Cathleen Schine, whose writing has appeared in The New Yorker and the Village Voice, makes her debut as a novelist with a very readable book that dances past the quagmires lurking in her subject and sails lightly over the usual tones and topics of first novels. Indeed, in defining Schine’s achievement, it is easier to talk about what Alice in Bed is not than what it is. It is not grim and depressing, nor is it brave and inspirational. It has little suspense in the ordinary sense of the word, no moments of significant crisis and climax, no startling incidents pulled out of the novelist’s bag of tricks. There is hardly any action—after all, the central character is immobile in bed for most of the novel. There are no extended flashbacks or highly significant dreams that reveal the development of her character or clarify the meaning of her life. Schine has not written a novel with a message, though one might (at the cost of misrepresenting the book’s spirit) write about her skill in making readers aware of topics that could be rendered in jargon, such as the sexuality of the disabled, medical incompetence, and the dehumanization of patients in the service of advanced technology.
Furthermore, although the central character is a woman of nineteen, the novel is not about typical adolescent angst or coming of age. It does not yield any deep meanings or metaphors for contemporary life. Despite its abundant wit and sometimes surreal exaggeration, the book is not pure comedy either. Finally, although the appeal of the novel derives from its protagonist, the story does not offer a development of character in the conventional sense—there is no crucial change in the central character’s voice or personality or understanding. What Alice in Bed does offer is the thoroughly old-fashioned pleasure of reading a book about someone who is very likable. Schine’s conceptualization and her narrative control in the novel have produced a wholly engaging central character.
Alice Brody, a nineteen-year-old girl from a suburban Connecticut family, is a sophomore at Sarah Lawrence College when, while babysitting one night, she is suddenly struck down by weakness, fever, and pain in her legs. After four weeks in bed at home (hooked up to a traction device which, she says, looks like one of the slicing-dicing-mashing-whipping machines on late-night television commercials), she is moved to a fashionable New York hospital. Her parents are in the process of a divorce, and her father takes off for Vancouver (from whence he eventually reappears with a new young wife); her mother, Brenda, a resolute optimist who lives in a state of continual distraction, is apparently studying for her doctoral orals in psychology and determinedly seeing the best in an unappealing hustler named Louis Scifo.
Schine deliberately limits her characters to the aspect they show to Alice at her bedside. Visitors are afraid of her illness; other patients are as self-involved as she is. The doctors are arrogant and insecure; they avoid telling Alice anything meaningful, change treatments without explanation, conceal their inability to diagnose her illness by ordering ever more radical tests. Nurses follow orders so they will not have to think or feel, even when the orders are doing obvious damage to the patient.
Alice uses humor as a defense—as a means of preserving some sense of control over her situation. The humor gains depth because, beneath it, the reader is aware of Alice’s physical pain and the terrifying helplessness that grows from loss of control of one’s body and one’s fate. It is humiliating to be ill and weak. Furthermore, it violates one’s unexamined assumptions concerning the order of things: Alice’s illness has no explanation, no relationship to cause and consequence or to...
(The entire section is 1567 words.)