I read an uncorrected proof of A.M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven this summer while vacationing with my family in the South of France. Avignon is a peculiar place to digest a suburban gothic tale set in Westchester, but as a simulacra of the spiritual emptiness that plagues the literate of America, is not Westchester always with us?
I have been quite depressed since finishing Homes’ latest. Her fiction is like an alcoholic friend I’m rather fond of. At dinner parties, she is scintillating: a bright, volcanic mess; and when she leaves, I find myself missing her inappropriate sense of humor and her ribald timing. Most people are so dull now. Isn’t the light more interesting when one has spent time in the dark?
Oftentimes, I find myself ruminating in my favorite velvet wingback on the nature of the 21st century American malaise. To be certain, many problems come from processed food―sliced bread, marshmallows and so forth―but at the heart of sadness lies the misconception that we must love our family. Birth! Birth, conception, in all its random violence―you emerge beneath track lighting, your temple crushed by tongs, a pair of bloodied pliers separates you from the organs that conceived you, and from this violence, love?
Homes, being adopted, understands intuitively the defunct myth of shared blood. Your children being fond of you should not be a given. For example, I haven’t voted since McGovern lost in 1972. It would be understandable if my children chose to hate me. It is pure fortune that they don’t.
Picking one’s family members is a form of casting: it takes risk and thought. You can turn the quirky Chinese woman at the Lucky Dragon Takeout into your favorite aunt; your Internet sex partner can be a cherished confidante. In Homes’ world, you might find love with said sex partner while playing naked laser tag in a suburban strip mall with a bunch of swingers. To quote the siren symbol of our disaffected youth, you can find love in a hopeless place.
The situation set forth in this very large novel would be quite hopeless indeed were it not for the endless bags of money that fate keeps sending the protagonist, a historian named Harry. At one point, his adjunct father-in-law (long story) reveals a gift of six tin cans buried in his yard, each holding $10K. Lesson learned: instead of giving millions to Bernie Madoff, I should have trusted my own grass.
As in Homes’ last book, This Book Will Save Your Life, this tale’s hero also finds salvation in compassion. After taking his recently orphaned niece, nephew and Mexican foster child to Busch Gardens for some healing, the post-Nuclear family goes to Africa. Yes, well, why not. Please see my earlier comment about the dark and light.
This book is a histrionic behemoth of a novel, the literary equivalent of the turducken that shows up, quite appropriately, at the book’s end. Out of moral depravity, salvation is found. Our hero—a man lost, emotionally disaffected, Richard Nixon-crazed—finds his by adopting furry animals, extending dinner invitations to immigrants, spending money at themed gift shops, and drinking tea. Ah―and by being nice to children.
A fellow intellectual (and a man blessed with a voice almost as melodious as mine), the writer Alexander Chee, once told me that if your story has a cliché in it, you need to put a fancy hat on it and make it dance around.
In May We Be Forgiven, these clichés dance as if condemned. Inside of a coliseum, the lions move towards them. Watched breathlessly by thousands, the hapless clichés jig. I don’t know about you, but I’m happy to see them. From my seat, I cheer.
—Courtney Maum is a fiction writer based in between the Berkshires of Massachusetts and New York City. Her work has recently appeared online in Tin House, Blip, The Rumpus, Vol.1, Anderbo and others. A frequent reader at NY-based series and a Literary Death Match champion, she’s currently working on a collection of comic fiction. Find her on Twitter at @cmaum.
Editor’s note: Any resemblances to actual celebrities — alive or dead — are miraculously coincidental. For more Celebrity Book Reviews, click here.