The books that brought A.M. Homes her initial notoriety (and her work did become rather notorious), the story collection The Safety of Objects (1990) and the novel The End of Alice (1996) are clearly designed to provoke, especially in their choice of subjects. The first story in The Safety of Objects, "Adults Alone," chronicles the increasing degradations of a married couple who take advantage of the temporary absence of their children to behave very badly indeed (including buying and smoking crack). In "Looking for Johnny," a young boy is kidnapped by a pedophile only to be released when he turns out to be too annoying. "Slumber Party" and "A Real Doll" are disquieting accounts of pre-pubescent sexuality that evoke an atmosphere of equal parts innocence and menace. The End of Alice, of course, picks up the themes of predation and adolescent sexuality in its story of a child killer and his prison correspondence with an adult woman who confesses to her own desire for a young boy.
If much of this early fiction is disturbing in its content, it is also carefully crafted. The stories are narratively efficient, well-paced and skillfully structured, they make canny use of point of view, and are crisply written. Homes's style has at various times been called "minimalist," but the relative economy and transparency of style in Home's fiction is less an attempt to simplify language for its own sake than it is the result of her emphasis on plot—not so much in the sense she creates the "well-made story" but in that the stories in The Safety of Objects (as well as the later collection Things You Should Know) mostly focus on event, on what the characters do. There's not much psychological probing in these stories; in fact, the unsettling overtones in a story like "Adults Alone" are produced by the withholding of access to the characters' psychological states, leaving us to wonder what must be going through their minds as they act out in their newly found freedom from responsibility. The lack of "poetic" affectation in Home's prose style keeps our attention centered on the actions that, at the same time, we must ourselves attempt to understand absent any more directly provided psychological motivation.
The End of Alice is not structured as a linear narrative, although there certainly is some "development" in the protagonist's situation and state of mind from the beginning of the novel to its conclusion, nor is there a single "plot" aside from the visible stages in this development. Instead, the novel parcels out the actions in three separate, alternating stories—of the aging pedophile and his experiences in prison, of the young woman and her attempts to seduce the young object of her desire, and, ultimately, of the narrator's encounter with "Alice," the twelve-year-old girl for whose murder the narrator was convicted. As in the short stories, however, the intertwining plots in The End of Alice are presented with all due attention to dramatic effect, to their potential for mystery and suspense. Even though the first-person narrative allows for some degree of discursive meandering, this is done primarily in the service of character creation, as it draws us, unwillingly perhaps, closer to the "human" side of an otherwise monstrous character.
The narrator never exactly comes to seem a likable character, but that we must suspend our judgment of him until his chronicle is complete, and must inevitably accept that he is both a human being and a monster, is surely the most immediate reason The End of Alice is a disconcerting book to read, even before we can assimilate the often abhorrent events the narrator relates. Homes manages this atmospheric balance very well, sustaining the intrepid reader's forbearance until the narrator finally arrives at his moment of reckoning at the novel's conclusion. This is not the only aesthetic success Homes achieves through her use of the pedophile narrator, however. That he does come to acknowledge the reality of his crime only at the very end of the novel means that, at least in retrospect (although the reader will have suspected as much all along), the narrator's entire account must be distrusted, that he is an unreliable narrator of the most radical sort. It is possible that everything he has told us--about his female correspondent and her trysts with the young boy, about his own past, perhaps even about his ongoing experiences in the prison--is a fiction of his own making. It has always seemed possible, even probable, that his narration of the young lady's actions has been an embellishment of her letters, the details largely provided by the narrator's imagination, but ultimately we can't really be sure of the existence of either the girl or the letters.
It seems unlikely that Homes would expect this most radical reading of her narrator's unreliability, but the character she has created and the story she wants to tell require that she exploit the potential for dramatic irony and the inherent uncertainties and possibilities for deception (including self-deception) implicit in the use of first-person narration to the fullest, and thus nothing prevents us from regarding the entire narrative, the narrator's "confession" as a whole, as fictional not just in the sense that it has been invented by the novelist but as the character's own fiction, contrived by him during the time of its telling. At the very least, this possibility ought to prompt those who recoil from this novel's depiction of a child killer and his mentally unbalanced fan to consider that what Homes is offering us is not so much a sensational story about unspeakable acts but an extended verbal portrait of a diseased mind, one that avoids the conventional strategies of "psychological realism"—"exploring" consciousness through the "free indirect" mode—by letting the character speak to us directly, but also creating the possibility we might need to read his words skeptically, assuming he might not exactly be speaking the truth. Taken this way, should we really be surprised the novel confronts us with a morally compromised character whose account of himself reflects his morally degraded state?
