May We Be Forgiven, by A.M. Homes, Granta £16.99/Viking $27.95, 496 pages
The first 25 pages of A.M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven contain adultery, a fatal car crash and a bloody murder. Any likeness to TV drama is no coincidence: Homes, a novelist who has also written and produced for the US Showtime series The L Word, and who is developing a series for HBO, populates her sixth novel with characters who mediate their realities.
George Silver, a producer lauded for his “ability to parse popular culture, to deliver us back to ourselves – ever so slightly mockingly, in the format best known as the half-hour sitcom or the news hour”, has a TV in every room of his New York home, including the bathroom, to ward off loneliness. Midway into this novel, having been imprisoned for murdering his wife with a bedside lamp, he uses an iPad from his confinement to order luxury items from Amazon Prime.
His traumatised 11-year-old daughter, meanwhile, turns to daytime soap operas All My Children and General Hospital because, as she explains to her uncle on Skype, “they really help me to understand the world and get some perspective. Also, my life is more like the people on the soaps than most of the people round here.”
To call May We Be Forgiven “compelling” would be an understatement; it is a novel as compulsive as its characters. In the opening sequence, the narrator, Harold Silver, brother of George, is picking at the greasy carcase of the Thanksgiving turkey, when his sister-in-law Jane shoves him against the kitchen counter. (“Could you let me have a little pleasure?” she asks him, “a little something that’s just for myself?”)
In the aftermath of Jane’s murder by George, Harold finds himself the legal guardian of his young nephew and niece, along with his brother’s house, bank account, and a seemingly endless supply of dry-cleaned suits. His life warped beyond recognition, he subsists on Valium and Chinese fast food, before turning to his brother’s preferred pastime of internet dating. Soon, he meets a married woman who feeds him a multicourse meal before offering him a sexual manoeuvre she calls a “dough job”.
Throughout the novel, Homes maintains an almost ghoulish interest in her characters’ bodily functions and malfunctions. Animals emit wind and have diarrhoea; people get eye infections and strep throat; they vomit, and otherwise “erupt”. Having witnessed Jane’s murder, Harold imagines brains are floating in his soup and, later, while eating a slice of pizza, describes his discomfort. “I burn the roof of my mouth on the first bite,” he says, “and manage to peel it off with the third – after that I taste nothing except my own flesh.” In the aftermath of tragedy, everything is out of joint; long gone are the days of the home-cooked family meal.
“Where does one go from here?” Harold asks after he has disposed of the mattress stained by his sister-in-law’s gore. It’s a good question in a novel of 500 pages primarily occupied with clearing up the mess of the first two dozen. But rather than aiming for epiphany, Homes bombards the reader with hundreds of short, deadpan set-pieces: Harold suffers a stroke; loses his job; bonds with the kids; falls for a woman he meets in the supermarket.
Homes’s dialogue is clever – and cleverly irritating: it resounds with the too-quick responses and shallow humour of a sitcom. (At Jane’s funeral, a woman identifies herself to Harold as his late sister-in-law’s hygienist. “We used to have wonderful talks,” she says, “well, mostly I talked, she had the saliva sucker on, but she was a good listener.”)
The influences of John Cheever and Don DeLillo are easy to spot; in fact, Harold bumps into the author of White Noise first outside Starbucks, and then at the mall. Further meta-literary tricks await: Harold, a university professor, is writing a biography of Richard Nixon (called While We Were Sleeping: The American Dream Turned Nightmare – Richard Nixon, Vietnam, and Watergate: The Psychogenic Melting Point). The shamed president captures Harold’s interest for reasons at first intellectual, then emotional; both men suffered strokes after their “gates”. Harold’s fascination goes deeper still; the president, he realises, represents for him a father figure – another bully who nurtured in his country the kinds of lies and violence that were rife in Harold’s own childhood home. (Nixon is also revealed to have been a writer of short stories, which Harold dutifully sends to Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker.)
Homes’s last work, The Mistress’s Daughter (2007), was a memoir in which she described her journey to find the almost unforgivably flawed parents who gave her up for adoption as a baby; in this chaotic, impressive novel, she demonstrates an innate understanding of the need to investigate our families, and to invent new ones. By the novel’s close, Harold has become the competent caregiver to three children, two cats, one dog, a married woman and an elderly husband and his wife.
For all its wit, May We Be Forgiven has a surprising warmth that is all the more touching for being forged from the grotesque.