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May We Be Forgiven

The National

November 2012

AM Homes's strange novel reflects Nixon's downfall

By Hannah Forbes Black

AM Homes's often wonderful, strange seventh novel begins breathlessly with a love affair, sibling rivalry and murder, and spins out into an intricate and soap- operatic web of plots and subplots to rival a Mexican telenovela.

May We Be Forgiven is at once dystopian and utopian, hovering somewhere between satire and sentiment. In this respect, it is absolutely, almost eerily "of its time". This contemporaneity isn't just in the details, the references to Obama, Facebook and other familiar brands, but in its atmosphere, at once upbeat and exhausted, dazzling and hollow.


To sum up the crowded plot without too many spoilers: at a family Thanksgiving, middle-aged historian Harold Silver begins an affair with the wife of his hated older brother George, a sociopathic TV mogul who resembles a malign Larry David. The consequences go way beyond what Harold could possibly anticipate, the family unravels, and Harold ends up stepping into George's shoes, taking responsibility for his children, his house and his pets. Following a single dramatic year, the book sweeps through twists including an experimental free-range prison, love among pensioners and sexual intrigue at a girls' boarding school.
Harold is a specialist in Nixon studies and is writing a book about the disgraced US president: "Is there room for another book about Nixon? People often ask me, and I say, Well, you heard about Nixon's trip to China, but what about his passion for real estate in New Jersey? What about his interest in animal welfare?" Elsewhere, Harold makes a mental note to revise the subject of "Nixon and his relationship to stuff".


Harold's Nixon obsession, like the novel itself, is magpie-like, airy, focused on trivia, both passionately attached to the past and completely remote from it.


Yet Nixon is the book's ambivalent centre. Is Harold's respect for him supposed to be sympathetic or laughable? Often it's both - but Nixon's presence is important because his presidency straddled a breaking point in recent history.


He wasn't entirely responsible for the character of the era we now live in, but he happened to be there at its birth, presiding over the tentative beginning of the end of the Cold War, the opening up of relations between the West and China, and a period of global economic crisis that we have so dramatically returned to since 2007.


Trying to explain his Nixon fascination, at one point Harold says, "I am most interested in his personality and the ways in which his actions and reactions were those of a particular era and culture - the era that built and defined the American Dream." How much more clearly could a writer possibly signify that hers is a "big book", in the famous American mode? As if to underline the point, there are several cameo appearances by Don DeLillo; in one scene, Harold offers the famous novelist a cup of coffee outside a Starbucks, only later realising to whom he was talking: "That was … Don DeLillo. I would have loved to talk to him about Nixon." May We Be Forgiven bears comparison to DeLillo's most darkly domestic work, White Noise, in which a suburban couple plunge into a shared narcissistic fear of death as disaster unfolds around them, first ersatz, then real.


The events in Homes's novel are similarly hybrid, real and unreal. When George is condemned to an open-air safari-style experimental prison, the satire is pitch-perfect, both funny and painful because it is plausible: "The Woodsman is a back-to-basics model for human management using the Physics 300a or 300b microchip, tracked by satellite … should there be any kind of uprising or behaviour problem, it can be neutralised either temporarily or permanently …" Homes riffs fluently on this kind of vacuously evil corporate-speak.

 

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