Over at The Paris Review, Hannah Tennant-Moore defends the merits of disturbing literature. We are fascinated with the disturbing, because, as Tennant-Moore asserts, “wonder, disgust: both feelings are true.” Here’s a bonus piece on A.M. Homes’ darkly comic May We Be Forgiven and on comforting the disturbed — or is it disturbing the comforted?
Fiction is the next Detroit. Have you been there? I haven’t, but I’ve read plenty about it, which surely counts for something. Most of it is pretty grim stuff. For that matter, so is most of what you read about the state of contemporary American fiction, what with the demise of publishing and our whole world pixelated and digitized, not to mention Thursday night football and Sunday morning brunch, and just who the hell has the time to read a whole book anyway?
Eulogies for high literature have become a sort of genre of their own. These have sometimes been unrelentingly dour, like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, and sometimes amusingly hectoring, like “Where Have All The Mailers Gone?”, a New York Observer essay in which Lee Siegel calls fiction “a museum-piece genre most of whose practitioners are more like cripplingly self-conscious curators or theoreticians than writers.” The most famous entry in this genre, though, probably remains Jonathan Franzen’s 1996 essay in Harper’s, “Perchance to Dream,” in which he presciently (and without any of the usual histrionics) predicted what would happen to fiction in the ensuing years: “The institution of writing and reading serious novels is like a grand old Middle American city gutted and drained by superhighways,” a hulking beast that has outlived its utility. The great city was abandoned, Franzen writes, because “the average man or woman’s entire life is increasingly structured to avoid precisely the kinds of conflicts on which fiction…has always thrived.”
The technologies introduced in the 17 years since Franzen (a native of that most “Middle American” of cities, St. Louis) wrote those words have only exacerbated the situation, letting the soul select and “like” her own society to a previously unimaginable degree. The Internet and all its attendant gewgaws have only further atomized communities, essentially reducing vast swaths of human discourse to the swipes and clicks of a finger. Having abandoned what Franzen called “the depressed literary inner city,” we have pushed out from the suburbs into even more discrete exurbs, our literature as ersatz as the McMansion subdivisions that riddle the landscape, our homes decorated with the inoffensive West Elm trappings of workshop fiction. This is obviously a very tricky place from which to write the sort of sweeping, universal literature that generally gets called art — in fact, given all the forces aligned against you, both cultural and economic, you’d almost have to be a fool to try. Might as well just scroll through your Netflix queue.
In one of those happy accidents of fate, I reread the Franzen essay almost right after having finished Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis. Binelli is a native of that much-mourned city, and while he enumerates the many signs of its postwar decline, his is a strangely optimistic narrative of those have stayed or actually moved to Detroit, messianically convinced that emptiness, rubble and neglect are the ingredients of a visionary new city upon the lake. Hipster farmers, European architects, African-American community activists — they have all taken Detroit’s thoroughly confirmed irrelevance as an asset that will let them rebuild as they want, free of both corporate and popular dictates.
That’s what I meant with the fiction-as-Detroit conceit. It is well known that the fortunes of the Motor City declined when, in the postwar era, Japan and Germany started making much better cars than we did. What happened to the American automotive industry some half-century ago is happening today, more or less, to American publishing: declining interest in the product, high legacy costs, cheaper competitors (i.e., ebooks), a workforce slow to adapt. By that logic, literature is dead or dying, doomed to the sort of irrelevance that left Detroit looking like firebombed Dresden.
This, however, does not have me worried. I, for one, am happy to occupy that gutted and forgotten city, much as Franzen was back in 1996, much as some college graduate right now is dreaming of escaping his parents’ basement for a coldwater loft. Literature could not find itself in a better place from which to escape the confining and picayune interiority of the last half-century.
I am going to push this urban metaphor a little further, not for the sake of trying to be clever but because it gets at the very problem facing fiction. The audience for literature today is generally well-off and suburban — these are the people, after all, who have time to think about their profoundly personal problems and read books that purport to solve or at least mirror them. So, then, if the ruined metropolis is the sort of serious fiction that Franzen championed, then the suburbs are the predictable comforts of memoir like Eat, Pray, Love, or its fictional equivalent.
There is something freeing in neglect, in the knowledge that literature has lost its centrality in the American experience, that we neither have new Mailers, nor yearn for them, that we have been abandoned for more the more passive pastures of the digital age. With that knowledge already beneath our skin, why bother trying to attract Starbucks to Gratiot Ave? Let us brew our own, stronger coffee: Joshua Cohen’s Witz; A.M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven. Elizabeth Gilbert can keep her millions.
