Swans Commentary » swans.com September 23, 2013  



Guilty Satire


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Homes, A. M: May We Be Forgiven, Granta, 2013, ISBN 978 1 84708 323 4, 480 pages.

"I sit on the floor hating everything, hating myself most of all -- that's the truth of it, more than anything else I am so fucking disappointed in me. How's that for the Me Generation coming to a crashing halt?" Page 177


(Swans - September 23, 2013)   Never so foolish as to join the wild goose chase for the Great American Novel, I do keep panting after the Perfect American Satire. A matter of temperament. When a New Yorker, A. M. Homes, -- A for Amy -- won the Women's Prize for Fiction this year in London, I perked up my ears. Miranda Richardson, the judges' chair, called May We Be Forgiven "a dazzling, original, viscerally funny black comedy -- a subversion of the American dream." Homes herself noted: "In America, people get confused and sort of pissed off with me. What I'm doing, which sometimes makes people uncomfortable, is saying the things we don't want to say out loud." My juices flowing, I dived recklessly into the prize-winning novel without a glance at the author's previous half-dozen books.

If a country can't be represented by a single novel however great, all of a country's vices can't be squeezed into a single satire. Homes chooses her targets in prosperous Westchester County, New York, where everyone has so much money we fear for a moment to have landed in a utopian fantasy. She hangs her 480 pages on a clothes line of guilt, which like money escapes her satire. Guilt irrupts in her first-person narrator, Harold. His harried conscience is what Hitchcock called a MacGuffin, a given in the plot, scarcely believable in itself but necessary to set the whole story going. A novelist can't satirize her MacGuffin though a critic might. Harold's conscience gets his suburban guilt trip on the road.

He's a fiftyish, low-energy academic with a strong "brother's-keeper" bent. George, his brother, is an overbearing alpha male in the guise of a triumphant TV executive. Harold's marriage has fallen apart because he and his wife claim so much independence for themselves that there is no reason for them to be together. Harold lets himself be seduced by George's long suffering wife, an excellent domestic manager and mother of two children. George's hospitalization after a traffic accident in which he caused several deaths allows Harold's escapade to become a liaison pursued in George's own bed. Events, however, push George's congenital brutality over the line that separates alpha maleness from psychosis. He breaks out of hospital and returns home in the middle of the night. Finding his wife in bed with a man, George bashes in her skull with a bedside lamp. She dies and George becomes a police case.

George will spend his life in institutions while Harold will take the long, many-paged route of expiation. It's no good the reader piping up that he did nothing wrong. Homes has inexhaustible inventive powers and won't be stopped. Her prose is quick, sharp, never soporific, and always fun. Harold's righteous course is laid out for him. Already divorced and living in his brother's well-appointed house, he adopts George's two children with the household dog and cat thrown in. He steps into George's shoes and bank account. Indeed he takes on the role of his brief paramour, George's murdered wife. She was a thoughtful, provident, sensible mother. Harold will become a soccer mom and performs with such competence and devotion that the reader feels it was his true vocation, what he was born to do. His academic work as a teacher and writer -- of which more below -- was a wrong turning till he found his true calling in parental masochism. His enthusiasm is such that he will also adopt the child orphaned by George's reckless driving.

When Harold rustles up a meal for his ad hoc family or talks his teenage charges over the adolescent rapids, he is the right man-woman in the right place and apron. Homes likes to juggle genders -- she is gay. That and something simpler is behind Harold's housewifely skills and patience. It's Homes's own knowledge and delight in homemaking and parenting, a woman's touch.

Homes no more satirizes her self-depreciating narrator Harold than she does Westchester County money. She admires him. The family responsibilities he has assumed keep him mightily busy in and beyond his community. He's involved in George's legal maneuvers and visits the always spiteful psychotic murderer in his places of detention. Harold must deal with doctors, lawyers, and policemen. He encourages the children by visits to their elite boarding schools. Keeping the house in running order means contact with a variety of repair men, drivers, and delivery people.

Harold does the shopping, which means rubbing shoulders and sometimes other body parts with fellow shoppers. His supermarket cart occasionally includes some bargains in suburban sex. His single parent existence can be lonely and via the Internet he stumbles into the thriving realm of afternoon sexual role playing. Well-heeled housewives while away their boredom, often with the complicity of equally bored husbands, by pretending they are hookers, sex slaves, dominatrixes, or porn stars.

It's all in good fun and fetishes, coldly selfish and noncommittal. A pre-dinner bath washes the afternoon exertions away and leaves wealth-buttressed family routines undisturbed. Harold participates uneasily. The greed behind the sex games disturbs him. It's not about money or possessions, but wanting ever more, a cancer nourished by self-help drivel and other publicity insisting that one role isn't enough for one life. Homes has found something worth satirizing and sums up for the reader:

There is a world out there, so new, so random and disassociated that it puts us all in danger. We talk on line, we "friend" each other when we don't know who we are really talking to -- we fuck strangers. We mistake almost anything for a relationship, a community of sorts, and yet, when we are with our families, in our communities, we are clueless, we short-circuit and immediately dive back into the digitalized version -- it is easier, because we can be both our truer selves and our fantasy selves all at once, with each carrying equal weight. Page 294

In these dealings Harold is a kind of wised-up Candide figure. He's naive in that he expected people to be if not better at least on occasion helpful. What he discovers on all sides and from almost everyone is narrow self-interest with an aggressive edge. Westchester County seems to have incubated a horde of individuals each holed up in his spiky fortress of self. Even the senile can't be trusted not to give Harold the finger in moments of need and point to the bottom line.

