An Incantation, A Prayer

AM Homes, May We Be Forgiven

Granta, 496pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781847083241

reviewed by Sara D'Arcy

AM Homes’ oeuvre, like many other American authors, is ruptured by the events of 9/11. Pre-9/11 Homes was infamous for her dark and perverse imagination. Her fiction meditated on violence and sexual taboo in modern America, most notoriously in The End of Alice (Anchor, 1997) – a sinister story about an exchange of ‘love letters’ between two paedophiles which makes Nabokov’s Lolita look like child’s play. Homes’ post-9/11 fiction is ostensibly a world away from the work that both made and tarnished her name. Her last novel, This Book Will Save Your Life (Granta, 2006), marked a shift towards suburban optimism with strangers bonding over doughnuts and chance encounters at the supermarket rousing a sense of hope for the future. It also marked Homes’ shift towards the genre à la mode: hysterical realism. May We Be Forgiven, an unravelling epic that ruminates on contemporary morality and the disintegration of family, is her latest instalment. 

May We Be Forgiven follows Harry Silver, Richard Nixon scholar and bumbling narrator, through a tragic but transformative year. The sprawling narrative, Homes’ longest and most ambitious to date, opens with the recognisable gluttony of Thanksgiving and swiftly propels the reader through a black-comic grand tour of adultery and murder – all in the first 50 pages. With such a striking opening and another 430 pages to go, one wonders whether Homes may have peaked too early. But she perseveres at full speed introducing the reader – in typical hysterical realist fashion – to a host of largely forgettable characters and dead-end plots. Ominous hand-written notes threatening ‘Big surprise coming for you’ turn out to be humdrum, while a mundane internet hook-up with a married woman leads to extraordinary discoveries about Nixon’s true character. Homes’ frenzied tale manages to maintain a coherent trajectory as the protagonist recognises, during a reincarnation of the previous year’s Thanksgiving, the value of family and one’s responsibility to help out others.

Homes’ post-9/11 writing persists in ardently satirising contemporary society, but also adds a sense of optimism that was wanting in her earlier work. Instead of the deflating return to the norm for the estranged parents of the short story ‘Adults Only’ or the abhorrent revelation at the close of The End of AliceMay We Be Forgiven vacillates between the extremities of spiritual emptiness and collective redemption, dark irony and sincere spiritual uplift – ending on a high with ‘an incantation, a prayer’.

In a promotional event at the Southbank Centre last month, Homes confirmed that her experience of 9/11 transformed her literary vision. She recollected witnessing the second plane crash into the World Trade Centre from her apartment window and discovering that she could no longer plunge into the darkness of her imagination after ‘seeing something that I never could have imagined happening in real life.’

Before 9/11, Homes divulged, ‘we [Americans] didn’t think about what had come before’ – a perspective that clearly altered following the devastation. In May We Be Forgiven, Homes is much more concerned with history and how the experience of tragedy can shape the world. Her focus extends beyond the microcosm of her characters and the incidents and objects that pervade their daily lives to include a medley of big social issues: Nixon, hospitals and mental health institutions, old people’s homes, South African villages and development aid, exclusive boarding schools, the criminal justice system, religion and spirituality, and – in quintessential Homesian absurdism – suburban swingers’ clubs held in laser tag centres.

Despite the wider perspective, Homes’ moral – her post-9/11 fiction always comes with a message – is directed at the individual. In a recent interview with the Telegraph, Homes articulated that 9/11 ‘made me think a lot about our responsibility toward others. How much are we here to do things for others? Because one person really can make a big difference in other people’s lives.’ Homes cites the ‘dark father figure’ of both the novel and American politics, Nixon, to elucidate this sentiment. She jokes about Nixon’s persisting legacy in contemporary American politics. ‘There is a weave of history,’ Homes explains. ‘We’re told: “It is 62°F in the studio [during the 2012 Presidential debates].” And all because of Nixon’s hot, sweaty flop in the first televised presidential debate.’ Joking aside, Homes is clearly interested in Nixon’s “success” (‘the seeds’ of which ‘were planted in a moment of failure’) and how one man’s ambition continues to impact contemporary America: specifically, Nixon’s instigation of US-China relations and the fact that China now owns more US debt than any other country.

Like Nixon, Harry creates his own success out of the failures of others, namely the downfall of his more successful and aggressive brother, George. Unlike the one-dimensional cast in This Book Will Save Your Life, Homes masterfully creates convincing and nuanced characters whose impulses and idiosyncrasies drive an erratic narrative. Harry and George’s relationship simultaneously rehashes and departs from the tropes of sibling rivalry – they both despise and are protective of each other in a story of schoolboy squabbles gone tragically and irreconcilably awry. At times, one wishes that Homes would probe deeper into the psychological similarities between the two brothers; these are left to simmer under the surface, teasing the reader with potential but unrealised twists. What Homes does articulate is that survival can transform one’s life for the better. She describes Harry as initially ‘passive, just waiting for life to happen’. But in surviving the rage of his brother and the pressing weight of his inherited responsibilities, his life – although more challenging – is transformed and fulfilled.

This middle-aged coming-of-age tale manages to remain just on the right side of sentimental. Homes’ prose scurries along, undeterred by chapters and narrative limits, in her illustrious deadpan manner. In a fleeting scene in the opening pages, Homes simultaneously pleases and disturbs by contrasting brusque sentences of ennui with visceral, sexualised descriptions of a stuffed Thanksgiving turkey:

I stood in the kitchen picking at the carcass while Jane did the dishes. My fingers were deep in the bird, the hollow body still warm, the best bits of stuffing packed in. I dug with my fingers and brought the stuffing to my lips. She looked at me—my mouth moist, greasy, my fingers curled into what would have been the turkey’s g-spot if they had such things—lifted her hands out of the water and came towards me, to plant one on me. Not friendly. The kiss was serious, wet, and full of desire. It was terrifying and unexpected. She did it, then snapped off her gloves and walked out of the room. I was holding the counter, gripping it with greasy fingers. Hard.

Homes is most enchanting when she is at her most provocative, but these memorable moments of dark irony, blunt vulgarity and unexpected sex and violence are overwhelmed by a narrative that is largely unwieldy. The rambling narrative voice becomes somewhat exhausting as she hurries the reader from one dead-end storyline to another, leaving loose ties and unturned leaves along the way. That said, May We Be Forgiven is an ambitious, fast-paced novel that is also subtle and nuanced, maintaining a fragile balance between scepticism and optimism.