After the Obama Election, Ten White Men Brew a Plan to Disrupt America
"The Unfolding," A.M. Homes's satirical novel, imagines a backstory to the present-day chaos we find ourselves in
A.M. Homes’ novel The Unfolding takes place over the course of two and half months, from the 2008 Obama election to inauguration day 2009. It follows a wealthy industry titan known as the Big Guy who, dismayed at the election results, summons a small group of powerful friends to his Palm Springs home with a plan to “restore” an America he sees as gravely under threat. The self-proclaimed “Forever Men,” who include an American general, a physician, a judge, and a disinformation specialist, concoct a scheme to sow discord at the heart of the American political system, with the aim of eventually reinstalling their brand of politician—rich, white, and conservative—back in power, no matter the cost.
With his family, however, the Big Guy is hardly the powerful actor he appears to be with the Forever Men. His wife, Charlotte, suffers from alcohol addiction and harbors a weighty family secret. His daughter, Meghan, begins to wake up to the dangers of womanhood when she gets lost in the woods near her boarding school; later, she discovers another student was murdered in these same woods. By the time Meghan discovers the secret at the heart of her family’s history, she’s already started to pull away from the notion of American history that’s been handed down to her: white, male, and straight. It’s all serious stuff, yet in Homes’ hands, the events of The Unfolding crackle with wit and humor.
From her home in New York City, Homes spoke to me via phone about satire, how The Unfolding lands in chaotic times, and what fiction can do in our current age.
Carli Cutchin: As a book about a secret plan to sow chaos into the heart of the American political system, The Unfolding drops at an eerily apt time. With everything that’s happened in the past couple years—January 6, the ongoing COVID crisis, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, domestic terrorism, inflation, and most recently, the FBI raid on Trump’s home—the book becomes more relevant with each passing month. And yet, the germ of the book must go quite a ways back for you.
A.M. Homes: The idea that the American political establishment—all sides—has lost touch with the American people has been on my mind for a long time. We have this election cycle planning, and election cycle pitching of how [politicians] are going to fix things, but there’s not any sort of long view of who we are as a country. [This] combined with the rise of dark money. Not just the rise of dark money, but the incredible amount of money that is at the top of the pile, and how that tips the scales—all that has been on my mind for a very long time.
I also feel like there is this surrealism to our lives that has been growing exponentially. The character of Metzger, who talks about the [online] algorithms and how they sell people things before they even know they want them—that’s unfortunately all real. [All of this] is dividing us as thinkers, as consumers, as individuals into thinner and thinner slices, until we only see reflections of some iteration of ourselves.
Chaos is something the government, the CIA, has used as a tool outside of this country for many years. The more you fracture things, the more scared people get, and the more they have to protect their turf. Basic words like “truth” or “democracy” suddenly mean different things to different people. The moment when Kellyanne Conway dropped the term “alternative facts,” [I thought]: All bets are off. This book does live in the world of fiction; my thinking, my work, lives in the world of fiction. But what does it mean when, repeatedly, I can’t even get ahead of [current events]? Traditionally I’ve been able to be at least a few years ahead of the curve of what’s happening.
CC: You’ve said previously that you’re fascinated by the fine line between the public and the private, and this is a through-line in your work. It’s nowhere more true than in The Unfolding. Here, nation and family are linked in a deeply unsettling way. What can the Hitchens teach us about the broader American situation, or about America as it appears in the context of the novel?
AMH: This book is obviously looking at these large-scale themes about American identity, about democracy and disruption, and about power. At the same time, it is very much the story of these people, and this family. For me there was, on a craft level, a desire to try to marry two ideas that are unfortunately traditionally “masculine” and “feminine.” The masculine being the Great American Novel—which I now like to call the “Pretty Good Big Book”—which is a big fat book written by a guy. It looks at the social-political landscape. And then the book written—apparently—by women for women, with a small, intimate domestic landscape. If you look up “political fiction by women,” what comes up is “feminist.” Which isn’t necessarily the same [as political fiction by women]. I wanted to try and weave both of these [the traditionally “masculine” and “feminine”] into one book. And to talk about—Who is this Big Guy, and what does it mean to be the Big Guy? What does it mean when the Big Guy realizes he’s an asshole? And how does the weight and power of the Big Guy play out over two generations?
