Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Music For Torching by AM Homes

Music For Torching was AM Homes’s next novel after the daringly controversial The End of Alice, a fact which may explain much. The End of Alice (reviewed here) was a portrait of a paedophile which presented the protagonist as a more rounded and considered individual than is normally the case for such characters, and an explosion of righteous outrage duly followed. Homes, then, is clearly not an author afraid of offending, nor of taking risks with her fiction. She is also an extremely gifted crafter of a novel and deliciously funny. Now, controversial and funny are often ideal bedfellows – think Lenny Bruce – but there are always pressures to be addressed and humour can easily slip over into fatuity.

That said, for nine-tenths, maybe nineteen-twentieths, maybe even ninety-nine one-hundredths of this novel I thought it was brilliant. It dragged me along relentlessly, and I was totally taken into the lives of these (bizarre) characters. It is the ending that causes the difficulty. More of that later.

We’re in typical Homes territory here: dysfunctional adults, behaving mostly like adolescents but on the cusp of a crisis. This is played for laughs, like something out of a grungier Joseph Connolly or Mavis Cheek, but Homes is also a serious writer, and in her comedy of disintegration there is always a tart rejoinder to modern society: Alice presented us with a disquieting mirror, forcing us to confront some unpalatable truths, while This Book Will Save Your Life asked questions about the nature of community and friendship. Music For Torching is a farce which focuses on the way we use people, take them for granted, look for our own gratification first. At least that’s what I decided at the end.

We first meet Paul and Elaine when Paul is wrestling Elaine’s pantyhose down while she attempts to wash up, and she inflicts a neck wound on him with a knife. They fuck, riotously. Not much later, they decide they’ve had enough, set fire to their house and flee the banality of their existence, with their two children in tow, heading for a nearby hotel. So, it seems, we’re in stale and jaded suburbia, midway between Carver and Cheever in the social scale, but with an outrageous quality to the plotting which is all Homes. A sexual roundabout ensues. Elaine has a lesbian tryst with her neighbour and friend, the Stepford Wife Pat, and later, unsuccessfully, brutally, with a policeman; Paul is screwing his son’s best friend’s mom, and also the passive-aggressive mistress of his best friend, a woman who, during a lunchtime rendezvous, encourages him to have his groin tattooed. Not an easy thing to explain to your wife, one would think, but given that Paul has previously shaved off all his body hair and taken to wearing sheer nightgowns, it is perhaps not surprising that he gets away with it. Even the children get in on the act: the couple’s oldest son, a morose and uncommunicative boy, has a stash of fat-women porn in his bedroom, which Paul later uses himself in one of his rare moments of solitude.

All of this sounds like slapstick, and yet it works because Homes’s prose is so clean and crisp. She doesn’t play it purely for laughs and, all the while we are immersed in Paul and Elaine’s world, it feels entirely credible that someone should take an axe to the living room table or that the architects would aim a wrecking ball at the house while the family are still in it, waving out at them. The novel creates, then, a register of its own, and it seduces the reader into its strange, hallucinogenic world. Or does it?

As I said, the ending of the novel is a difficulty for me. Without wishing to give much away, the register I referred to – of barely restrained, comedic hysteria – slips entirely into something else. The shift is extraordinary. It is a slap in the face. It is so unsubtle it must surely have been deliberate, because Homes is a superb writer, but why? After reading the ending, I had the horrible feeling that I had completely misread the preceding 350 pages and that this novel has a much more malevolent soul than I had imagined. Where This Book Will Save Your Life ended in the same hopeful joi de vivre that had inhabited the rest of the novel, here the similar tone of much of Music For Torching is not replicated in the ending. For me, it doesn’t work; it feels cold and manipulative, out of sympathy with what had gone before. It tries to pack an emotional punch, but nothing has set up the reader for that punch so, when it comes, it feels only dull rather than exerting any power. The characterisation has, throughout, been of a kind which does not engage the sympathy of the reader so much as his or her support. There is a big difference. When the crisis comes at the end, the reader is not prepared for it and not able to respond appropriately. Quite simply, I hadn’t been led to care enough, and it all fell flat.

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