I would not contend that The End of Alice is really an ingenious work of metafiction that is more about the processes and implications of fiction-making than child sexual abuse or prison life. However, to read the book as at least partially metafictional does not reduce it to literary game-playing, nor does it lessen the novel's visceral impact. The insights into the mind and habits of a child rapist/murderer are just as sound, the juxtaposition of his story and that of his correspondent is just as chilling, and the voice Homes has provided her sociopathic narrator is just as creepily seductive whether we accept his recital of the "facts" as literal or whether we assume he is dissembling. Further, regarding the pedophile narrator as also an author of fiction if anything only makes the novel more provocative. If as the story of a notorious child killer it forces us to confront the reality that such people exist, on its second level as implied metafiction it asks us to consider the creation of such a story in the first place—what is more disturbing, the actions of a sociopathic child molester and murderer, or the imagination of the writer who finds it must be extended to this sort of character? The subject of The End of Alice may seem extreme, but isn't the literary imagination itself drawn to extremity? Isn't it the job of the literary imagination to inhabit human experiences about which we might prefer not to know?
Homes's later novels certainly depict characters themselves in extremity, but they represent a shift away from both the thematic concerns and the formal assumptions of The End of Alice. These novels drop the metafictional frame and concentrate solely on the often extravagant actions and frenetic events in which they become embroiled. They are more straightforwardly comic in tone (although the comedy is never very far away from terror), and where Alice is tightly and rather intricately structured, they are much looser, resolutely more linear, essentially picaresque narratives in which one thing follows another. They retreat to the suburbs as their setting, where anomie and negligence prevail rather than radical evil. They are still clearly intended to provoke, but more through their absurdist humor than through metaphysical and psychosexual inquiry.
The first of these novels, Music For Torching (1999), takes the married couple of "Adults Alone" and follows them as they engage in more bad behavior, including setting their own home on fire. The narrative of their actions is not exactly surreal, although the reader does have to accept that both the characters and the situation are at such a point of maximum disorder that practically anything might happen. Generally this makes the novel seem suspended precariously between farce and tragedy, a delicate act that is somewhat undone by the decidedly grave event at the novel's conclusion. This version of black humor elevates the novel (as well as Homes's subsequent novels) beyond suburban social satire, although some satirical elements are inevitably present. Too much is at stake, and there is simultaneously so little indication that the behavior and milieu depicted are open to amelioration through mockery, for us to rest safe in the more comforting assumptions of satire. The relentless progression of the story, here and in the subsequent novels, toward disarray and confusion creates an impression that the fate endured by the characters is simply a consequence of being alive and human.
Music for Torching is the first of Homes's novels to incorporate what in a later interview she described as "an everything but the kitchen sink" strategy, "where you're constantly adding something on top" of what came before, in order to keep the narrative "moving forward." Homes further contends that this is "reflective of what many people's lives are like," but certainly Homes concentrates on that period in her characters' lives in which the succession of events is almost unceasingly calamitous, whereby the kitchen sink is eventually filled with mostly muck and debris. Somewhat similar to the way the Naturalist novel sends its characters on a trajectory of inevitable disaster, these novels chronicle what seem inescapably unhappy experiences. In this way, they are still clearly intended to disturb, but they rely less on disturbing images, situations, or psychologically questionable characters and more on plot itself for this effect.
This Book Will Save Your Life (2007) and Homes's most recent novel, May We Be Forgiven, perhaps enact this strategy even more emphatically, in a way that makes them to a degree seem continuous with each other. Both books focus on a middle-aged male protagonist who suddenly seems to lose control of his heretofore stable life. This Book Will Save Your Life begins with its protagonist, Richard Novak, a wealthy player of the stock market, looking out his window as if seeing what is outside it for the first time, realizing that "Everything today is not the same, and yet it is exactly the same and it can never be the same again." Almost simultaneously he has acquired a mysterious, crippling pain throughout his body and he has noticed a sinkhole forming in his yard. He has been shaken out of his expectation that everything will continue to be "exactly the same," and his sense that "it can never be the same again" is confirmed continuously as he now begins a journey in the world he has previously kept safely on the other side of that window glass.
The journey takes place very much in a serial, picaresque fashion, the story moving relentlessly ahead, with seemingly little regard for workshop notions of "arc" or narrative shapeliness. The events depicted aren't exactly random, as clearly, at least in the initial stages of Novak's odyssey, Homes is subjecting him to the forces of disorder, as if after avoiding his share of bad fortune for so long, he is now encountering it all at once. Eventually forced to leave his home because the sinkhole continues to grow larger, Novak becomes a kind of involuntary picaro making his way through a Los Angeles he almost literally has never seen before. Eventually he winds up in a beach house in Malibu, where another natural disaster overtakes him at the end of the novel, but along the way he does encounter—In this case, more or less randomly—a group of characters, including the owner of a doughnut shop, an alienated housewife, and a famous writer (although Novak does not know he is famous), who, as he gets to know them, do begin not just to help him accommodate himself to his new reality but to act as the catalysts for his transformation into a more aware and charitable human being. He also begins to repair his relationship with his son, with whom he has had little constructive contact since his divorce.
