Plunged recently into the alternating sweet and nightmarish American cityscapes of novelist A. M. Homes. Love her worlds or hate them - some are more extreme than others and, having been compelled to buy the entire oeuvre, J had to chuck the novella about a paedophile cannibal in the bin before it made him throw up - they're a racy read. The two I chose to follow in hot pursuit were the terrifying Music for Torching and the redemptive This Book Will Save Your Life.
I sense that by writing This Book... after Music for Torching Homes wanted to follow bad with good rather than present both facets in one volume, as Philip Roth does so devastatingly in American Pastoral. Here's another writer it was high time I started to read, and Simon Winder's declaration in the wonderful Danubia that Roth (Philip rather than Joseph, which might have been more appropriate for the context) was his own favourite author seemed like a good enough recommendation. Protagonist of this amazing Pulitzer Prize winner is Swede Levov, a genuinely nice guy and not even as limited as his sporting background and successful working life as family business heir might suggest. He's tolerant, liberal and utterly supportive to his only daughter. Yet it is she who, by one appalling action, 'transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral - into the indigenous American berserk.'
Most of the book is devoted to Levov's imagination working feverish overtime trying to work out where he went wrong, what he has done to deserve it. And the only enlightenment, it seems, is this:
How to penetrate to the interior of people was some skill or capacity he did not possess. He just did not have the combination to that lock. Everybody who flashed the signs of goodness he took to be good. Everyone who flashed the signs of loyalty he took to be loyal. Everybody who flashed the signs of intelligence he took to be intelligent. And so he had failed to see into his daughter, failed to see into his wife, failed to see into his one and only mistress - probably had never even begun to see into himself. What was he, stripped of all the signs he flashed? People were standing up everywhere, shouting 'This is me! This is me!' Every time you looked at them they stood up and told you who they were, and the truth of it was that they had no more idea of who or what they were than he had. They believed their flashing signs too. They ought to be standing up and shouting, 'This isn't me! This isn't me!' They would if they had any decency. 'This isn't me!' Then you might know how to proceed through the flashing bullshit of this world.
Married couple Paul and Elaine in Homes' Music for Torching have no idea how to proceed through 'the flashing bullshit of this world' either, though it's not because they're too nice. They're falling apart, and the novel begins, as it were, with the denouement, which comes in the first chapter where Elaine kicks over the barbecue grill and sets fire to the house (no spoiler notice needed here. Homes pictured below by David Shankbone).
Where is the novel to go from here? Can this pair get any worse, give each other any more pain in their Strindbergian hell? Strictly, no, though the damage to the kids moves on apace and mostly unnoticed. Once in a while, they unexpectedly inspire pity and tenderness in us and in each other:
For the moment they are fantasies of themselves, their very best selves, the people they'd like to be, and then just a minute later they are once again their more familiar selves - petty, boring, limited.
Why doesn't either escape, get out of there? Homes' answer is that this is the only reality they know, even if it's hell and they are in it:
Every day Elaine thinks of disappearing. She will leave and take nothing with her - 'You have yourself' is what people say, and that's what stops her. She fears she is nothing. Nonexistent.
So even the liberating philosophy of Shakespeare's Parolles - 'simply the thing I am shall make me live' - has no validity in this modern identity crisis.
How on earth, then, to finish? Homes' solution is stagey, unconvincing (to me, at any rate), as if she just didn't know what to do: a consequence of the odd and, initially, daring structure. Roth, I think, has parallel problems. We observe 'the Swede' throughout the first part of the novel through an old school acquaintance, a familiar Roth alter ego (the author pictured below in 1973).
Who then disappears, leaving the author to retrace steps or rather go round in circles until we're stuck at a particular point in Levov's unhappy story where even more is about to go wrong. We know he survives it all outwardly because we've been told. But the ending towards the conclusion of a disastrous dinner party feels oddly inconclusive*.
Homes' This Book... follows a more comfortable trajectory, about a man in mid-life crisis who really does turn his world around with an honesty that would seem to have been alien to him up to the point at which the novel properly begins. Is it all too good to be true? Well, it's leavened with humour, irony and a surprisingly affectionate - when not scabrous - view of Los Angeles' looking-glass world. There's an unforgettable scene in which a horse gets stuck in a Beverly Hills sinkhole and has to be airlifted by the helicopter of a friendly neighbourhood movie star.
The arrivals on the scene of a housewife in meltdown and a reclusive Malibu writer warm the heart-cockles in an unexpected way; the hero's reunion with his son has 'feelgood movie rights' written all over it. Yet the exercise remains virtuosic, the unputdownable Homes pacy dialogue just as good as in Music for Torching, and above all it's creative donut shop owner Anhil who remains the good-angel constant. And that last photo? Well, we know that the French are turning against their own cuisine and so 'Les donuts, c'est la vie ' ought not to be too much of a surprise in central Lyon. Needless to say I didn't go in and buy one, but hived off to a patisserie in a sidestreet where I consumed...cannoli.
*With reason, it now turns out: see Sue Scheid's comment below.