I’ve been reading AM Homes’ work since I was in college. “Security of objects”, her first collection of mind-bending, border-crossing stories had one of the most profound effects on me as a reader who would be a writer. You can write about anything you want, the book showed me, you just have to find your own voice and do it well.
Since that collection, Homes has published nine works of fiction and a memoir, “The Mistress’s Daughter,” which chronicles her experience of meeting her immature, lonely biological mother and her biological father, who denies her existence. He examines his family history and his place within it. It leans into discomfort, both for the reader and the writer. So many indelible scenes from Homes are imprinted in my imagination: a suburban couple doing drugs while their children are at Grandma’s, a couple mating on the kitchen floor while live lobsters escape from the pot, a man with his fist in a turkey. These moments are like John Currin paintings where precision, skill and humor puncture social mores.
Ten years ago, Homes and I talked about her previous novel, winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction “may we be forgiven.” This novel, both satirical and intimate, examined topics such as the warring brothers, the Jewish faith and Richard Nixon.
A lot has changed for all of us over the past decade, so I spoke with Homes via Zoom about his new novel, “The Unfolding.” Books in multiple languages appeared on the built-in shelves of her home in New York. There was a rolling suitcase on the floor — she just got back from a book tour and turned her attention to the new semester at Princeton where she teaches creative writing.
“The Unfolding” looks at the 2008 presidential election through the perspective of a wealthy white Republican who, unnerved by McCain’s loss to Obama, will do anything to end progressivism in the White House. The story opens on that historic election night in Phoenix, Arizona, where our protagonist, “The Big Guy”, who helped fund the campaign, decides to form a group called the Forever Men, who will stop at nothing. to “take back” the country.
While not much happens in DC proper, this is a deeply Washington romance – Homes grew up in Chevy Chase, where roads were blocked off for President Ford’s motorcade and Watergate was a veritable place to be. you had to drive to get to the airport.
I grew up there too – in fact, Homes and I, at different times, went to the same high school (go Barons!). And, by a strange coincidence, since we both grew up in Jewish families, we went to the same Christian camp in North Carolina. Homes and I laughed about how we had to pray and how on Sundays we had to wear polyester underwear that didn’t fit, and how much we loved archery and the shooting range. But imagining him there, singing hymns in the dining room with oatmeal and gravy, made me think of something more serious, which is the outsider’s point of view. For a writer, this position can be solemn or humorous, but it is essential.
As “The Unfolding” examines what’s to come in the post-Obama era, including the Jan. 6 attack, it seems to anticipate rather than chronicle the real-life events we know well, as they grow organically from the decisions of those characters. Formally, the book also does something important, which is to merge two distinct styles of fiction. It brings together a broad social romance (generally considered to be the province of American men, dealing with the political and social involvement of men’s lives) and a more intimate domestic romance that details, quite movingly, the life of the girl of a man and his wife.
Big Guy’s wife, Charlotte, was born in a time when a woman’s most important life choices were relegated to the husband she would choose. In “The Unfolding,” she and her daughter, Meghan, a student at an elite prep school outside of Washington DC, both journey to different self-discoveries.laugh.
“I wanted to look at the evolution of women’s lives, and I wanted there to be this multi-generational view,” Homes told me. “We think women have come this far, and they each have their own kind of awakening and awareness in their lives. Different generations reveal different awakenings.
This more intimate look at the lives of women in the domestic sphere has often been relegated to the rank of “feminine novel”. Homes recounted one of his recent bookstore reads, where a man picked up his book and said he would get it for his wife. When she protested, “listen, it’s about men, you can read it,” he objected again and put the book back on the table.
Meg Wolitzer brought up the idea that women can’t or don’t write great books of ideas in the New York Times more than a decade ago, but it persists.
“Men get a lot of extra credit when they write a family romance. Like when Jonathan Franzen writes a family romance, they’re like, ‘oh, a brilliant family romance.’ Meanwhile, women write family romances all the time. , and no one seems to notice. I often work with the least likely character. So in a way, who is the least likely character to talk about our system? And you could say that’s a big, bloated guy, a guy who’s completely unaware of his own privilege, his own power, and most of all, he’s oblivious to the space he’s occupying.
One of the many secrets of writing the long sustained project of a novel is that once you get to know your characters, whoever they are, you put them to bed when you get up from your desk and wake them up when you sit down. . You’ve been with them for years in this way, and it made me think about having to face a character like Big Guy every day in the world of his own fiction.
“That guy is definitely the opposite of how I grew up. Definitely the opposite of my family values, the people I saw around me,” Homes said. in a deeply human way. Some people say to me, ‘Am I supposed to like this person?’ But I think loving them is kind of irrelevant. I think I was able to write to him because he was able to reveal his own vulnerability and insecurity to me. As much as his values and beliefs are quite different from mine, as much as I feel quite tender towards him, I really like spending time with people who live in very, very different ways and who think very differently because it’s quite fascinating for me to go to his place.
What would be in Big Guy’s house? Homes speculated that Gentiles and Jews use different types of toothpaste. “Crest with the blue and white,” she said, “is Jewish toothpaste and Colgate is for the Gentiles.”
Homes’ previous novel, “may we be forgiven“, was very centered on a certain Jewish experience, and Homes itself is Jewish.
But in her latest, “my identity is largely absent – which is both interesting and problematic,” she told me. “I don’t feel like I see myself represented in the world around me – I don’t feel like I can easily describe my identity. akin to being born as Barbara Bush and growing up being told you’re Emma Goldman My lack of a firm identity also allows me to inhabit other people’s experience quite easily, and so that part is fun and liberating.
Homes knows that the ability to shapeshift gives him a choice that not everyone else has. “Of course,” she told her students, “if the glass door was locked and I knocked on it, knocked to get in, someone on the other side would see me and let me in. I wouldn’t be locked out.”
I can think of few people who have observed American life through fiction in such a broad, varied, and demanding way. I’m thinking of AM Homes removing the bow for archery at our summer camp in North Carolina. She told me the advisers cried when Nixon was indicted. I still remember singing about Jesus. Our middies were so rough. They didn’t match. Perhaps, Homes told me, her next project will be a new memoir, which takes another look at her upbringing as an adopted child.
Or, she says, almost as an aside, she wrote an article that shows Big Guy’s daughter all grown up. I think of what will become of the generation whose parents contributed to the growth of the new Republican Party. Who are the daughters of people who voted twice for Trump? Who will they be and how will they navigate the rapidly changing political and social work? I want only AM Homes to show me.
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