Novak's tentative redemption is certainly tempered by the novel's portrayal of Los Angeles as a strange and synthetic place itself hardly supportive of human happiness, its indifference epitomized by the near-apocalyptic mudslide that sweeps Novak into the sea in the novel's concluding scene. Still, This Book Will Save Your Life winds up being much more affirming of the possibility for real human connection, of the existence of sincere, non-exploitive human emotion, than her previous work would have prepared us to expect. This quality is, however, sufficiently modulated by the persisting sense things could still spiral out of control without warning that the novel doesn't seem sentimental or the affirmation forced.
Nonetheless, This Book Will Save Your Life received mixed reviews at best, while some outright pronounced the novel a failure. Ron Charles dismissed it as a "tepid satire," criticizing the novel's narrative as one in which the protagonist "meanders through a series of chance encounters," both misunderstanding its ambition and failing to appreciate its picaresque strategy. If its intent was indeed primarily satirical, one might with cause find it rather tepid in its force, but Homes is not a satirist, however much her fiction takes present attitudes and social arrangements as the superficial patina overlaying setting and incident. Homes seems most interested in the more elemental impulses motivating her characters, the expressions of which work themselves out in the specific milieu in which the characters find themselves. Likewise, one could say the narrative "meanders," but of course this finally is to say merely that a picaresque narrative, after all an old and venerable form, is one that by design meanders.
One could more with more justice claim that the most recent novel, May We Be Forgiven, simply repeats the strategy and many of the themes of This Book Will Save Your Life. Again a picaresque story focusing on the simultaneous disintegration and renewal of a middle-aged man's suddenly eventful life, it doesn't finally provide any new variation on the strategy employed successfully by its predecessor, although if anything the first half of May We Be Forgiven is more harrowing in its chronicle of protagonist Harold Silver's plunge into chaos than the parallel account of Richard Novak's less radical change in circumstances. Silver commits adultery with his brother's wife, and is caught in bed with her by the brother, who kills his wife but spares Silver. This leads to the end of Silver's own marriage, and Silver's misfortune culminates in the loss of his job as a history professor (specializing in Richard Nixon). Along the way he also has to deal with the legal and financial consequences of brother George's act, which eventually become very bizarre indeed.
George's children have become orphans, so Silver must also begin caring for them, something he is completely unprepared to do. Suffice it to say that it is Silver's experiences with the children that begin to lead him on the path to reintegration not unlike the one followed by Richard Novak, except that in this case Homes doesn't quite avoid sentimentality and the impression that Silver is being force marched on the way to deliverance so that the novel and its "vision" might be appropriately balanced between the horrors of the novel's first half and the possibility for hope in alternatives increasingly communicated in the second. Silver also acquires an additional family of friends who at first are strangers to him, similar to Novak's chance encounters with people to whom he becomes attached, and while some of these characters and the circumstances in which Silver meets them are "quirky" in a pleasing enough way, his motley collection of acquaintances is so transparently transformed into an "alternative family" the effect at best simply falls flat, at worst is such an implausible solution to the existential dilemma faced by such characters as Harold Silver and Richard Novak it's a little hard to believe Homes expects it to be taken seriously. At times Silver's reshuffling of priorities becomes almost embarrassingly trite, as in the extended sequence in which he takes his now virtually adopted children to South Africa and engages in good works on behalf of the local population.
The extreme contrast between the darkness that envelops Silver's life in the first part of May We Be Forgiven and the light that has come into it by the end of the novel is an even more pronounced development of the affirmative impulse introduced in This Book Will Save Your Life. But where the qualified optimism implied by Richard Novak's awakening to life outside his privileged sanctuary seems aesthetically well-calibrated, if decidedly a break from the bleaker vision expressed in her earlier fiction, in May We Be Forgiven, Harold Silver's transformation is both unconvincing and aesthetically unjustified, as if the picaresque must inevitably culminate in "growth" or otherwise lead to a hopeful conclusion. The first book might have been taken as a fuller exploration of the "everything but the kitchen sink" approach begun with Music for Torching, but May We Be Forgiven seems both superfluous and a repudiation of the bracing, clear-eyed chronicles of human depravity to be found in The Safety of Objects and The End of Alice.
In this way this latest novel is a rather ominous portent. On the one hand, that Homes might be interested in pursuing the further possibilities of her version of the picaresque form is commendable, as this is a form whose potential is greatly underrated. On the other, if she has now seized upon it as the vehicle for conveying a new, and ultimately sentimental, version of a fallen world now amenable to reform through good intentions and a positive attitude, I, for one, don't think she'll any longer have anything very inspired to contribute to American fiction.