I guess what I am calling for is the literary equivalent of “rightsizing,” in the lingo of urban planners. The concept suggests that we reclaim cities by returning them to their core functions, by shedding the sprawl that doomed them in the second half of the 20th century — the same cultural sprawl that has diluted American fiction. Writing of Detroit’s plan to rightsize back in 2010, The Economist was glad that “harsh realities have produced radical thinking,” praising Mayor Dave Bing for recognizing the “painful necessity” that the Detroit of bustling factories could never be again.
In fact, Detroit’s automotive industry has become back: not enough to return the city to its halcyon days, not enough to heal the scars of its decline, but certainly more than doomsayers would have expected a decade ago. It has done so by becoming leaner, smarter, no longer peddling Hummers, thinking of green energy and efficiency as more than just the fads of coastal elites. Publishing will have to do the same thing if it wants to save the literary city. It will likely have to look at smaller presses that are publishing less, but editing more, that are repacking classics in unexpected ways, that are finding ways to be beat Amazon at the ebook game.
And the city will be saved. Because while the city may shrink, it cannot be allowed to die, either — cities, like books, will always attract those who reject more anodyne pastures. The city is where real problems reside, along with the people who suffer from them — and those who, to borrow from Auden, cannot help but act as “an affirming flame.” Today’s suburbanized literature — a dim light bulb — has largely cast aside the sweeping social concerns that animated, say, The Grapes of Wrath and Native Son. A big social novel is like a great old train station; a nice thought, but impractical in this day and age. Who will go there, anyway? A bus shelter will do.
Both of the above novels are Detroit fiction: unruly, uncouth, imperfect, tragic, frequently beautiful, sometimes ugly. Which isn’t to say that Detroit fiction always has to be 600 pages long and cover the entire arc of American history. Henry Miller’s furiously personal Tropic novels are squarely Detroit in their ambition to catalog “the hot lava which was bubbling inside me.” So are the cerebral short stories of Lydia Davis, who gets at the human condition in seven stabbing words: “Heart weeps. Head tries to help heart.” That’s about as far from the suburbs as you can get.
Suburban novels are, in the end, a double illusion: the basic one of fiction, followed by the more poisonous promise that reading, say, Paulo Coelho is really going to improve your life. Their counterpart is the McMansion with its ersatz Tudor accents and assurances that within is everything you could ever needed. This is obviously not true. The world is out there. Detroit awaits.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
As we’ve done for several years now, we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover art is an interesting element of the literary world — sometimes fixated upon, sometimes ignored — but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. And, while many of us no longer do most of our reading on physical books with physical covers, those same cover images now beckon us from their grids in the various online bookstores. From my days as a bookseller, when import titles would sometimes find their way into our store, I’ve always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another. This would seem to suggest that certain layouts and imagery will better appeal to readers on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other. These differences are especially striking when we look at the covers side by side. The American covers are on the left, and the UK are on the right. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.
I much prefer the U.K. version here. The woodblock art is sublime, and the red and black are nice and bold.
You can go home again. I’m barely living proof. I’m writing this on Thanksgiving, in my childhood home in San Antonio. I drove here from Austin last night, with my partner, Leela, and our three dogs. Downstairs, my mother is peeling potatoes and watching MSNBC. Leela is drinking coffee and making a pie crust. I’m staring at a bookshelf in the room where my brother, Randy, used to sleep — there’s Flann O’Brien, John Updike, Stephen Jay Gould. Randy died in 2010. This is my first Thanksgiving at home without him. I’m listening to Alejandro Escovedo sing “Five Hearts Breaking,” a song I’ve had stuck in my head ever since Leela and I crossed Loop 1604, on repeat: “Everything will be all right,” he promises, over and over again.
Ever since I came home, I’ve been thinking of the best novel I read this year, A.M. Homes’s stunning May We Be Forgiven. That’s not surprising — the book opens and closes with family Thanksgiving dinners, the first one dreadful, the second, triumphant. It’s the same family, except that it’s not — the protagonist Harold Silver and his niece and nephew are there at both dinners, but not much else looks the same. Harold’s wife, brother, and sister-in-law have all gone away. It happens.
