Friday, August 23, 2013

Lucky Review



This is the first line in Lucky, Alice Sebold's memoir of her rape and its aftermath. It's the kind of first line that hooks you as you stand in the aisle of Barnes & Noble, or as you browse the "Look Inside" feature on Amazon. It's the kind of line that demands you read further. In five words, swollen with portentousness, it makes a lot of promises. An author needs to have a certain amount of guts to start a book like that. Alice Sebold has them and more. All the words that follow are testament to this; every page is an act of courage. 

The first thing that jumps out at you, even before that opening line, is the title: Lucky. Is that supposed to be ironic? Blackly humorous? Or, somehow, the truth? Sebold answers that question immediately, with a brief, lyrical prologue:

In the tunnel where I was raped, a tunnel that was once an underground entry to an amphitheater, a place where actors burst forth from underneath the seats of a crowd, a girl had been murdered and dismembered. I was told this by the police. In comparison, they said, I was lucky...But at the time, I felt I had more in common with the dead girl than I did with the large, beefy police officers or my stunned freshman-year girlfriends. The dead girl and I had been in the same low place...During the rape my eye caught something among the leaves and glass. A pink hair tie. When I heard about the dead girl, I could imagine her pleading as I had, and wondered when her hair had been pulled loose from her hair tie...I will always think of her when I think of the pink hair tie. I will think of a girl in the last moments of her life.

Since Lucky was published back in 1999, Alice Sebold has gone on to great fame and fortune as the author of The Lovely Bones. That 2002 novel was on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year. As with any pop cultural phenomenon, however, there was an inevitable backlash. These days, it's hard to find people who can say a kind word about it. Eight years and a subpar film later, it has become easy to pretend that we were never moved. But in that passage above, you see all of Sebold's gifts on display. She's not a complicated stylist; rather, she hits her emotional beats by dint of perception. She captures the small details that can raise the hair on the back of your neck. And in every sentence you see the catharsis. 

I am not a huge fan of memoirs. I think everyone has a story, and everyone is entitled to tell it, but I'm just not going to read it. Unless you're a president, or a war hero, or the guy who invented Diet Pepsi, you probably don't need to publish a memoir. I don't like reading books about people with whacky families or who were heroic recreational drug users. That's not unique, and it's seldom enlightening. Rather, it smacks of calculation. A way to get Harper Collins to give your rough draft a look-see. Hey, I'm a talented writer who needs a break. What should I do? Maybe I'll snort a line of heroin off that prostitute's buttocks and write about that... 

Those thoughts - admittedly cynical - never slipped into my mind while reading Lucky. It didn't feel commercialized; it wasn't manipulative. It was therapy. There's no other way to describe it. Sebold writes nakedly about an intensely private violation in cringing detail. You can almost see her dissociating in front of you, allowing her to write with a kind of reportorial detachment. 

The opening pages are unforgettable, as Sebold graphically and unflinchingly describes her sexual assault. At times her writing is clinical, at times, oddly poetic. She alternates smoothly between short, simple, punchy sentences, and flighty, novelistic turns-of-phrase. For instance, during the rape, she wrenchingly describes being forced to give oral sex. Here, the prose is dry, workmanlike, almost like the transcript of a court proceeding: just the facts, as they happened. And maybe that's the only way it could have been written, because the detail is so precise, you want to look away. To have veered away from objectivity might have been unbearable. (Even so, it often felt like an invasion of privacy to be reading this, almost like you've opened a super secret diary). Then, smoothly, Sebold will shift styles, such as the way she describes how she talked to her rapist: "I forgive you," I said. I said what I had to. I would die by pieces to save myself from real death. 

The beginning of Lucky is like a punch in the gut. Its honesty and power leaves you drained. You will read it in one gulp of air, unable to stop to breathe. Of course, that tension cannot be maintained. Nor should it. The rest of Sebold's story is about coming to grips with that moment, and the way she tells this story expresses, in its way, what it felt like for her to put life back together. There is a certain feeling of anticlimax in the writing that mimics Sebold's post-traumatic stress. She struggles with shame, alienation, and the eventual trial of her rapist. And out of nowhere, there's even a cameo by Tobias Wolff (!). 

If you come by this book, it's probably for one of two reasons: first, you liked The Lovely Bones; second, you have a personal need for Sebold's insights. 

Adult rape is a hard crime to classify. It's easy to get tangled up in legal arguments about consent, or to reduce its seriousness by hinting that the victim somehow had it coming. Even with DNA, it's a crime that is often impossible to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt. Yet in a very real way, rape is as serious as murder. It spares the finite of a person's body, while destroying the infinite of the soul.