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The End of Alice

New York Times

March 1996

Random Objects of Desire

A dark and violent novel, narrated from the lower depths by a jailed psychopath.

By Daphn Merkin

What can you say about a 19-year-old girl who likes to chew on fresh scabs from the knee of a 12-year-old boy? What can you say about a love story that begins in jail and ends in murder and stops off at various depraved stations along the way? Is the wish to defy the status quo—epater Ie bourgeois—a valid artistic urge and, if it is, under what circumstances? Is the value of shock more or less important in an age that professes to be unshockable?

A.M. Homes's new novel, The End of Alice, comes in a flurry—make that a blizzard—of pre-publication press, in which the author has made extravagant claims for the daring and even threatening nature of her work, warning that the reader might be so repelled as to want to hurl the book across the room and insisting that her narrator has a voice "that we've not heard from before." Modesty may not be one of Ms. Homes's values and her book does boast enough graphic—even lurid—sexual description to bring out the Pat Buchanan lurking inside the most sophisticated of readers, but neither of these factors fully explains the zeal with which her novel has been trounced by some critics. Indeed, a few of them have reacted as though the author had committed an actual offense for which she should be handcuffed and led away, rather than what one might call a crime of the Imagination.


Why all the fuss? Given our present jaded level at public discourse, in which the likes at Sally Jessy Raphael and Jenny Jones reign over the confessional talk show circuit chattng up fathers who sleep with baby sitters and mothers who sleep with their stepsons, it's hard to imagine a time when people were actually appalled by books such as Ulysses or The Group or Lolita.

(In truth, the artistic wish to shake things, up has always benefited from a degree of censoriousness, since it insures that the subversive will be given its due rather than merely be taken in stride.) But for some reason our "been there, done that" culture every now and then comes to a screeching, angry halt before a work It deems particularly subversive—or, as the current jargon has it, "transgressive." Several years ago it was Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho that was taken to be a menace to society; this time around it's A.M. Homes's dark and deviant fictional vision that has caught the flak for all the miscreants—the Hannibal Lecters and other chart-topping killers—we've allowed to entertain us without a murmur of protest. (The fact that Ms. Homes is a female has onJy added to the feeling of violation that her book has elicited.)

What can't be denied is that The End of Alice is relentlessly provocative, conceived with an almost flagrant contempt for—as well as gleeful manipulation of—the reader's defenses. There are no sore spots or taboos the author doesn't touch on. The novel features a pair of pedophuiac pen pals, one of whom is an incarcerated male In his 50's whose yen for young girls has led him to a gruesome act of murder, known only as Chappy, "my childhood nickname, a reference to a perhaps extreme affection for the product Chap Stick," this literal and reflective psychopath is the book's caustic narrator. Imprisoned for the past 23 years, he articulates the withering disdain that those who inhabit the lower depths—"the poor, the pathetic, the perverted"—feel for those who have ascended toward the so-called good Iife, with its "privet-hedge definitions": "I think of you, your picket fences, flower beds, holly bushes, your life measured by the alarm clock's tick, the car-pool rotation."

Chappy's correspondent (and it appears, his fictional creation, since her world is evoked exclusively through his eyes) is an unnamed 19-year-old girl who is home for the summer; in those moments when she is not moping on her parents' living room couch—"eyes closed, listening to her mother's orchestrations, the Symphony of the Emptying of the Dishwasher"—she lusts after young boys. 

The specific, seemingly quite random object of her desire is Matthew, an adolescent who has little to recommend him except that he has wandered into her amorous scrutiny, where she regards him with the trained Interest of a scientist. The boy's physique, for instance, is so exactingly described that it might have been observed by someone who studied anatomy: "Shoulders, out from the neck in an even line across the top of the torso, a T square of knobby bone protrusions... The torso itself is still reed thin, the pecs barely rounded; she suspects his nipples are like flat, pale dimes, and near the hips there is the faintest hint of baby fat about to stretch into a man's wide rope of muscle."

