After the deserved success of her debut collection The Safety of Objects, A.M. Homes found herself riding the rapids of a confluence of transgressive fiction and Gen-X Downtownism. Somehow the tributaries which floated ’80s axioms Catherine Texier and Tama Janowitz, Dennis Cooper, Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis, ran together into a main stream. And Homes rode it clear to the sea, where— strange triumph— The End of Alice was marketed as if it were beach reading, despite an art house style and a topic of pedophilia. Seen through a voomy headshot splattered with credits from Artforum, George, and every other überglossy under the halogen, she could almost be the Queen of America.
But she’s a brilliant mistake. Neither a boffo bestseller writer nor a superfreak, Homes is instead a talented and conventional investigatrix of middle-class mores who caught a current. As if to remedy the misprisions of marketing and the vagaries of buzz, she’s returned with Music for Torching, a novel exclusively dedicated to the form of the suburban roman
The events attend well to the dialectic rule of the genre: Nothing Ever Happens In The Suburbs vs. Anything Goes Behind Closed Doors. Paul and Elaine Weiss, having arrived at the dream— kids, cars, house, all nice— find it’s marked by ennui and despair. They want to “make things good again,” a phrase that runs like a mantra through the book. So, by way of waking from the dream and braking the downhill slide, they burn their house accidentally on purpose. Not to the ground, but enough to throw them out of their rut and into the arms of their rutting friends and neighbors. Paul’s been having an affair and has another; Elaine has one of her own, with a neighbor lady (this may be the transgressive part). The boys, Daniel and Sammy, are mostly flat screens on which Paul and Elaine project parental-type feelings (it’s hard to make out whether this is incisive commentary on bourgeois family dynamics or simply failed characterization). Eventually the story arrives at an arbitrarily violent climax, both relief from the dullness and guarantor of the EdginessTM seal.
Paul and Elaine seem the types to have read Cheever and Updike; somewhere they learned that folks like them are duty-bound to sublimate their existential voids beneath a slough of materialism. Desperate to buy the delusion, they imagine that mending their semitorched house promises a fresh start. They can rebuild it; they can make it better than it was. But you’ve read those authors, too: no amount of stuff will repair the humming vacancy of the characters’ inner lives, just as no fountain of intoxicants can drown the fire of malaise.
If Homes is an heir, it is to the legacy of exactly those suburban scribes, but with the drugs updated. Indeed, Torching is a long appendix to a 1990 story in which Paul and Elaine— having packed the kids off to Disney World— give crack a whirl and have a whizbang time. “Adults Alone” is a vivid triumph, one of the two best pieces in Objects (along with the disturbing boy-meets-Barbie love story “A Real Doll”); Homes has a gift for the set piece which begs the short form. What she can’t conjure are any of the things that might hold her set pieces in a larger shape: plot or complex characters or a social idea. When she wants the reader to know how things are with Paul and Elaine, she just tells us:
it’s every man for himself, each hoarding what little he has, each wanting his own, each wanting something different. They speak in the defensive. They wait for disappointment. They constantly accumulate proof of having been let down, misunderstood, unappreciated. They are a tense and bitter lot.
All this in the context of imagining that the neighbors have perfect lives and only they are troubled and impure.
Such recitations reproduce the psychological conventions of the genre so hilariously that the book threatens to become metafiction. But then one realizes Homes just likes to explain; when Sammy overturns a glass during a parental spat, Elaine must immediately think, “The kid had to spill his milk to create a distraction.” And when s’mores are mentioned, we need wait only an em dash before
the narrator clarifies, “sandwiches of chocolate, toasted marshmallows, and graham crackers.”
Periodically the books tries to wriggle out of its constraints, as with the various DeLillo-esque moves (none more direct that the unpatented spiritual meds provided by a stranger à la White Noise‘s Dylar). But Homes, committed to some vision of accuracy, pulls up short of the absurd or even the bizarre. There is a whiff of the genuine to this decision, a renunciation of easy humors and distancing mechanisms.
In the backwash of postmodernism and experimentation, realism has again become an issue for the current generation of significant American writers, from David Foster Wallace’s rants against irony to the triumph of the memoir form. And the disaffected suburbanite has in turn become the ultimate sign of the American real, just as the noble peasant once stood in for reality itself in European art. Yet the real, that traditional value, is too easily comprised of things we already know we know, and the nostalgia attendant. On the occasions in Music for Torching when Paul and Elaine reminisce about the events from “Adults Alone”— sometimes in the same words found in that story— one suspects it’s not the characters flashing back to their high-water mark but the author trying to recapture her own.