Scraping away the pristine gloss of domestic suburban American life to reveal a brutal landscape of anxiety, AM Homes’s novel May We Be Forgiven is a string-snapping insight into family dynamics, dysfunctional relationships and how people relate – or don’t relate – to each other.
Aggressive and unhinged television executive George and his ineffectual Nixon scholar brother Harry have a sibling rivalry that dramatically boils over after a tense Thanksgiving Day incident involving George’s wife, Jane. The novel begins with a hiss and a roar and its first 50 pages are packed with such a devastating chain of events you’re left wondering what on earth can happen next.
Tempering bone-dry discomfort and uneasiness with a sharply satirical humour and piercing social commentary, Homes is a writer who alternately makes the reader wince and laugh. Unafraid to examine the darker qualities of human nature and the sheer horrors of daily life, her books and their quiet truths could strike some as being too confrontational and have polarised readers.
Her sensational 1996 novel The End of Alice is an unflinching sympathetic account of a middle-aged paedophile, while 1999’s Music for Torching is such a blazingly psychedelic depiction of a suburban American couple whose lives crumble that it matches Richard Yates and Bret Easton Ellis in the nastiness stakes.
“My sense of it is that people do find the books difficult,” says Homes. “But several people have told me they’ve read the last novel while they were going through difficult times and that they appreciated the combination of the humour as well as the darkness of the human condition. They dwelled neither on the darkness nor the light, and I found that moving.”
In her 2007 memoir, The Mistress’s Daughter, the New York-based author who grew up in Washington DC “during the Nixon presidency” told of her strange and difficult meeting with her biological parents. She says the book was more about chronicling what took place than helping her process painful events emotionally.
“I think for me the idea was that I used it to document this very peculiar experience that I’d had. It was just to preserve what I remembered. I don’t tend to sort through things by writing.
“I really do think very much in fictional terms. That’s the world I live in. It was to make sense of things, in a way. But at a certain point, it became clear to me that I didn’t need to write it for myself but that it could be meaningful to others.”
A common strand in Homes’s work is characters who are not particularly self-aware. They’re largely unable to look at their lives from a wide angle and fumble their way through daily life. Often, their lives are reduced to a sad dependency on immediate and disposable things in a search for instant gratification. Hilarious and tragic at once, Harry engages in an awkward and ridiculous internet sex experience. Homes laughs when she says she thinks this is uniquely American.
“Yes, we profoundly are a consumer culture, although internet sex is increasingly becoming worldwide. These characters are uniquely American.”
May We Be Forgiven opens with the passage:
“May we be forgiven,” an incantation, a
prayer, the hope that somehow I come out of
this alive. Was there ever a time you thought
– I am doing this on purpose, I am f—ing up
and I don’t know why.
“It’s literally a reference to self-sabotage. I think Harry is a guy who is waiting for his life to begin,” says Homes.
Harry is a complex and compelling character who meets hostility wherever he goes, even at the library. Yet on the other hand, he steps up and rises to the occasion when he needs to. It is as if he is a middle-aged man who has never grown up and is forced to do so.
“I think that’s true. One of the ideas in the book is ‘can Harry do it or not?’ And even while I was writing it, I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be awful for him. Can he do it?’ I wondered why he is so frustrating. And I realised that I was writing about a character who doesn’t really know himself,” says Homes.
“Yet the interesting thing about Harry is that he does find the ability to be much more active than passive in his life.”
In Homes’s beautifully subtle way, it is both ironically comical and awful when Harry loses his job teaching history because he isn’t “forward thinking” enough and the heads of the history department think he is too focused on the past.
“Our culture doesn’t work from a historical point of view. European culture is much more in tune with its past. But we don’t know anything about our past. And Harry loses his job because we’re really not so interested in our past.”
Homes packs a dizzying amount of detail into May We Be Forgiven. The finely tuned way she illustrates her characters and the worlds they live in makes them vivid, distinct and scarily believable. Harry’s work as a Nixon scholar whose bookshelves are “filled with Nixonalia” provides a platform for many interesting points and “facts” about the 37th President of the United States. At one point, Harry discovers Nixon was a short-story writer whose stories “echo the work of some classic American authors – Sherwood Anderson, Richard Yates, Raymond Carver” and “revealed a range of subtlety, depth of character, humour so dark and wry, revealing a greater self-awareness than most would imagine him being capable of.”
“I did tons of research on Nixon,” says Homes. “I think Nixon is interesting because the legacy of that presidency is still unfolding. Notions of what is legal and what is illegal for a president to do. He was a fascinating and odd guy.
“And I like that Harry is obsessed with such a fascinating and odd guy. I find it interesting that Mrs Nixon by Ann Beattie came out and at the same time there were other Nixon books. It’s not as if people sit down together and say, ‘Right, we’re all going to write about Richard Nixon.’ I think this speaks to the resonance of Nixon’s life.”
The horrors of families and relationships Homes explores are so tangible I have found myself walking past outwardly beautiful and slick looking people in the street and wondering, “What lies beneath?” I wonder if other people do this, too.
“I think people are more competitive than they want to let on. We spoke about Richard Yates before, so to go back to him, in a novel like Revolutionary Road, the characters are overtly looking at each other. Everyone is always looking at each other. Even in Jane Austen novels.”
Although George is a bully, Harry is somewhat impotent. The horrific events that occur in May We Be Forgiven see strange and difficult family dynamics, rifts and personality clashes push their way to the surface. Homes does not flinch from this and gets stuck in to portray the dysfunction. Does she think all families are like this?
“I think so. I think we do, as humans, probably have more in common than not. And with George and Harry, I wanted to go for a level of a Cane and Abel sort of biblical sibling rivalry. I like exploring people who never existed in literature before, the characters who weren’t there before. They come alive and I really, really enjoy writing and bringing them to life.”
Homes’s work has an element of cynicism and bleakness, yet there is an intense strain of bright hopefulness running through her writing. All her characters, as the introduction to May We Be Forgiven suggests, are always coming through something; even if they don’t know it, they’re working to emerge in one piece from tough times. Despite the harrowing brute force, the novel is laced with hope.
“Yeah, I think of it as hopeful. I don’t think of myself as cynical at all. It’s just that everyday life is weird.”
MAY WE BE FORGIVEN, by AM Homes (Granta, $36.99).