At the beginning of A.M. Homes’s fourth novel, Music for Torching, a bored married couple light their house on fire and all that burns down is the dining room. It’s a great disappointment—they’re forced to go on with their lives. “I’m stuck. I’m totally stuck,” the wife sobs. “And pathetic. And stupid.”
Richard Novak, the hero of Homes’s latest, has more luck: His L.A. mansion slides into a sinkhole and the damage is irreparable. The windows shatter; a fire ant colony takes over. (Homes has called the book her most uplifting yet.) Richard, a day trader who eats spelt and has an intimate relationship with his white-noise machine, gets the kind of second chance that few Homes characters do. He’s forced to leave his formerly perfect home, full of “beautiful/important things,” and connect with the world.
In a recent interview with The Missouri Review, Homes said she wanted this novel to inspire social responsibility and then worried she’d gone too far: “Oh my god, I’ve become this weird little goody-goody who just wants people to be nice to each other.” The book, which draws on the most stylish strategies of self-improvement (Gyrotonics, meditation, inner-butt massage), is hopeful without being wholesome. The characters all share the same kind of sassy attitude, a tendency to make willfully provocative comments (“So—I have only one breast . . . I thought you should know”), with little regard for their audience. Richard goes on a maniacal tour of goodwill— rescuing animals, nurturing old people, giving away cars, and finally reuniting with his estranged son—but it’s never clear that “Mr. Fucking Samaritan” doesn’t still feel empty inside. In this comically extreme version of L.A., generosity, no matter how sincere, still resembles psychosis.