In the years since I lost my brother, I’ve been thinking a lot about the moral force of literature, which didn’t mean much to me as a smirking faux-postmodernist teenager, but means everything to me now. May We Be Forgiven is a deeply moral novel, though it’s never moralistic. The characters cheat on their spouses; they lie and neglect and even murder. Homes keeps a distance throughout; she’s not judgmental, but neither is she naive enough to presume that we won’t, or shouldn’t, judge one another. One of the book’s main characters — in absentia, obviously — is the famously amoral President Richard Nixon, about whom Harold, a historian, is writing a book. Another character is the Internet, which ends up acting as both destroyer and redeemer:
There is a world out there, so new, so random and disassociated that it puts us all in danger. We talk online, 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 digitized version — it is easier, because we can be both our truer selves and our fantasy selves all at once, with each carrying equal weight.
You could call that moralizing, of course, but only if you’re completely oblivious — only if you’re too far gone to realize the difference between liking something and “liking” it. Don’t worry if you are; you’d be in good company.
It’s an unbearable cliché to say that a book can change your life, and the fact that sometimes it’s true, perhaps, doesn’t make it any less trite. I don’t know whether May We Be Forgiven has changed my life; if it has, it will be years before I realize how, or why. I do know that it’s affected me more than any novel I’ve read in years, and I do know that it’s a masterpiece.
And I know that it’s courageous, and an unambiguous force for moral good. If you’re too young or distant or callow to care about that, don’t worry — you will someday, and it’ll hurt like hell, and you’ll be glad, at some point, that it happened. May We Be Forgiven is a prayer, like the one I learned as a child in Catholic school, and found myself reciting a few years ago, over and over again: “Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.”
I’m not a religious man, except maybe I am. All I know is that I don’t know. Whether we’re forgiven or not, may we be worthy of our families, the living and the dead, the ones for whom we’d give all we have. May we learn to forgive ourselves. May everything be all right. Amen.
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The suburban Dick and Jane characters of A.M. Homes’s oeuvre smoke crack, set their homes ablaze, lust for Barbie dolls, and teach teenage girls the art of perversion. In her new novel, the trend continues with a duplicitous protagonist whose actions take us straight to the divided heart of human consciousness.
Spineless college professor and Nixon scholar Harold Silver is wearing his brother’s pants. He’s using his brother’s driver’s license, living in his brother’s home, and taking care of his brother’s kids. Younger taller brother George, a successful TV executive and the more charming, more mercurial half of the pair, has killed wife Jane after finding her in bed with brother Harry. Within the first few pages of the novel, Jane is dead and George has been exiled to The Lodge, an in-patient facility for wealthy murderers with good insurance, leaving Harry to pick up the pieces of his brother’s dramatically disaggregating life. A year later, Harry will reminisce on the night he stood pressed against Jane over the greasy carcass of a Thanksgiving turkey and he’ll ask the question that serves as the title of the book: “May We Be Forgiven?”
Wait. Rewind. May who be forgiven?
We’ll get to that, but first let’s talk about the plot. The twists and turns in May We Be Forgiven are classic A.M. Homes. At first glance, Harry is a bumbling everyday man who imagines himself, much like his unlikely hero Richard Nixon, an unassuming salt-of-the-earth kind of guy who just happens to find himself in one compromising situation after another. He stumbles onto his brother’s internet porn where people advertise their bare bits like a pride of lions on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Then, as if there’s no other option, he drives across town for a real-time tryst with a woman who insists on paying for sex because she wants a man who can feel both the pleasure and the degradation. Later, we find Harry seeking redemption at a church meeting where, under the alias Nit, he divulges his darkest secrets to a group of people who respond by asking if he has a drinking problem (oops, wrong meeting). After several visits to The Lodge, things get even stranger when George is transferred to The Woodsman, a “low-cost survival-of-the-fittest penal colony” where micro-chipped prisoners police themselves under constant satellite surveillance, also Wild Kingdom-style.
Somewhere amidst murder, kinky sex, and Harry’s budding relationships with a collection of random strangers, is a nested story about impeached President Richard Nixon. Homes’s satire on the troubled history of the American Presidency not only adds a layer of complexity to Harry’s character, it also raises questions about our ignorance of American institutions of government. But, as with the rest of the novel, she administers this medicine with a dose of scintillating humor. For instance, in Harry’s theory of Presidential politics, there are two types of Presidents: one type has a lot of sex and the other type starts wars. In short, says Harry, and “don’t quote me because this is an incomplete expression of a more complex premise — I believe blow jobs prevent wars.”
