I would like The American Dream to leave me alone. Or, rather, fictional deconstructions of the American Dream to leave me alone. Because it rather feels like they are hounding me lately – We Are Not Ourselves, Family Life, now May We Be Forgiven. And they’re always depressing. Can I just say to them once and for all: Philip Roth has already done that, in American Pastoral. And he did it better than you EVER will. So go bother someone else.
But although I do feel a slight groundhog day over yet another East-Coast-American-Family-Trauma novel, I have to admit that at least this one doesn’t leave it at miserable deconstruction, but offers an alternate philosophy.
May We Be Forgiven is the bizarre, hyper-real tale of a man whose affair with his brother’s wife quickly goes about as wrong as it conceivably could. The protagonist quickly finds himself bereaved, divorced, shackled to a maniac institutionalised brother, having to cope with sudden and full responsibility for his young neice and nephew. There’s barely time to blink. Homes comes at you with it all – death, sex, childhood, job loss, stroke – thick and fast. And that’s just the half of it – there’s the surreal too: kidnapping, bizarre prison experiments, drugs, internet sex, African bar mitzvah, laser quest for swingers… much of this summing up Homes’ clear position against the nasty digital modern world, a sheen of screens and a void of connection.
“There is a world out there, so new, so random and dissociated 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 digitised version …”
This lays (thoroughly) the bleak morass from which the book does, eventually, effortfully, begin to climb – and climb towards a more conventional goal that you’d expect from all the weirdness. From a dysfunctional start, the gradual formations of functional relationships (Harry with the 2 children and an older couple he somewhat unfeasibly adopts) that are his, and the book’s, redemption. Who would have thought the simplicity of an uncle taking good care of his wards, listening to them, giving them good advice, being thoughtful and ultimately enjoying the experience, would be so very edifying? But after the wild free-for-all at the beginning, it is an oasis! Homes’s position is clear: redemption is non-sexual relationship; families built, not created by genes. Near the end the protagonist is told “You’re human now” – and he is made so by opening his life meaningfully to others.
I must just take a moment to say how weirdly MALE this book is – it seems almost impossible that it was, in fact, written by a woman. The cold masculinity of the first half is so typical of the most narcissistic male narrators (hello Updike – my next post) that though I should have been impressed that Homes pulled it off, I was in fact just repelled by its sheer sterility. No doubt that was the point. But it didn’t make for enjoyable reading until very late on, hence my anti-American-dream fatigue.
But as reviewer, not reader, I must admit that this book comes out with a credible and relieving alternative to the self-centered self-betterment of that dream: warm humanity. The irony is that a book troubled by homicide and thick with wry modern observations about internet-sex, the dire state of mental health and prison services, the message is old as E M Forster’s famous Howard’s End conclusion: Only Connect.