Meghan and Charlotte represent two very different expressions of what it means to be a woman at a certain point in time. Someone said to me, “The Big Guy is so different when he’s with his friends, the Forever Men.” Yes, but that’s always been a theme for me: the space between our public and private selves. I love that this Big Guy is in his basement playing war [reenactments] on his ping-pong table, and then he’s playing war with his buddies, shooting real guns with private military contractors in Wyoming. There are different expressions and iterations of us in different places. That fascinates me.
CC: Yeah—there’s a family battle playing out in the Big Guy’s home. He has no control over his family situation. On Thanksgiving, he calls the Betty Ford Clinic where his wife is being treated for alcohol addiction and tries to talk to her, but the staff won’t let him. I think we’ve all had this moment of wanting something from someone on the other end of the line. I really felt his frustration. He’s so helpless in that moment.
AMH: The Big Guy isn’t used to having to navigate that kind of thing. And that’s very real. Certainly among the men I know—men are not necessarily great at doing domestic stuff like calling Betty Ford.
CC: Let’s talk about Meghan, the Big Guy’s 18-year-old daughter. In her own way, she is trying to come to terms with history. For one, the history of her boarding school, which she’s been lied to about. It turns out a young female student was killed in the nearby woods, and the administration covered up her death. Neither she nor her classmates are safe. Then, in the classroom, she’s exploring women’s history. Finally, she’s trying to come to terms with her family history, which is being re-written after the revelation of a certain family secret.
AMH: There are three prongs in my mind to the evolution of Meghan. One was a student who said to me, “Were there any women writing in the 20th century?” This was probably five years ago, from a student taking a literature course that ended with Toni Morrison. And I made a list of women writers and I said, “Can you please give this to your professor with my regards?” And when my kid was little, probably third grade, she came home from school and said, “Mom, were there any women in history?” And I thought, Uh-oh. As you’re growing up you’re indoctrinated into a history that’s very white male-centric.
Looking at Meghan, I was thinking about awakenings and coming to consciousness. All those moments where you realize there’s more to the story in the absolute largest sense than you were ever told or ever had a clue about. I wanted her piece of the story to stretch beyond the boundaries of the known and familiar, but also to involve recognizing the incredible fear and discomfort and anxiety that comes with that. When one goes beyond those places there is that sense of danger, or breaking away from the agreed-upon narrative.
CC: Meghan has a lot of spunk. I love the scene where she’s in the swimming pool in Phoenix with one of the Forever Men, Eisner; they encounter each other before Eisner and the Big Guy start working together. There’s this interesting sexual tension between them, despite the fact Meghan is 18 and Eisner is in his 40s. It was one of my favorite moments. It’s not a very #MeToo sentiment to have on my part.
AMH: I think it’s human. As a young girl there are those moments where there’s some guy who’s older than you, and there’s that frisson. Something could happen, but the good news is, it doesn’t happen. Eisner doesn’t take advantage of Meghan. Which is a compliment to him.
In these [January 6] hearings, it’s fascinating to me that all of these women have come forward. That’s Meghan, that’s absolutely Meghan. They are incredibly brave. Part of how they were able to come forward is that men in the room never thought they were a threat. They didn’t notice them. They were irrelevant to the men. They were witness to all kinds of things. Looking at Liz Cheney—she’s put her political career on the line, and has stood up for basic truths. All that speaks to the evolution of women in these places.
CC: There’s this ominousness in The Unfolding having to do with race—race as the elephant in the room. It seems to me that the Forever Men are, whether they say it or not, reacting to a Black man becoming president. Their elaborate plans to disrupt the system and sow chaos are a response to that.
