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The End of Alice

Elle Magazine

Interview

Crimes of the Heart
by Randall Kenan

A writer with an audacious imagination invents a monstrous criminal with a sense of humor. Randall Kenan talks to A.M. Homes about her breathtaking new novel. 

A.M. Homes's newest novel, The End of Alice, is certain to cause controversy as it follows an imprisoned pedophile/murderer and his fascination with a young woman correspondent, a college-aged pen pal who is deviant; a woman whom he slowly begins to confuse with his late victim, Alice. Homes manages—with language both lyrical and frighteningly direct—to usher the reader into the horrific landscape of a disturbed mind and, at the same time, of a funny, vulnerable, ultimately very sad human being.

I first met A.M. Homes shortly after we both arrived in New York in the mid-'80s, two kids from the provinces with outsized literary dreams and a taste for hard work. Since then she's produced two well-received novels, Jack and In a Country of Mothers, the latter a multilayered psychological thriller rich with insights, along with a collection of stories, The Safety of Objects.

In tandem with the new book, Homes is bringing out Appendix A: An Elaboration on the Novel The End of Alice, an audacious and peculiar mix of prose fact and fiction, artwork by Homes, photography, and other "evidence" of the crime at the center of the novel, alarming in its persuasive grasp of depravity.

Anyone who meets A.M. Homes is instantly disarmed by her hilarious wit and her girlish charm. I was curious to know how someone so funny and beguiling could create such frightening worlds.

Randall Kenan: Why do you think people are decribing the novel as shocking?
A.M. Homes: It scared me sometimes when I was writing it; at times I had to stop—I frightened myself. I don't know that shock's such a bad thing—people say it as a pejorative, "Oh, he tried to be shocking," but I thought intellectually and artistically that this was the most ambitious book I'd tried.

Q: And amazingly funny. 

A: Well, I'm glad you found it funny. I think it's funny. The narrator has a sense of humor—in fact, that's one of the things that makes people uncomfortable: How can someone so upsetting be funny? It's like when you make fun of something and people say "that's not funny," but it is funny—he's witty.

Q: In many ways the girl who corresponds with the killer/narrator is more frightening than he is.

A: She's the adolescent girl whom we seldom see. The one who's a little weird, who has tics.... She's out there. I don't think she's the prototypical teenage girl, but the are a surprising number of girls not unlike her.

Q: Why did you choose to publish an elaboration of the novel?

A: The process of writing the book took me five years, and there was a lot of mental overflow. When I finished it, I still had the character in my head. I started making paintings—they were like fetish figures that represented my sense of him and elements of collage from photographs I'd found over the years. I had all this "evidence," pictures "he" might have collected, a scrapbook, memorabilia, trinkets. I thought it was interesting to see what the evolution of the imagination is. I had a chapter that I had cut from the book, and I didn't want to lose it forever: Appendix Ahas all that. It also has FBI forms and police forms, his diary, letters from the correspondent... and an essay written by a criminology professor at American University in response to reading the book.

Q: You're unusual among your contemporaries for the amount of research you do.

A: The funny thing about this book is that my research for it dates back to about 1982 when I actually took a course in prison survival taught by Professor Robert Johnson, who subsequently wrote the essay for Appendix A. I was interested in prison—prisons historically and literarily have always been a metaphor. In fact, we're all in prison. Like "all the world's a stage"; well, it's also a jail. I did a fair amount of reading about the criminal personality, about sex and sexuality, about families. I'd read police investigation handbooks, books for criminology students, and forensics books that show all these horrible things. Once I saw a photograph of a crime-scene identification kit. So I called the lab in North Carolina and ordered it and all these other weird things that ultimately became the evidence that turns up inAppendix A.

Q: People are going to make a comparison with Nabokov, but I think they're dead wrong. Especially close to the end, you think of Kafka.

A: Well, I certainly read more Kafka than Nabokov when I was growing up. But I also looked at Falconer, Bullet Park, even The Bell Jar in terms of the representation of a young woman who is alienated. But, yes, the mental state is Kafkaesque.

Q: Do you like him?

A: Who? Kafka?

Q: No, your creation. This man.

A: Uh-huh. Do you like him?

Q: Despite myself.

A: Why despite yourself?

Q: He's a depraved human being, but you've made him so glaringly human. Is that what's most disturbing—that people find themselves liking him?

A: Well, that was the whole point, to create someone awful who is also human—you can see the worst parts of yourself in him and the good parts of yourself. He's capable of being hurt. He has the capacity for feeling. The more conscious he becomes, the more he's aware and remembers what he did, the more he loses his mind. I wanted to show someone coming into consciousness and going insane simultaneously. People talk about the book as being explicit or racy or lurid, but there's a reason for the explicitness. He's trying to push the reader's buttons, he's trying to top himself.

Q: Does your killer/narrator have an archetype? Is he a composite of actual murders? Or is he sui generis from the imagination of A.M. Homes? Did you, like Bram Stoker, eat bad oysters and dream up a monster?

A: He's out there in the consciousness and in the culture. And he came from two comments I heard about Lolita. One was, "Humbert Humbert never sleeps with Lolita." The other was, "Lolita was a wonderful book because the language wasn't smutty, unlike books today." It's amazing that someone could read Lolita and think Humbert never had sex with her—because he says he did. And I thought about how language has progressed since 1958 when Lolita was first published, and I wondered how much more explicit a book like that would be now. And the character also came out of my frustration at the NEA/Mapplethorpe fuss—it all made me angry, made me conjure a man like my character.... And he came from thinking about Katie Beers being locked in a basement and how everyone hyperfocused on that—how people ate it up. And Carol Gilligan's study of what happens to little girls when they try to grow up, how their self-esteem plummets around eleven. And Angela Carter's The Sadeian Woman talking about the social purposes of pornography. I wanted to write a book that was intellectually provocative, that made you think but could also be arousing, could be repulsive, that you could read and then run after and pick up and read again.

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