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Unhappy In Its Own Way

By (March 1, 2013) No Comment

May We Be ForgivenMayWeBeForgiven

By A.M. Homes
Viking, 2012

A.M. Homes’s latest novel, May We Be Forgiven, is predominantly about the changing nature of family. A kind of long-form “Love the one you’re with,” Homes depicts a family shattered, and its surviving members must then create a new unit based on a broader definition of community. Homes’s blunt prose and darkly hilarious perspective make this journey a pleasure, but it’s with the novel’s secondary obsessions—those of identity and influence—that it truly shines. Particularly when the writing reaches beyond the characters on the page to suggest Homes’s own anxieties of influence, May We Be Forgiven feels as though it had to be written by its author, translating to an equally charged experience for readers.

The novel opens in familiar Homes territory: suburban Westchester. Middle-aged brothers Harry and George have brought their families together for Thanksgiving dinner. George is a hyper-aggressive television executive, Harry a barely-treading-water academic; if there’s a competition between the two, George is winning. Soon, though, the situation changes. George crashes his car into a minivan, killing a young couple and leaving their son an orphan. While George is in the hospital, Harry stays at his brother’s house to help out, during which time Harry and George’s wife, Jane, launch a fast-moving affair. When George sneaks out of the hospital one night and discovers his brother sleeping beside his wife, he snaps, breaking a lamp over the sleeping Jane’s head and killing her. As Garth Hallberg notes in his New York Times review, for some writers, these events might comprise an entire novel. Homes, though, covers this ground in the first fifteen pages. Fans of her short-story-turned-novel Music for Torching will recognize the setup: a family’s life is quickly and violently disassembled. Can it be put back together?

The remainder of Homes’s novel shows Harry attempting to establish a new family for himself, for George’s two children (Nate and Ashley) now in his care, and for the handful of other eccentrics with whom he connects along the way. Homes’s scope is broad, at times reaching a touch too far. (At one point, the family travels to Africa with the hope of helping a small village.) But the novel’s explosive range is also part of its pleasure. Harry’s efforts to do absolutely everything he can to create community are at once desperate and sweet, both insane and curiously reasonable.

While a novel centered on restoring family happiness may sound a bit slow—especially when following such an explosive beginning—in Homes’s hands it’s anything but. Her characters have always been at their worst (and most entertaining) when pitted against the minutiae of everyday family life, and those in May We Be Forgiven are no exception: Pets lick up crime scenes; a maintenance visit from the exterminator turns the whole home poisonous; Harry’s aimless clicking around the Internet results in trading emails with lonely housewives, eventually landing him in the middle of a local swingers’ culture:

“I’m miserable,” the next one writes. “Don’t even ask for details. Last week I increased my medication which gave me the energy to write this. Now, I’d like to get laid. Happy to host or meet for a BLT. Lets have lunch!”

I e-mail back, “What’s a BLT?”

“Bacon lettuce tomato? Duh.”

“Sorry, all the online acronyms are getting to me.”

“What do you like for lunch?”

“I’m easy,” I type. “A can of soup is fine.”

She sends directions. “Don’t be weird, okay.”

That we have outsourced our families, leaving us with a kind of devil’s-playground of downtime, seems at the heart of Homes’s sometimes-provincial indictment. It’s worth noting, though, that Homes has covered this ground before. Her two previous novels—Music for Torching and This Book Will Save Your Life—both feature parents trying to restore family order. And to readers who dislike Homes for being too didactic, for too plainly wrapping her stories around theme, she will likely not convert you here. (The author of May We Be Forgiven is still the one who wrote “A Real Doll,” the short story in which a young boy learns to date by engaging in a sexual relationship with his sister’s Barbie. Homes has not undergone any transformations on this point.) To those who enjoy Homes’s literary inventiveness, however, her seemingly inexhaustible ability to convey a string of desperate acts, carefully framing each as part of a larger whole, those readers will not be disappointed. And what separates May We Be Forgiven from its predecessors is its secondary concern, the formation of identity, which differs here from the role-play Homes has experimented with in the past. In her latest, identity is less costume than stain, one very hard to wash clean.

From the outset, Harry’s personality is malleable, a conflation of others’. “We are the same,” he explains, describing his brother, “we have the same gestures, the same faces, the family chin, my father’s brow, the same mismatched selves.” Harry needed only to move into his brother’s home to become him: he wears George’s clothes, sleeps with his wife, uses his money, image, and identification as his own. Even his memory of the past is conflated with his brother’s; Harry recalls an incident in which he and George took turns having sex with a young woman, yet George insists Harry merely watched. As for Harry’s profession, he’s a Nixon scholar, which ranks him only as the most expendable faculty member of his History Department. That he adopts Nixon’s paranoia, and often confuses the AMHomesex-President’s experiences with his own, doesn’t help.

