Monday, June 14, 2010

A. M. Homes

A. M. Homes was, until recently, a writer I knew only by reputation; hers is darkly memorable (although, generally, good). Her writing had been recommended to me by people whose opinions I find most agreeable. I had read her article in the New Yorker, mourning J. D. Salinger (link); as far as the obituaries, and various outpourings of admiration, went, hers, in my eyes, was the pick of the bunch.

Then, more or less by chance, I saw her speak at a literary festival of sorts. She was part of a panel of four and the event had the usual script: anecdotes were followed by polite chortles; when political dissatisfaction was expressed, peopled frowned in agreement and nodded (meaningfully) in unison; mutual admiration abounded. 

But, Homes stood out. Her style was effectively casual - there was no suggestion, at any point, that she wanted the audience's affection (just as her novel, The End of Alice, never tries to be likable) - and her subject matter was particular. In brief, she spoke about what should be considered unsayable in novels ("Nothing"); about the difficulty of writing a character, a murdering pedophile, who might share her taste in sandwiches (Homes said that her friends had, in the past, recognised that her most dreadful characters shared her own preferences in food); and, about the taboo of incest, in families where adopted children have been reunited with their biological parents. The last topic, I understand, relates to her recently published memoir, The Mistress's Daughter, which originally appeared as an article in the New Yorker. The article can be read, by subscribers, here (link). And, here is an excerpt from the book, taken from Homes's website (link):
Christmas 1992, I go home to Washington, D.C. ‘We have something to tell you,’ my mother says. ‘Someone is looking for you.’ After a lifetime spent in a virtual witness-protection program, I’ve been exposed. I am the mistress’s daughter. My birth mother was young, unmarried, and my father older with a family of his own. When I was born, a lawyer called my adoptive parents and said, ‘Your package has arrived. . . . ’ The fragile narrative, the plot of my life has been abruptly recast. In my dreams, my birth mother is the queen of queens, and she has made a fabulous life for herself, as ruler of the world, except for one missing link—me.
Homes, as a public speaker, ignores, politely (and mercifully), the banality of the questions posed by her audience and speaks freely about what she seems to consider relevant (which, I can't help thinking, is what the audience is there to hear), adding, with an ironic smile, at the end of her reply: I'm not sure if that answers your question. She laughs, sometimes without obvious explanation. 

I resolved to buy her book:

The protagonist and narrator of The End of Alice (one of Homes's more notable works, I gather) is an aging pedophile. He is a Nabokovian character, not so much because he lusts over young girls (that he does, however, is not, in any way in question; he lusts, violently) but because he knows when to reference high culture, to scorn lowbrow America, and to deploy wordplays and neologisms. 
Call me old-fashioned in that my concentration here is on an arrangement that according to many of my peers has long since passed. My fellow esthetes in this great colony of philes insist that I am a classicist. I am interested in the coupling that throughout history has propagated the human race. I realize that for many the real interest, the contemporary current, is in what some consider the greatest refinement, the linkage of related parties either by marriage, familial bonds, or the nearness and dearness of the same sex - the mind-bending adjustments, fascinating alterations, and gesticulations associated with the pairing of two like objects. But I ask that you bear with me, that you allow for this reconsideration of the more traditional of our species. All will not be lost.
And, as is the case with Humbert Humbert, the narrator (who remains unnamed) seems throughly unreliable. Homes, as a ironist, is deadly. Her powers are such that the reader asks, Is she an ironist at all?
What you should know is that in this rare case, it was she who took me. A seduction somewhere between a romance and a rape. I have no explanation for behavior such as this except a few theorems hinting at a sad sordid explanation for her apparent, if addled, understanding of adult desire. I'm hinting at the possibility of some previous acquaintance with goings-on such as this - perhaps we had that in common as well. I wouldn't doubt it. Details and the like, admittedly, I didn't want to know.   
Speaking about her narrators, Homes made reference to Grace Paley, who she described as something of a mentor. Paley, if I heard correctly, taught Homes to pursue, 'The truth according to the character', which she achieves, stylishly, in The End of Alice.

A comparison with Nabokov, however, is not helpful for understanding the gory and terrifyingly graphic depths that Homes reaches. (I might add that Homes does not hold a candle to Nabokov as stylist, although that is hardly a criticism). The End of Alice is rough; the graphic (this word is not to be taken lightly) sexual violence is more in line with the transgressive literature written in French - Marquise de Sade, Georges Bataille - than anything that has been written in English. (Although, as is referenced on the front cover image above, Homes also borrows the motif of the butterfly collector from John Fowles's novel, The Collector).

For all the power in Homes's writing, however, she falls into a trap that must be difficult to avoid for a writer in pursuit of the truth according to a violent pedophile. By taking this man as her narrator, Homes implicitly rejects the suggestion that such criminals are inhuman, incomprehensible. And, yet, as his character is revealed, and as the reader is told about his familial sexual abuse, not to mention the finer points of prison sex, his nature becomes more and more unrecognisable, to the detriment of the novel.

As an epilogue, below is footage of Homes with Eric Fischl, at an event run by BOMB Magazine, although the quality is poor and Homes plays the role of interviewer, rather than interviewee.


  1. I'm so pleased to see some commentary about A. M. Homes. She is under-appreciated. Music for Torching is funny, powerful, dark and one of my favourites. Her body of work is mixed but always enjoyable and intriguing.

    Did she give any indication that she is working on anything? It has been a long time since The Mistress's Daughter.

  2. When she spoke about her writing, she spoke in the present tense, which gave the impression, to me at least, that she was writing something at the moment. That said, she didn't mention anything specific.

    By the way, thanks for commenting; I have enjoyed reading your blog since I found my way there.