A year of grieving 

I"m not much for bes

I"m not much for best-sellers. Call me a snob, but that"s the way it is. I did read Jonathan Franzen"s The Corrections last year, but that was fueled by the Oprah controversy surrounding it. Imagine: an author who would refuse the great juggernaut of publicity. It must be literature. You can have your John Grishams, your Danielle Steeles, your Tuesdays with Maurie. They might be perfectly fine works, but I"ll read the little-read books, giving them some face time, maybe spread the word if I"m inspired. (Say, have your read Notable American Women by Ben Marcus? How about that long-forgotten treasure, Ambrose Bierce"s The Devil"s Dictionary?) My philosophy is akin to paying attention to the quiet guy in the back of the classroom while everyone else is fawning over the jock. Then along comes The Lovely Bones, a surprise best-seller this year, with nearly 2 million books in print - more books, in fact, than the usual best-selling authors. I began reading articles about how this first novel came out of the proverbial blue to cause a stir. About how the author, Alice Sebold, rocketed to the top of the literary scene. You"ve probably heard about this book, so I trust I won"t be revealing too much. The narrator of the story is a 14-year-old girl who is raped and killed in the first chapter and spends the rest of the book in heaven, looking down on earth as her family comes apart and joins together to process her violent loss. Doesn"t sound like my cup of literary tea. When people would tell me about this book, it sounded like sentimental schlock - possibly even a William Bennett-like book on Christian values. And then it showed up on my wife"s bedside table. I watched her read at night and grimace and groan, talking to the book. Now here"s a woman who talks to movie screens, as if she can alter the action transpiring before her. Talking to a book isn"t out of character. When she was finished she said, "Read this, Jim, just to see how she pulls it off." I did. I cracked its slim spine and began reading. Now, The Lovely Bones is not the best book I"ve ever read. I doubt that, on a quality level alone, it would enter my personal top 50 favorite books. It might not even nudge into the top 100, if I actually kept such a list. I have a host of critical issues, but that"s not the point. This book, without a doubt, is the only book - ever - that"s kept me awake at night. I was so horrified by the little girl"s loss that I stopped reading it after sundown. I was equally disturbed by my response to her killer. An anti-capital punishment person, I found myself pining for the criminal to be caught and killed - by whatever means. I was repulsed by my thirst for revenge, but it speaks to the power of the book. Is that because it"s a gruesome story of a serial killer? No, it"s because Sebold, in her mercifully restrained way, wrings every drop of grief from her subject. Susie, our dead protagonist, monitors the goings-on from a gazebo in her personal heaven, watching her father pursue her killer, watching her little sister grow up into a woman, watching her little brother figure out she"s never coming back. From her empyrean perch, Susie doesn"t miss a moment. It reminded me of the pilot for Twin Peaks, where David Lynch lingered his camera on Laura Palmer"s parents and friends as they struggled to make sense of her murder. Pop culture tends to zip through the grieving process en route to revenge or reconciliation or whatever. Everything, after all, has to fit a discrete package of fulfilled expectations. Given our culture"s propensity for immediate gratification or short-term solutions, it"s a wonder we can grieve at all. The truth is, when you lose someone you love, there"s a rip in the fabric of life that can never be repaired. The process of grieving is about moving through that rip to get to the other side. The only way out, as they say, is through. So, it"s no small surprise that a book that takes its time to explore this grieving methodology would be so popular, a book propelled in part by grass roots, pass-it-on marketing. Public grieving usually takes the form of Jerry Springer-like displays of hysteria. Or, the grieving process that accompanied Sept. 11 that included the reflexive, dead-or-alive act of quick revenge. Then, when we couldn"t accomplish finding bin Laden, that impulse arbitrarily wandered to the next logical target: Saddam Hussein. The book"s popularity suggests a variety of things to me, the most important being that American culture is well-equipped to handle vertical depth. We are capable of thinking deeply about our world. Why is The Lovely Bones striking a chord? Maybe it"s this: If you"ve had a tragedy in your life, a life torn from you, especially in a violent way, then this book is a baptismal immersion into shared sorrow. And if you haven"t experienced this, then you have the chance, today, to call loved ones just to say hello. You have the opportunity to slow down and watch your kids play soccer in the yard. Or if your kids are out late at night, when they come home you can breathe out, one long loving sigh, and know they"re OK, they"re OK, they"re OK.

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Jim Poyser

Jim Poyser

Jim Poyser is Executive Director of Earth Charter Indiana, a statewide organization that was one of over two dozen nonprofit partners in Greening the Statehouse. A former managing editor of NUVO, he won HEC’s Environmentalist of the Year Award in 2013.

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