A surreal search for suburban meaning
A. M. Homes' new novel veers from one bizarre episode to another. Photo: Getty Images
MAY WE BE FORGIVEN
By A. M. Homes
A.M. HOMES has always been a difficult writer to categorise. While books such as the deliberately provocative exploration of paedophilia, The End of Alice, owe as much if not more to the unsettling landscapes of horror writers such as Peter Straub as they do to more obvious antecedents such as Nabokov, her 2006 novel about a dying man's quest to redeem himself, This Book Will Save Your Life, reads like a self-help book written by Rick Moody.
Outwardly at least, Homes' new novel, May We Be Forgiven, is her most conventional book so far, a sprawling Franzenian social comedy that eschews the luridness of The End of Alice and the Hollywood schmaltz of May We Be Forgiven in favour of something that looks almost like redemption.
The book opens at Thanksgiving. The narrator, depressed middle-aged Nixon scholar Harry Silver, is having dinner at the home of his younger brother, television executive and sociopath George, when George's wife, Jane, turns to him in the kitchen and kisses him.
Exactly why Jane kisses Harry is never entirely clear. Rather like a number of women who inhabit the libidinal landscape of Homes' suburbia, she sees this moment of pleasure as something she deserves, a chance to escape the nightmare of marriage to George. But when George crashes his car on the way to work a few weeks later, killing two people and orphaning their child, it is Harry who steps in to help.
It's a mark of the narrative intensity of May We Be Forgiven that these events are dispatched in slightly more than two pages. But they are only the beginning: in the next 30 pages, Harry has slept with Jane; George has attacked the pair of them, fatally wounding Jane, and been arrested again, this time for murder; Claire has left Harry; and Harry has moved into George and Jane's home and assumed responsibility for their children, 11-year-old Nate and his 10-year-old sister, Ashley.
Across the next 450 pages, the novel veers from one bizarre episode to another. Now single, Harry begins to explore the possibilities of internet dating, leading to a string of encounters with lonely and occasionally disturbed women, offers of threesomes and a swingers' evening at a suburban laser tag centre.
Meanwhile, in one of the book's many moments of uneasy satire, Ashley has been seduced by her headmistress, a turn of events the school is eager to sweep under the carpet; a girl who may or may not be one of Harry's lovers has disappeared; and Harry, at the urging of Nate and Ashley, has taken on responsibility for the child of the couple killed by George.
This portrait of suburbia as a place of sexual possibility and spiritual desolation obviously owes more than a little to John Updike and John Cheever. Yet May We Be Forgiven is both more surreal and more sentimental than the comparison suggests. The US it depicts is one in which nobody really understands the rules any more, a place where online connection and sex with strangers has replaced the capacity to connect with our families and friends.
This fact lends the novel's black comedy a peculiarly bleak and lacerating edge, even in its more heightened moments. Yet it also helps underpin the curiously unstable mix of satire and mawkishness that occupies much of the novel's final quarter, in which Harry and his now expansive network of family and friends begin to find some sort of community in each other.
There is something more than a little cloying about these final pages, yet that is part of the point: May We Be Forgiven deliberately embraces excess in search of something authentic. Or, as Harry observes at one point, to push past the everyday business we sometimes confuse with what matters to the real stuff we need to pass on.