The act of writing about a book has, for me, several consequences. It helps me determine what I thought about it – until then I often know only what I felt about it (and sometimes not even that). The business of articulating the thoughts crystallises them. But the words, once settled, become permanent and blot out everything else. When I look back at books I read years ago, I can remember nothing outside what I’ve written. This may be an improvement – if I hadn’t written about the book at all, then maybe I’d remember nothing about it – but it frustrates me when I see what I wrote, for example, on A.M. Homes’ previous novel This Book Will Change Your Life. What I said seems evasive, and I can’t help wondering what I would think of the book now. Short of re-reading it – who has the time! – the best option is to try her next.
May We Be Forgiven is largely wonderful, largely satisfying: ‘largely’ because, at almost 500 pages of pretty tight type, it hefts its epic status at you before you’ve even begun. As a year in the utterly changed life of an American man, Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving, it could be terrible: heavy with significance and with no self-awareness. It sometimes veers close, but mostly it surprises and subverts and is entirely gripping, in that way that books heavy on dialogue and without chapter breaks can be.
Harry Silver, who hates his TV executive brother George, finds himself simultaneously at the centre of things – in charge, on the front pages – and pushed to the side of his own life, after a series of mind-spinning, page-turning events. “Look at me. Look what has happened. Look what I have done. Take notice.” Harry is not entirely a bystander in these events, so when George is no longer able to look after his children Ashley and Nate, Harry steps in. George is so famous (“singularly responsible for shows such as Refrigerator Wars“), and the events that befall the family so grotesque, that Harry becomes public property: people have made their minds up about him, and what he actually does is barely relevant. This frees him to follow his instincts, to learn to become both a mother and a father to Ashley and Nate – and to the family dog.
This gives us one of the most refreshing elements of an engaging book: a book that piles incident on incident, relentless, unstoppable, and leaves the reader trampled but grateful, page-drunk. It’s that Homes spares us Harry’s past, so when we see the thread of his life unwinding and knitting something else, it is like witnessing the creation of a new person from nothing. Harry sees himself as being “in endless freefall, the plummeting slowed only by the interruption of being summoned to do something for someone else,” which sounds a lot like life as we all know it. But there’s also a dreamlike quality to that description – it reminded me of Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled – and sure enough, Harry has some literally nightmarish encounters such as being confused with his brother, and plenty of circular exchanges with officialdom which are not so much Kafkesque as Kafkaish.
I had better point out that one of the prime appeals of May We Be Forgiven is how funny it is. The stream of off-centre characters, bizarre conceits, absurd subplots, never stops. Comic highlight follows comic highlight, such as the scene when Harry (freed from society’s usual limitations) is receiving a blowjob from one of his many internet dates, and her son comes home. We get up-to-the-minute satire in a penal colony which combines outdoor pursuits with reality TV. And when Harry visits his mother in her residential home, he is greeted by another family telling him, “Do us all a favour – keep your hooker mother away from our father.” But there is also a fascinating ribbon woven through the story of political corruption and conspiracy in America, exemplified by Richard Nixon. Harry teaches Nixon studies to apathetic scholars, is “writing a book” about him, and during the course of his year of slow release, will get closer to Tricky Dicky than he ever thought possible. Harry’s interest in Nixon is
in his personality and the ways in which his actions and reactions were of a particular era and culture – the era that built and defined the American dream. […] Without Kennedy’s assassination we wouldn’t have had Johnson, who paved the way for Nixon. Look at the Presidents all in a row and it makes sense: they are a psychological progression from one to another, all about the unspoken needs and desires and conflicts of the American people.
These are the strongest nods that here we have a form of great American novel: and so it is, but approached and executed in an entirely disarming way, a million miles from what Gilbert Adair called the “fat, virtuosically executed novel by one of that new breed of American wunderkinder who, I would be lying if I denied it, are positively bloated with talent but who are also just too fucking pleased with themselves.” With sly references to Cheever, cameo appearances by Don DeLillo, and a law firm named Herzog, Henderson & March, Homes wittily puts her flag on the lawn of the big American boys.
All through May We Be Forgiven, my thought was “where is this going?” It is a story of a man bobbing on a storm of events, and somehow thriving, of a life unplucked stitch by stitch until only the narrowest thread holds it, and then not even that. It is a twisted but loving portrait of a time and a country, and of the family unit (though as a contemporary novel, the absence of the economic crisis seems odd: the book was begun in 2005). There is so much going on that I had a tense time wondering whether Homes could keep her plates spinning, to what extent she was really in control, whether she could bring it to a successful conclusion – and, more and more, whether all those things really mattered. As his life flywheels further and further out from its origins, Harry finds himself “craving the normal, the repetitious, the everyday, the banal.” And a book which keeps itself close to the details, which doesn’t shout or put out flags beyond its dramatic early scenes, might be expected to resist the unlifelike artifice of a climax.
In the last fifth of the book, or thereabouts, Homes does start to put her thumb more obviously on the scales, beginning with the section where Harry takes the children to South Africa for Nate’s bar mitzvah. To end a book with established characters in exotic places is not new, but this feels more like Auster’s Invisible than Waugh’s Handful of Dust. There is a little light and predictable mocking of American insularity – “Do they have electricity there? Is it the same alphabet?” – but what throws the book off-key is the jarring swell of sincerity once they touch down in Johannesburg. Throughout the book, Homes walks a tightrope between sweetness and cynicism, but here she falls into the safety net. Although Harry continues to suffer indignities, here, uniquely, the people surrounding him are exempted. It is, perhaps, impossible for a white western author to write ironically about Africa, but the wide-eyed wonder here risks turning a breath of fresh air into a spray of cheap cologne.
The key is whether or not this misstep can corrode what went before. It did make me wonder if the sentimentality in the Africa section was present all along. Perhaps my experience of the book as pleasingly balanced in its sharpness/softness, was determined by my expectations, my knowledge that Homes was an author not known for niceness, and whose most famous book for a time was about a paedophile’s plot to seduce a child. Perhaps the darkness I saw under the happiness was just my own shadow. But I don’t think that disappointment is inevitable in this situation. If the book had ended before the bar mitzvah, for example, my praise would have been unadulterated: despite, and very likely because of, the lack of a ‘real’ ending. A long book develops constantly and the finale the author chose needn’t conclude our own thoughts on it. (Tim Parks wrote recently about the needlessness of finishing books at all.) Endings are difficult, and shouldn’t corrupt or diminish the pleasures of the earlier parts of the book. I will continue to think of May We Be Forgiven in terms of its considerable successes, rather than its minor failings; as a book about a man whose buffetings somehow absorb the pain of others, and transform it without alchemy into fulfilment; as a story which reminds us, in the words of Alan Bennett, that “all families have a secret. They’re not like other families.”