May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes
December 4, 2012 § 3 Comments
What to make of a writer critically acclaimed for her literary fiction that delves into dark subjects—whose earlier novels were more likely to show a trajectory from the idyll of the suburban American dream to emotional devastation and mental breakdown rather than the other way around—whose new novel seems wholly sincere, if not sentimental? Once I’d finished reading A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven, I did something unusual for me and turned to other reviews to see if readers were taking the sweetly earnest celebration of domestic contentment at face value.
The day after I’d finished May We Be Forgiven, John Self published a review on the Asylum blog that brought up many of the same questions that had been bothering me. Self really interrogates novels in his reviews, making them justify themselves. Beauty isn’t enough; they must be intellectually solid. The quotation below, in particular, summed up some of my lingering uncertainties about the novel:
Perhaps my experience of the book as pleasingly balanced in its sharpness/softness, was determined by my expectations, my knowledge that Homes was an author not known for niceness, and whose most famous book for a time was about a paedophile’s plot to seduce a child. Perhaps the darkness I saw under the happiness was just my own shadow.
A brief plot summary is in order at this point. May We Be Forgiven is bookended by two Thanksgiving holidays a year apart. The first celebration gives us the depressingly familiar portrait of disenchantment and disconnection our affluent lives have created. Harry Silver is at the house of his brother, George, an obnoxious television executive, George’s wife Jane, who inexplicably kisses Harry in the kitchen, and their two children, hunched over electronics and utterly disengaged from family and the present moment. The opening is fantastic, a bravura skewering of the comforts that render us existentially miserable, yet which we continue to hold most dear.
Back in the city with his cold-fish wife Claire, Harry receives a call from Jane. He thinks briefly that she wants to meet up, but she’s calling him because George has been arrested following a car accident that leaves a man and a woman dead and their son in hospital. Harry stays with Jane while George is in a psychiatric ward, and they begin, incongruously and inevitably, an affair. When George creeps into the house one night and bashes Jane in the head with a lamp, a whole series of events begin.
The novel, in fact, is comprised entirely of events. One of Homes’ skills is making literary fiction—a genre in which authors can find it difficult to make a character get out of bed in less than five pages—so burstingly full of action. Veering between the sublime and the ridiculous and crashing through all points in between, the novel is a fast-paced mash-up of scenes involving lunatic mental health doctors, a radical prison that is more like an endless episode of Survivor, a massive bar mitzvah jaunt to Nateville, a village built and sponsored by Harry’s nephew Nathan, and lunchtime sexual encounters with highly strung women.
By the end of the novel, Harry has moved into his brother’s old house and is looking after not only his brother’s children (who are by turns plausibly and implausibly dealing with their grief and shock) but also the child of the people George killed in the car accident. In addition, he’s acquired several hangers-on of the wise chorus variety, albeit in unexpected costumes.
Throughout, the experience of reading May We Be Forgiven is a delight. Homes is extremely talented as a writer of sentences, particularly, and also as a creator of characters and comic chaos. But underneath there’s a nagging feeling that this is all going somewhere Homes’ typical readers might not want it to go: straight back to domestic happiness and suburban bliss. Can Homes really be trading in her earlier satire for this? Theo Tait, always a perceptive reader, concluded his review in the Guardian like this:
This movement from irony to sincerity is a very characteristic one in young-ish American writers. You also see it in The Simpsons, and in indie films such as Little Miss Sunshine, where satire gives way to a warm alternative community. It’s difficult to do well: darkness and despair often present themselves in more aesthetically pleasing forms than kindness and optimism. […] Its recipe for redemption, as in This Book Will Save Your Life, involves an uneasy mixture of truism (be nice to children, animals, strangers) and kitsch (form friendships with immigrants who work at fast food outlets, listen to the wise medicine man). It is, however, often very funny, in a bad-taste way. […] May We Be Forgiven is a semi-serious, semi-effective, semi-brilliant novel which could not be called, overall, an artistic success. But you’d have to have no sense of the absurd, and no sense of humour, not to be pretty impressed.
He’s absolutely right. But it’s hard not to find your admiration tempered with disappointment at the tweeness of the new life Harry has carved for himself and “his” three children out of a series of appalling tragedies, a trajectory that even Harry’s circuitous tragicomic detours through internet sex, career collapse and personal injury could not derail. At the same time it’s impossible not to appreciate Homes’ writing, her ability to mine these extremely privileged suburban lives for nuggets of humour and disgust.
And this is where my suspicion surfaces again. Harry’s new life, and the Silvers’ ostentatious magnanimity that has created their cosy little community, is only possible because Georgewas so financially shrewd. We hear again and again how Harry will have no money worries; how everything he could ever want to do is within his reach. The message is repeated so insistently that we half-expect it all to come crashing down as an important plot pivot: a call from the accountant to say, actually, sorry, there’s been some mistake. So perhaps Homes hasn’t gone over to the light side after all: perhaps what she’s really trying to get across is exactly how much of a fantasy the American dream really is: it requires oodles of money, money beyond counting.
Is it right, then, to read May We Be Forgiven and This Book Will Save Your Life as a swerve away from Homes’ earlier concerns? Is Homes playing with the intersection of critical praise for writing that shows us, like some horror version of The Feminine Mystique, the unpalatable side of the American dream and the reality that many people, including her readers, still yearn for something like it? Middle-class comforts (which frankly are nothing compared to the wealth and luxuries the Silvers can afford), however urban, tasteful or critical they are, are still just another aspect of late capitalism. Does reading A.M. Homes instead of E.L. James really make us superior? We’ve still plumped for a life in which the daily existential questions are already largely settled and demand no energy. Maybe, just maybe, Homes is telling us that we’re all to blame, and that nobody will be forgiven.