of "Mom's body is not in the freezer" that appeared in the Ideas section on October 21.
POOR LEE SIEGEL! In August 2006, after the prolific literary critic was accused of replying pseudonymously to snarky reader comments posted to his blog at The New Republic, he was suspended from that magazine. Worse, in the blogosphere his name will forever be associated with "sock-puppeting," as doing what he did is known. Last week, Siegel became the butt of blogger ire once again, thanks to a careless error that appears in his New York Times Book Review critique of "The Almost Moon," the long-awaited new novel by Alice Sebold, author of the best-selling "The Lovely Bones."
Siegel doesn't think much of "The Almost Moon," in which Helen, a woman who, no longer able to deal with her elderly mother's dementia, murders her, then drags the corpse to the basement meat freezer. Among the many things Siegel doesn't like about Sebold's book, as he put it in his review, is "the juvenile contrivance of Mom in the freezer."
Fair enough. But there's just one problem. As several people who had already read "The Almost Moon" informed the publishing-industry blog GalleyCat: Helen considers cutting up her mother's corpse so it will fit into the freezer, but can't bring herself to do it. (A few reviews of the book -- in the Richmond Times Dispatch (Va.), for example, and the Times of London -- confirm this plot point.) Despite her crime, according to GalleyCat, the fact that Helen can't bring herself to dismember her mother demonstrates that she is not completely evil.
So is Siegel guilty not of only blogging in haste, but of reading too quickly? If he did, he's in good company. I see that reviewers for New York magazine, The New Yorker, and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications, were likewise under the impression that "The Almost Moon" features a corpse-in-the-freezer scene. Efforts to reach Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the Times Book Review, were unsuccessful.
Having a character stuff a corpse into a meat freezer may indeed be a juvenile contrivance on a novelist's part. But having a character not do so -- after getting the body to the basement -- might be, dare I say it? Quite brilliant.
CLARIFICATION: A Brainiac item in the Oct. 21 Ideas section argued that Lee Siegel made a "careless error" in a New York Times book review of Alice Sebold's "The Almost Moon." The item noted that Siegel wrote of the "juvenile contrivance of a Mom in the freezer" when the plot does not have a mother being put into a freezer. The book, however, does contain a conversation about the possibility of putting mom in a freezer. Siegel's review discussed that conversation but did not say whether or not the mother's body was put in the freezer.