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Her dark pages

Susan Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

THERE are two ways to read Alice Sebold’s new novel, “The Almost Moon.” On the one hand, it is a toxic soup of contagious mental illness, cruelty, deception and regret: Sad middle-aged woman murders the mother she has always hated. On the other hand, it’s a comedy of errors: Sad middle-aged woman murders the mother she has always hated. I tried, like a polar bear clinging to an ice floe, to read it from the latter perspective, but no go. Blame a depressive turn of mind (after all, this reading business is not one-sided; there is no dark theater, no willing suspension of disbelief), but “The Almost Moon” caused sweaty palms and, in places, made me want to look at anything but the page.

It is indisputably a good thing when writing is so vivid it causes physical reactions. But does a writer, or any artist for that matter, have the obligation to uplift us and make us feel better about our humanity? “I mean, if you have that mind, why not make something beautiful?” Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary on July 13, 1931. Woolf spent a lot of time on the dark side. Many of her characters are disturbed, trapped, such as Septimus Smith in “Mrs. Dalloway,” who commits suicide. But she felt the need to create something beautiful -- not just lyrical but containing some seed of hope for the human race.

And yet, “they can’t all be pretty ones, girls,” as guitarist Pat Metheny told an audience before playing his cacophonous piece “Off Ramp” in 1981. Metheny might as well have been talking about Sebold, who does not write “pretty ones.” Her first book, “Lucky,” was a memoir of being sexually assaulted at 18, while her breakthrough novel, “The Lovely Bones,” is narrated from heaven by a 14-year-old girl who has been raped and killed.

“The Almost Moon” is not a pretty one, either. Rather, it’s a book about extremes. Helen Knightly hates her agoraphobic, manipulative, beautiful mother with a constant dutiful-daughter hatred that comes full circle, after passing through self-loathing, to love. It’s a sick love, yes, a crazy love, but love is complicated. One day -- she is 49 and her mother is 88 -- Helen finds herself cleaning up after yet another of her mother’s nasty bowel movements, listening to the wicked, splenetic spew that comes from her mother’s reptilian mouth, and she simply suffocates the older woman with a towel.

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What to do with the body? First, Helen chops off the long braid -- she loves her mother’s hair. She fondles her mother’s one remaining breast, which brings up feelings of lust. Then she throws the body down the basement stairs and puts it in the meat freezer. She calls her ex-husband Jake, with whom she has three grown children. He gets on a plane in Santa Barbara and comes to Pennsylvania to help her. In the meantime, she goes to see her best friend, who is not home, and ends up sleeping with the woman’s 30-year-old son, Hamish, whom she has known since he was born.

These actions are mind-numbingly arbitrary, although that may be Sebold’s point: Does anyone really know why they do anything? And it may be that her refusal to give us the details we need to better understand Helen’s actions is part of her method.

But too often, Helen and Jake and the other characters seem to perform in a vacuum. Helen is an artist’s model. She spends much of her professional life nude, and she likes it. She is a grandmother. Her ex-husband, who understands her hatred of her mother and even what led to the murder, considers her one of the sanest people he knows. Still, even as Helen worries about the consequences of her actions (getting caught, making her best friend angry), she entirely overlooks the moral implications. “Finally, after all these years, my mother’s life was snuffed out, and I had been the one to do it,” she thinks proudly. “Within a few minutes, as she struggled for breath, my lifelong dream had come true.”

Interestingly, it is this that allows us to imagine there might be something slapstick to the novel; without ethics, afloat in the labyrinth of consequences, even the worst things in life can be funny, after all. At the same time, if there is no moral prism in a story, we tend to create one; the human mind looks for context, and ethical judgments help to make that clear.

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Eventually, we learn something about Helen’s motivations. Indeed, after its initial scenes, “The Almost Moon” becomes a litany of reasons, reasons so good you could almost believe that the killing was justified. Helen hated her mother, Sebold tells us, because she was a crazy freak who isolated her family and eventually caused Helen’s father to commit suicide. In the end, though, understanding why people do things does not substitute for context, despite what some therapists would like us to believe.

The phrase “almost moon” comes from an explanation Helen’s father once gave her for her mother’s different-ness. She is, he explains, not quite whole. “The moon is whole all the time,” he says, “but we can’t always see it. What we see is an almost moon or a not-quite moon. The rest is hiding just out of view, but there’s only one moon, so we follow it in the sky. We plan our lives based on its rhythms and tides.” This lovely paragraph suggests the extent to which anger and resentment drive our lives, as well as how much we are bound to patterns of behavior inherited or developed in reaction to our parents.

Sebold has expressed her distaste for the idea that literature provides any kind of therapy for the writer. In “The Lovely Bones,” the girl’s killer escapes. There is forgiveness, what some people call closure -- which provoked a lot of discussion among readers and critics. How, after all, can you write a novel of redemption in which the main character is a dead and desecrated girl?

That’s a good question, but when it comes to Sebold, it may be the wrong one. Rather, her willingness to pry into the darker aspects of human consciousness is what’s important. Still, the two-dimensionality of her characters makes them easy to crumple up and throw away.

Helen is, in many ways, a cartoon Raskolnikov caught in the glare of the author’s headlights. Yet where Dostoevsky bore down into Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment,” Sebold is only a toreador, flashing a red cape in front of some dangerous and fascinating questions. How can we break free of our mothers and fathers? How can we be whole? How can we love our children and our parents with a love that is not binding? Some kind of answer -- it doesn’t have to be pretty -- would have made “The Almost Moon” more than just a stylish book.

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susan.reynolds@latimes.com


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