The End of Alice
By Brian Masters
Child abuse has become a comfortable new category of human misery, much talked about and deplored. But behind the flat phrase lies a harsh reality, and historically it has always belonged to creative writers—James Joyce, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer—to prise open reality and not flinch from dissection. A.M. Homes's superlative new novel, The End of Alice (Scribner), is a book in that tradition.
It is 30 years since a few psychologists and researchers first put forward the radical theory that in some cases of pedophilia, where an adult and a child form some kind of sexual bond, it can be the child who is the initiator, promoting his or her own seduction. Some psychologists have gone further, suggesting that the relationship might even be benign and essentially harmless. This was no news to poets or schoolmasters, but it certainly threw moralists into a panic, and psychiatrists labored to remind us that there were other pedophiles who were deeply disturbed and dangerous, their "love" for children masking a fierce sadism buried in a barren, solitary existence utterly devoid of any biophiIic impulse at all.
The first type has been called "pseudoneurotic," when the sexual contact is an aberrant interruption to an otherwise harmonious life, set off by some temporary circumstance that, once evaporated, leaves both adult and child relatively unmarked. The second type, that often "invariant" pedophile, denotes a grim personality, wallowing irredeemably in fantasy and selfishness.
In The End of Alice, Homes cunningly contrives to depict one of each and set our moral compass jangling. The novel disturbs because it invites our complicity, seduces us in fact, and makes us wonder of what we should approve and disapprove in her characters. Though she has written some steamy sex scenes, some (to me, at least) repellent, it is character and purity that interest her, both in the peopJe she has invented and, l suspect, in the readers who reconstruct them in their imaginations. The writing, marred only by an abundance of self-indulgent alliteration, is so lithe and lyrical (she's got me at it, too) that we are drawn into accepting a frankness that would be embarrassing in company. I am astonished that she is planning a reading tour, but so be it. I would not dare read some of this prose, however finely wrought, out loud. So she's already found a victim for her moral legerdemain in this reviewer.
The narrator has served 23 years in prison for offenses against a pubescent girl called Alice. It is only in the last few pages that we learn exactly what his crime was, but in the meantime we grow to discern his character through his odd correspondence with a nineteen-year-old woman who has become obsessed with a beguiling twelve-year-old boy called Matt. The early implication is that they are two of a kind, but they are nothing of the sort, the girl enjoying her conquest, the criminal rendered monstrous by his.
We hear the girl's story first. We see how she stalks her prey, insinuates herself in his life by a kind of mateyness ("proper pals"), allows the relationship to develop along unremarkable lines, allies herself with him against the grown-ups with their boring chores and routines, and gradually lays the ground with such subtlety that the idea of intimacy must seem to be his, although it has been her hidden purpose all along. This is the classic strategy of the fruitful pederast, for whom the whole business must be a sort of agonizing fun. Matt is "her guide rather than her demon," a clever throw away line that reminds us that the original meaning of demon was "spiritual guide" (look up your Socrates). The seduction scene, when Matt eventually does get to explore her, is charming, endearing and even amusing. She convinces herself that it is part of his education, again a standard point of self-justification, and who is to say she is wrong? Certainly we do not feel stained by this encounter.
Homes brilliantly conveys the gauche insouciance of the boy, touching himself, all unaware of his attractiveness. "He notices nothing outside of himself, the entirety of his focus is internally directed. His oblivion may be his greatest attribute." Yes, because it is not yet loaded with knowledge and analysis and doubt. It is but a brief moment when the boy is thus pure, which is why his female seducer knows she cannot afford to linger until he becomes something else, when their love might be a commonplace coupling. In Henry de Montherlant's play La Ville dont le Prince est un Enfant, the abbot instructs the priest who would befriend one of the boys in his care to wait until he is older. "But that will be too late," the priest pathetically blurts out. Oddly enough, this makes him the very opposite of sordid.
The narrator of The End of Alice is, on the other hand, sordid to a degree. He is the kind of pedophile whose total fear of being possessed by another and lack of self-worth have made it impossible for him to respond with mature emotion. He is driven into narcissistic withdrawal and depression, erupting occasionally with intense, primitive, destructive force. The object of his desire is indeed an object, a prop to his distorted personality, bereft of any existence of her own outside his private fantasies. In a page of great insight, Homes depicts the baleful isolation of the sadist. He describes himself not as a lover but as an "operator," like a man about to work his machine. "I am already in such misery," he says. His possessiveness reaches out in the line "stripped clean, you are my girl," and his fear of being seen, fixed, and owned by a gaze is revealed in his covering the girl with a mask. "I speak into you, saying things I cannot tell you to your face." That, indeed, is often the source of all the paraphernalia in which sadists delight, the need to restrict and rob, to reduce the partner to a mere masturbatory aid. On another page he writes, "There is no desire other than my own. I think only of myself and it is incredibly liberating."
Even this, dare one suggest, would be pathetic did it not result in such gruesome conduct. When his correspondent asks him whether she is supposed to find him grotesque or pitiable, he says, "A bit of both would be about right," and I imagine that many a sadist might be prepared to agree.
We discover along the way that the narrator was himself disastrously abused by his mother when he was but a little boy, in a scene of perverted sexual congress that I found difficult to take. The fact that it might be (and this is not clear) a fantasy on his part does not diminish the horror of it, and I like to think, despite what we are told by gleeful newspapers day after day, that this kind of thing does not really occur. But this is a novel, after all, and the psychological import of the incident is true, whether or not it has any parallel in life. The boy is perplexed, wonders what he has done wrong, and is ultimately poisoned, ruined. He wants his mother, whom he loves, dead and regards himself as the murderer. The line between this event and his consequent disintegration, hatred, and appalling violence is direct.
He has "slipped through god's graces," but the girl who writes to him has not. She is intact. Though her seduction of Matt bears some resemblance to the mother's despoilment of the narrator, they are different in the kind, not just in degree. We are told that it is a matter of statistical fact that female pedophiles preying on boys are extremely rare. At the Portman Clinic in London some years ago, there were only two such among 288 people undergoing psychiatric treatment. This may be ascribed, of course, to the reluctance of boys to complain about an experience they probably enjoyed and would feel foolish regretting, but I suspect the need for coercion in matters of both affection and sex is predominantly an affliction, in every sense, of the male.
Perhaps A.M. Homes knows better. It is the function of the novelist to make us think and feel about matters we have not thought of or felt about before, or not in any honest way. That is the cathartic, purging effect of the post-Freudian narrative, to wrench us from our simple certainties. "What is shock if not some ancient identification?" the narrator asks. It's a troubling notion. This novel is undeniably shocking. At the same time, it is superbly achieved by a writer who is a true artist in words.