Rebecca Mead

Rebecca Mead is a staff writer at the New Yorker.

Immortally Cute: Alice Sebold

Rebecca Mead, 17 October 2002

The Lovely Bones aims to be, in the end, a feel-good book about rape, torture and murder, and while such an unlikely achievement is remarkable, it is also unsettling in ways that Sebold does not begin to address.

A couple of years ago, Paul Auster was asked by a producer at National Public Radio whether he would become a regular contributor to one of the network’s more popular shows. All he’d have to do was come up with a story every month or so and read it aloud. Daunted by the prospect – what writer has plotlines to spare? – Auster was about to decline, when his wife, Siri...

A Predilection for the Zinger: Lorrie Moore

Rebecca Mead, 10 December 1998

It is rare these days for a book or story to get talked about without the attendant behind-the-scenes efforts of publicists, and the notice of reviewers, and the author making appearances on breakfast television shows. But that is what happened in January 1997, when the New Yorker published Lorrie Moore’s short story, ‘People like that Are the Only People Here’. What was so powerful about this story? The subject-matter, in the first place, was irresistibly painful. It concerns a mother, never named, who finds a blood clot while changing her baby: ‘what is this thing, startling against the white diaper, like a tiny mouse heart packed in snow?’ The baby is rushed to the hospital (‘Such pleasingly instant service! Just say “blood”. Just say “diaper”. Look what you get!’), where a scan reveals that he has a malignant tumour on his left kidney. The mother first tries to blame her own body for the ultrasound reading – ‘I’ve never heard of a baby with a tumour, and frankly, I was standing very close’ – then blames her bad parenting skills for the incomprehensible truth:’‘

Some years ago, the Sunday Times magazine published a memorable portfolio of photographs, nude studies of a young woman who had starved herself into an advanced state of emaciation. Shot in moody black and white, they were not so much portraits of an animated, living being as arty compositions of bone and skin: a nature morte, or near-morte, of body parts which just happened still to comprise a person. The accompanying text explained that the woman pictured wanted to illustrate the hellish consequences of anorexia in order to warn other girls away from experimenting with starvation. Yet there was an unspoken subtext to the words and the pictures which contributed to their haunting power: the unacknowledged narcissism of the subject. Anoretics – the correct medical term for the anorexia-sufferer, on which Hornbacher insists – are typically high achievers and perfectionists; they tend to be proud of their ability to get thinner than anyone else. So even though this girl looked like a Belsen victim, sick and consummately unenviable, it was hard not to think that at least part of the reason she had had the pictures taken was that she was proud of how she looked. She wanted to show off her shocking thinness, to parade her achievement, in the guise of cautioning others from attempting it.

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