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Music For Torching

Times Literary Supplement

March 1999

Under the Apple Pie

By Ali Smith

There is fearlessness in the banality of the prose voice A.M. Homes employs in her new novel Music for Torching. Homes is a writer whose pervading interest in her four novels and her single collection of short stories has been the revelation of subversion nestling in the blandest of norms and the anxiety that surrounds the revelation.

Her first novel, Jack, published in 1989 and written when Homes was nineteen, was pure well-adjusted television movie teenage fiction, gentle and blunt in it's moralizing, as its fifteen-year-old protagonist learns how to deal with the his father's homosexuality in a world where the children are the reactionaries and the adults are not responsible enough. At the other end of the trajectory of Homes's bleak and brilliant marksmanship is the novel before this, The End of Alice (1996). A conscious reworking of Lolita and the book which made Homes famous, it is a meditation on pedophilia and social culpability from the point of view of two symbiotic abusers, one an old man, incarcerated for girl killing, the other a young, just-past-teenage, woman intent on a local twelve-year-old boy. 

Its notoriety gave Homes the false sheen of a writer akin to William Burroughs and Kathy Ackec when, in fact, something much more old-fashionedly puritan is at work in her fiction. (She is a writer who at one level hold most dear the sanctity of the child—the complex, the sexual, knowing and still naive child—and at another tells us that coffee is really bad for us.)

The Gothic-comic play of Alice's language styles—the civilized verbose, mock-lugubriousness of the child-killer, as opposed to the bright drivel of the damaged girl-protagonist teasing him with her stupefied letters from the outside world ("What do you do for fun in that place anyway?")—displays the novel's real concern, Homes's analysis of what it is to "act normal," and what this performance does to the self, hung on its twin hooks of innocence and guilt, between the American Dream that is childhood-obsessed, and the inevitable aging process. 

In Music for Torching, in a prose bled dry, Homes's fascination is with the existential self, stripped of all hope and meaning. Here, the mom is madness and farcical madness is the norm. Here, the adults want to be children still, and the children are detectives searching out the cause of their own victimization. The prose is all ice; at any moment it will give way beneath the feet. "Isn't it surprising none of us have cancer yet?" Joan says, and no one knows what she is talking about. A sentence like that in Homes's writing has to be read several ways; her prose is sometimes hilarious, sometimes blanching, sometimes obvious, of double entendre that is seemingly on the surface, always deceptive and almost always brutal. 

The acid narrator of Music for Torching only rarely stoops to allow her characters merciful moments. Paul and Elaine (a couple in their forties who first appeared in a short story Homes wrote ten years ago called, "Adults Alone") are holding their marriage together by means of misery and hate. One night, they do what they think is the ultimate self-changing damage to their lives—instead of having a barbecue, they set fire to their house, put their two sons (the suspicious Daniel and Sammy, the sweet asthmatic sacrificial lamb), into the car and head for a motel. In the morning, their house, charred but for the most part unchanged, is still there. "Elaine has half hoped there would be nothing; a pile of coal, a load of smoldering cinder, the stem of the chimney. But instead, it is all there, no different, only dark, very dark. She stares at the house. "Now what?"

In the transference from this dark to the blinding brightness, the "split second of shattering light" of the final chapter of a novel which is ostensibly a study of the break-up of the home and whose violent denouncement is made inexorable throughout with clue after lost clue, Elaine and Paul cheat on each other. Paul does it helplessly and comically with an increasingly psychopathic "date" who persuades him to get a painful tattoo, and Elaine, disconcertingly, with Pat, mistress of performance, the all-American apple-pie wife. "Nothing matters more to me than being normal." Pat tells Elaine after they have made love on the washer-dryer, giving Elaine a book on home repair, How To Fix Almost Everything, Homes's satire on a love-gift.

"Things bubble beneath the surface," from the opening of the novel all the way to an end which is most shocking in its final, muted anticlimax. By now the normal, the banal, is a (top) loaded device; Homes's characters, all fixated on fixing things and lost to their dreams of elusive hopeless fulfillment, are left by her to wander a landscape like an apocalyptic Raymond Carver world, a damned Western universe so superficially and craftily lifelike that the novel's debunking of contemporary American society, its piercing study of selfishness, its moral nemesis of quotidian surreal, are every bit as chilling as anything the terrible rich fulsomeness of The End of Alice set into play.

 

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