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Thursday, October 18, 2007
The Sock Puppet Did It!
Poor Lee Siegel. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the critic who took down Dave Eggers so resoundingly, this past spring, in his review of Eggers's "What Is the What." Immortal excerpt:
The essence of Eggers's fictionalized memoir lies in the words spread across the book's cover: "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius." The extravagantly self-mocking title asks to be indulged as an innocent egotism born of great pain. At the same time, having derided its artistic ambition into a nullity, the title also asks that this modest, self-mocking decency be celebrated as a kind of art. Children possess the same effective instinct for deprecating what they truly (tearfully) want. The book's dynamic is almost dialectical: Eggers asserts his sadness, deflects it with trivializing ironic digressions, and then makes this defensive ironizing of pain into an irreproachable new aesthetic. And the whole thing is topped off by the coup-de-theatre of generously acknowledging the manipulativeness of it all. In other words, you have to be in on the joke to get the pain, but you have to share the pain to be in on the joke. Then you can join the exclusive egalitarian club known as McSweeney's.
So true! But I can't say that I've enjoyed much else that Siegel has written -- and the guy publishes frequently. Too frequently. Reading and writing at such a blinding speed actually got Siegel into trouble last August, when his New Republic blog was shut down -- and he was suspended from the magazine -- after he was accused of sock-puppeting, or replying pseudonymously to snarky comments made about his own blog posts.
Now, Siegel's speed-reading and -writing habits may have embarrassed him, not to mention yet another august periodical, once again. Earlier today, the book-publishing-industry blog GalleyCat pointed out that Siegel's review of "The Almost Moon," Alice Sebold's new novel, in this weekend's NY Times Book Review, contains an error so glaring that one might suspect that the reviewer only skimmed the book.
Siegel doesn't think much of "The Almost Moon," in which a woman who, no longer able to cope with her elderly mother's dementia, kills her, then drags the corpse to the basement meat freezer. Why doesn't like the book? One reason, Siegel writes, is "the juvenile contrivance of Mom in the freezer." The NYTBR illustrated Siegel's point:
There's just one problem. Although Helen considers cutting up her mother's corpse so it will fit into the freezer, she can't bring herself to do it. Realizing that she cannot chop up her mother's body, she instead chops off her mother's long braided hair, and puts it -- the hair, not the corpse -- into a freezer bag. (NB: I have not read the book. I'm trusting GalleyCat and several reviews I've seen.)
"The error isn't like getting a character's hair color wrong," says a GalleyCat reader. "It's more along the lines of saying Desdemona is a whore because she slept with Iago." Despite her heinous crime, according to this line of reasoning, the fact that Helen can't bring herself to dismember her mother demonstrates that she is not completely evil or insane. In other words, if Siegel's version of the plot were true, it wouldn't be possible to sympathize with the protagonist; but it is possible. So Siegel screwed up royally!
I say, cut the guy some slack. After all, several other critics made the exact same error.
In the current issue of New York Magazine, Sam Anderson reviews "The Almost Moon," and writes: "The rest of the novel slogs through the aftermath: Helen puts her mom's corpse in the freezer, fantasizes about dismembering it (Sebold, it is clear, has spent a creepy amount of time thinking about the disposal of dead bodies)...."
A review of "The Almost Moon" in the current issue of The New Yorker agrees: "In the course of twenty-four feverish hours, after suffocating her mother and depositing the body in an old meat freezer in the basement, she recaps the hellish landscape of domestic turmoil and mental illness that is her family history."
In the October 14 issue of The New York Daily News, we read: "[Sebold] certainly front-loads the new novel with nasty, provocative incidents. Helen, who has long tended to her aged mother -- now in the throes of dementia -- first attempts to wash her clean of feces after an accident. When that proves impossible, she smothers her with towels and puts the corpse in the freezer."
Susan Salter Reynolds's October 14 review of "The Almost Moon" in The Los Angeles Times: "What to do with the body? First, Helen chops off the long braid -- she loves her mother's hair.... Then she throws the body down the basement stairs and puts it in the meat freezer. "
I wouldn't argue that Sebold is a great writer -- I tried to start "Lovely Bones" but couldn't get past the first chapter. However, this time around she appears to have written a scene so unique that it's caused professional critics to blow a fuse and willfully misread it. Having a character stuff a corpse into a meat freezer may indeed be a "juvenile contrivance." But having a character not do so -- after getting the body down to the basement -- might be, dare I say it? A truly brilliant contrivance.
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.