One can certainly follow the advice of the dust jacket and read the novel as a darkly comic tale about a family reinventing itself after a series of blunders and tragedies. But wouldn’t it be more fun to pay attention to the book’s duplicity, its cornucopia of references to history, culture and authors like John Cheever, who appears in the novel as an apparition, and Robert Louis Stevenson, who shows up indirectly when George tells Harry to mind the black spot on his Gertrude Jekyll roses? Wouldn’t it be more interesting, in other words, to read Harry as a man who doesn’t know he’s gone mad and whose brother George, like the ghost of Cheever, is also an apparition? Scenes where Harry asks George if “we screw[ed]…the neighbor lady” leave the impression that there’s more going on here than pathologically blurred boundaries. Similarly, when Harry looks in the mirror and watches his face divide and fall in half, when he considers himself as much a murderer as George, and asks himself why he’s out of context as if he doesn’t really exist, we feel a sense of vertigo.
This does beg the question, who is the “we” asking to be forgiven in the opening paragraph of the novel? Certainly readers will find in Harry echoes of the adulterer, John the Baptist, praying for us all to be forgiven our sins. Homes repeatedly plays upon religious irony, including one of my favorite scenes at a Yom Kippur service in which Harry joyously proclaims, “I am guilty. I am guilty of even more than I realized I could be guilty of…,” while a rabbi recites a litany of familiar sins. Beneath the surface, Harry never really connects his guilt with his actions. He’s a multifaceted character who projects everything dark and desirous onto a brother he can’t distinguish from himself, suggesting that the “we” is a beastly side of Harry, personified in George. But this remains an open question because Homes is a novelist who immerses readers in the world of her characters and keeps them there from beginning to end. May We Be Forgiven is a novel that never breaks that pact.
This, friends, is the crowning achievement of the novel. As unreliable narrators go, Homes’s fraternal doppelgänger outdoes both that of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho and the unnamed insomniac putz who fights with his alter-ego in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. The difference is that there’s a certain rationality in the two wildly popular precursors, which allows the reader to sit back and watch the character’s insanity unfold. James Wood calls this kind of narration “reliably unreliable.” Referencing seminal examples of unreliable first-person narration like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Nabokov’s Lolita, Wood argues that these novels teach us how to read the character’s instability because their authors alert us to it and show us how to plug the holes.
In May We Be Forgiven, the reader doesn’t have the luxury of distance. From page one, she is inside Harry’s head, inside his body, feeling his dizzying confusion, perhaps even hallucinating up a whole makeshift family, unable to distinguish reality from a dream in one moment and just a regular guy in the next. This places Harry Silver in the far more rare category of “unreliably unreliable” narrators, a category populated by only a handful of novels, most notably the underground man of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground.
David Foster Wallace said that good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. This book may not be the first choice for those who want to be comfortable. Its point of view is unsettling, even outright disturbing. At times, I felt like I was sitting on the weighted bob of Foucault’s pendulum (also noted in the book), the background shifting constantly and characters appear and disappear as the pendulum swings from one context to the next. Other times, I felt as though I was inside an Escher piece, from one angle viewing a perfect portrait of a mad man; from another, a world that looked frighteningly familiar, Harry’s madness a symptom of the fragmented, dissociated, techno-happy culture we live in.
While Homes’s tragicomedy may trouble some readers, it meets and far exceeds Wallace’s criteria for good fiction. For readers like me who choose Homes’s work because it reminds us to be courageous and shows us how to do it, May We Be Forgiven does not disappoint: it gives us a rare journey inside the divided heart of human consciousness, not a brief visit from a safe distance.
A.M. Homes remains the most daring voice of her generation and May We Be Forgiven is her magnum opus.
Another bumper crop of books this week is led by J.K Rowling’s post-Potter effort, The Casual Vacancy is on shelves, as are May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes, Canvas by Benjamin Stein, Panorama City by Antoine Wilson, Sutton by J.R. Moehringer, Tarun J. Tejpal’s debut The Story of my Assassins. On the non-fiction side, Nate Silver’s long-awaited The Signal and the Noise is here, as is Neil Young’s memoir Waging Heavy Peace. New in paperback: John Warner’s Funny Man (the edition includes an essay by Warner that ran on The Millions) and Emma Donoghue’s blockbuster The Room.