Harold's eventful road of parenting, with it several detours, will lead to an enlightenment that one could even call, pretentiously, a breakthrough of consciousness. He realizes that before taking on his brother's responsibilities he was unhappy, cold, and detached. His devotion to others has returned him to humanity. This makes for a traditional climactic moment in the novel. The reader, perhaps on the cold and detached side himself, may see it in simpler terms. Harold hadn't fallen into something he could do and enjoy doing. When he did, he felt better about himself.

May We Be Forgiven is a novel in which the bitter and the sweet never merge. People range from prickly to thoroughly nasty, but moments like Harold's seeing the light are wish-fulfilling sentimentality. Parenting, the right attitude of adults to children, is presented as a new path to salvation. Is the sensible rearing of offspring so like joining a cult or a reasonable solution to a midlife crisis? Could Harold instead have opted for Hatha yoga or running in the park? Satire aficionados feel short-changed. Harold's soft center is all too visible in his view of Richard Nixon, his subject of research. As we gag over his infatuation with the thirty-seventh president we can't help but imagine what a steely satirist like Mary McCarthy would have done with Harold.

His niche in academic life was as a professor of Nixon studies. What we have to call his relationship with Nixon is woven into the texture of the novel. The figure of the dishonored president comes and goes. Each reference makes us hope that Homes will step in and somehow connect Nixon with Westchester County in the third millennium. This doesn't happen. Her boldest stroke will be to invent another side of Nixon: the president was a closet short story writer. For Harold this brings out Nixon's humanity, just as his own has been refreshed by becoming a single parent.

As a lecturer in Nixon studies, Harold finds his students impermeable to history, which for them is anything that happened before they got an electronic screen to play with. He tries to capture their attention by serving up anecdotes. They learn that Nixon's dog Checkers, deceased 1964, is buried in the Bide-a-Wee pet cemetery and that the president used to nap after lunch on a "beloved brown velvet lounger." This is not mere classroom strategy. Harold the historian operates dangerously near bio-pic territory and not far from celebrity land. He translates his taste into academic lingo for his students:

I am most interested in his personality and the ways in which his actions and reactions were of a particular era and culture -- the era that built and defined the American Dream. Page 264.

Significant here is Harold's conviction that Nixon's "particular era," being past, has no relevance today except in terms of that amorphous holdall the American Dream. The view of Nixon as standing alone like a statue in another epoch has the disadvantage of cutting him off from the American life that we are still obliged to live. He might as well be George Washington cutting down the cherry tree.

Harold's interest in Nixon is enfevered by Homes's fantasy. She recreates the stories that the president supposedly wrote. Harold lands the job of editing them and deduces much about Nixon by reading between the lines. Indeed he builds up Nixon as a complex character just as a novelist develops a personage. The truth is he also identifies with Nixon. Both their families knew infighting. The former president, like Harold, felt guilt toward a brother. Watergate provoked his phlebitis and a blood clot just as George's crime brought on Harold's minor stroke.

As the novel unfolds, Nixon's fiction, some of which Homes treats us to, is withheld from publication. Harold is fired as its editor just as he was fired as lecturer when his subject was declared stale. He learns from a mysterious insider of a much more nefarious side of Nixon that goes well beyond Watergate, which Nixon called simply "a bizarre comedy of errors" and admitted to only to stop further enquiries. It was he who originated the plan to overthrow Castro at the Bay of Pigs and, suspiciously, he was in Dallas with his Cuban team the morning Kennedy was assassinated. Harold has to admit that he has been too easy on his man. However, after the personal cure worked by his stint as a stay-at-home father, when he can finally sit down and finish his book on Nixon, he reverts to psychologizing:

Dick Nixon was the American man of the moment, swimming in the bitter supposition that for everyone else things came easily. He was the perfect storm of present, past, and future, of integrity and deceit, of moral superiority and arrogance, of the drug that was and is the American Dream, wanting more, wanting to have what someone else has, wanting to have it all. Page 446.

Alas, Harold's renewal through family life and household tasks has not extended to his historiography. He hasn't connected Nixon to the operations of the imperium we are part of.

Well, when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal. Richard Nixon, Page 95

In the American empire personality is only a distraction. Sitcoms and shrink-speak can't evoke its history. Homes chastises the greed of Westchester County individualism, where more is never enough. She doesn't connect that appetite to the intent of the superpower to manage always more of the universe in its own interest.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published September 23, 2013