AMH: Two of the very big threads in the book—and right in front of us right now [politically]—are racism and sexism. I personally find it cool that the book doesn’t come out and announce [the themes]. I wanted to tell this story, and give this illustration of how we evolved to this point, through the lens of the Forever Men. My good friend, the writer Randall Kenan, who died in September 2020—he just keeled over in his house and died. I feel he died from all of this. From having to witness it all, live through it, and represent himself [as a Black man].
There are a lot of people like the Big Guy—his obliviousness not only to his privilege but to the narrowness of his experience and the bubble he lives in. There are many, many people living in [those bubbles]. Racism and sexism are very much at the core of what we’re looking at right now.
CC: The Forever Men are very concerned with preserving American history, on their terms. But this isn’t the only meaning of “history” that appears in the novel. Toward the end, the “old man” character whom the Big Guy meets at a New Year’s party muses, “I’m telling you that our balls are in the water; our balls are going under . . . we are history. Old white men. We’re done. Finis.” These old white men—the Forever Men—may fixate on history, but in another sense they are history, whether they acknowledge it or not.
AMH: The Obama election—I bought a new TV. People poured out into the streets celebrating. To think about it from the other point of view—for some people it was terrifying. The idea of a Black man being in charge was terrifying. A lot of what we’ve continued to see was the evolution of that [reaction]. It’s not Obama per se, but it is the idea that as our country moves forward, the demographic shift, the number of BIPOC communities, of women in power [grows] and for a generation of older white men, that’s terrifying.
CC: The Forever Men wield the term “democracy,” but their plans are anything but democratic. It occurs to me that for them, “democracy” is a way of saying “white men in charge.”
AMH: Yes. It’s all about, How do we preserve “our America”? That America is gone, but there’s a lot of fear [among white men]. That’s what’s so interesting and complicated about what’s happening now. So much of what is driving things is a fear of people losing their place.
CC: This is a big question, but I imagine you’ve given it some thought over the course of your career. In an era like ours, what can fiction do? Why write a novel?
AMH: The first thing it can do is prompt conversation. That’s the thing I’m looking for. I don’t presume to have answers, I don’t presume to tell a perfect story. Even if [readers] say, What the hell was that?—if it shakes their understanding of how they see themselves, or how they look at the world around them, or even the questions they think to ask, that’s a piece of it. Grace Paley, who was my favorite teacher ever—people were saying to her, “Oh, do fiction writers have a moral responsibility?” and she would say, “No more than a plumber has a responsibility to do a good job.” And I think on the one hand, that’s true. But I also feel like—I want the time I’ve spent to be of consequence.
What can fiction do? It can scare us. Hopefully it can motivate us to engage, whether it’s in talking or doing more. Someone said to me the other day, “I know you thought this book would be funny, but there are parts of it that just aren’t funny.” And I thought, Exactly. There are parts of it that just aren’t funny. I’ve tried to balance the use of humor [with the serious], because if I can make you laugh, I can cut deeper and get in further. I wanted to push those Forever Men into the land of Dr. Strangelove. I didn’t want to be writing in reaction to the world around me. I wanted to get out ahead of it.
CC: Satire is very powerful. Whether it’s on a late-night show or in a book, there is something satire can do that information can’t.
AMH: Yes, something fact alone doesn’t do. If you break the surface tension by making someone laugh, you’re able to go to another level. The other piece of it is, as we see on late-night [shows] all the time, if you can make a joke that asks people to acknowledge the absurdity of things, it’s a double check. That serves to validate the strangeness of people’s experience.
Even before Kellyanne Conway mentioned alternative facts, we had already lost track of the difference between fiction and nonfiction. I had always prided myself on being a fiction writer, except for when I am actively writing nonfiction. When my books come out in Europe, people get it: [the books are] funny and not-funny. Here it’s [supposed to be] one thing or the other. You can’t be funny not-funny. This book is very funny not-funny. What might have been funny yesterday is not funny today, because it might have happened—this morning.