As such, Harry is less a whole self than a collection of pieces from others—pieces that have not come together well. But when he experiences a medical crisis of his own, his survival prompts a reexamination of self. Albeit slowly, Harry becomes more proactive about confronting his decisions to ensure the life he leads is his own:

As I lie waiting for my turn in the CAT scanner, which I’m thinking is like a cerebral lie-detector test, I am all the more sure there’s a link between Nixon’s clots and Watergate. And, not to put myself in the same league, but I’m sure the episode with George followed by Jane’s death has caused my brain to blow.

The CAT scanner’s appearance here, and Harry’s distrust of it, are no accident. Homes reserves her most memorable indictments for the influence of technology and mass media. After all, it was television executive George whose thoughtless violence set the whole novel in motion. George, with “a television in every room,” his success based on his “ability to parse popular culture, to deliver us back to ourselves—ever so slightly mocking, in the format best known as the half-hour sitcom or the news hour.” Here again Homes plays the provincial: Technology and media, she warns, are distorting us, stealing our souls. The gift of an iPad leads to international arms trading. Harry’s idle internet surfing (as mentioned earlier) results in swinging; it also results in Harry becoming a prostitute, at least circumstantially:

“Prostitution,” she says. “That’s what I’m looking for, a man who can accept money for it, who can feel both the pleasure and the degradation.”

“I can’t,” I say. “I did it for myself.”

“Yes,” she says, “but for my pleasure I need to pay you.”

But in May We Be Forgiven, Homes manages to make even provincialism seem edgy and hilariously unexpected. When Harry learns from a local news outlet that a neighborhood woman has been abducted, he worries he himself might be the kidnapper. (He did, he reasons, just separate newborn kittens from their mother, the family cat, to distribute to adoptive families outside a strip mall. Isn’t this also something he might do, “steal a person”?) Harry can’t even be sure which actions are his own, all of it leading to a kind of identity knot that threatens never to untangle.

HomesMusicforTorchingA saturation effect, Homes suggests, is at play: we are so bombarded with outside stimulus, we can no longer focus on family and self, no longer see where the world around us ends and we begin. It feels natural, then, a clever extension of the problem she’s already set up, when Homes inserts herself into the novel as well.

Peppered through these pages of Harry’s struggle to assert himself are Homes’s own weighty precursors: Raymond Carver, Richard Yates, John Cheever. Saul Bellow even gets a tip-of-the-hat in the appearance of the law firm “Herzog, Henderson, and March.” But Homes isn’t content to leave her cues so coded. Is it not natural that an author writing about a professor taking on the changing nature of family in the modern world might have Don DeLillo on her mind? In the novel, Harry spots DeLillo everywhere—on the sidewalk of his new Westchester community, at a hardware store, at the mall:

Coming out of one of the stores, I spot Don DeLillo. Our eyes meet; he looks at me as if to ask, What are you staring at?

“I see you everywhere I go.”

“I live here,” he says.

“My apologies, I’m a big fan.” He nods but says nothing. “Hey, can I ask you a question?” He doesn’t say yes, he doesn’t say no. “Do you think Nixon was in on the JFK assassination?” DeLillo looks at me with a grim snakelike grin. “Interesting question,” he says, and walks away.

These moments are some of the novel’s best. Yes, Homes has reimagined the worlds of other novelists before, most notably in The End of Alice, in which she adopted the ambitious task of updating Nabokov’s Lolita. But May We Be Forgiven shows Homes exercising a different kind of courage. It’s one thing to take on a master, another to lay your influences bare, to set one gently down on the page, rush to greet him, and exclaim with open arms, “What do you think of the work I’m doing?” All of which is a voyeuristic pleasure to read.

So where do all these anxieties—over family, identity, influence—take us? Homes does not offer definitive answers. Some of our family we’re stuck with, she says; some we can choose. And the same holds true for what influences us, the levels of responsibility we have to all these people varying from light to crippling. Though there’s certainly something liberating in DeLillo’s casual disinterest—a suggestion that, regardless of choices, those entities that influence us hardly give a damn what roles they play.

Homes’s novel denies closure. What she does offer are two families: one at the start, and a second at the novel’s conclusion—a second Thanksgiving Day one full year later. This latter family appears closer in many ways, strengthened by what they’ve endured, soldiering on. But the grim circumstances that brought them together continue to lurk in the shadows. Unaddressed tensions loom behind the doors of the home they still occupy. We are the sum of our decisions, Homes tells us. What we choose to keep, we must hold dear. For what we cast off, we can only ask forgiveness.

Readers will be grateful.

Jason Guder work has appeared in McSweeney’s and Figdust, among others. He lives in Washington, DC.