The novel's external action unrolls in late spring and summer, against a serene backdrop of green lawns and blue sky, somewhere in a Westchester of Good Humor men, automated sprinkler systems and women playing tennis "in short white dresses with frilly white panties, like diaper covers, over their underwear." But the banal tranquiIlity of the suburban landscape is misleading: It hides terror and loneliness; the seduction of a minor amid Balman sheets and Popsicle sticks; the grim routines of family life (we catch a quick glimpse of Matt's father, lording it over his domain while he fixes himself drinks and inquires patronizingly of his nubile 19-year-old dinner guest whether Freud is "still part of the program"); the sudden flaring of a rapist's instincts in a "beaky" boy about to miss his orthodontist appointment; a suicide attempt; the haunted legacy of a decades-old neighborhood murder (bearing a fateful similiarity to the one the narrator is responsible for). "I doubt you realize it," the college girl who is his doppelganger writes Chappy, an archetypal bogyman if ever there was one, "but your influence is everywhere, and it's not only me, it's all the mothers and all the girls. Everyone is afraid."

The real drama of The End of Alice, however, unrolls in its protagonist's tormented head, where he plays and replays the facts of his sordid history as they lead, like pebbles in a twisted trail, to his meeting with the Nabokov-inspired Alice Somerfield, a butterfly collecting nymphet with whom he will have kinky sex and whom he willingly stab 64 times with a hunting knife. We learn that Chappy's father died young and suffered from giantism (a seemingly signal detail that goes oddly unremarked among a sea of other details); that his mother was an alcoholic manic-depressive who, between disappearances into institutions, used her young son as a substitute lover; that he was left to the care of a chilly grandmother; that he was once a children's shoe salesman; and that he, like John Ruskin, hates the sight of pubic hair, "a disgusting dusting... imparting the impression of a milk mustache, something you'd be inclined to wipe away."

Although Chappy finds time to watch cable porn and the soaps when he is not engaging in homosexual acts with another prisoner, he is essentially an embittered observer, a critic of the quotodian who uses words like "anaphylactic" and drops fancy art-history references. If he is monstrous to his aberrance, in "the coursing poison of rage" that fuels him, there is pathos, even humor, in the bewilderment he feels about a culture that left him to ponder childhood memories of "a yellow toy truck with real rubber tires" while it has moved on to embrace shoes with medicinal names (Doc Martens) and weird food combinations: "I've never heard of a turkey burger and can not quite imagine such a thing."
A.M. Homes's mordant eye was evident in her earlier novel In a Country of Mothers, and, from the start of The End of Alice she displays an unerring sense of sociological particulars. 

Whether it be a young woman's morning ablutions ("a floral based bath-and-shower gel was used... along with fresh mint toothpaste, a talcy deodorant balanced for the acidity of a woman's sweat... and also a dab of mother's Chanel placed on the back of her spine") or the generic nature of sleep-away camp preparations ("She hopes his clothing has not been anointed with iron-on identification tags, first—middle—Iast name, has not been packed up in some hand-me down canvas sack"), the author's use of incidentals is almost sculptural in its effect. She is good, too, on the sullen, dull defiance of adolescence, on the way teenagers long to be free from the sheer stress of being teenagers: "All I want to do is sleep," Chappy's confidante admits in one of her staccato notes. "Even before I'm really up, I'm ready to lie down again."

But Ms. Homes has less pleasing stylistic inclinations as well: from the first line of the novel she is too enamored of alliteration ("afflicted addiction," "freshest of flesh," "smirking and smiling"), and she has a tendency to pile on literary techniques in a the-more-the-merrier fashion. Even more problematic in terms of the book's overall balance is the degree of show-offy talk it indulges in, as though the author were continually reacting to whispered off-page taunts of "I dare you." Thus we are treated to several pungent episodes of anal sex, descriptions of various forms of masturbation including a mother's appropriation of her son's fist, and an entirely self-administered instance of oral sex. Some of this writing is undoubtedly meant to serve as a reflection of the sewage that floats in the narrator's mind, but some of it seems miscalculated—if only because there are just so many rises you can get out of a reader before he or she begins to balk, bridle and finally dose down.

In fairness, it must be noted that one of Ms. Homes's implicit intentions in The End of Alice is precisely to perforate the text, to violate the courteous and airtight space that is presumed to exist between any given work and it's audience—"the invisible scrim that separates us." Alternating between a berating tone and a confiding one, the author, in the guise of her morally objectionable narrator, keeps honing in on "Herr Reader" the better to implicate him in the ugly going-on. Not withstanding the somewhat metallic and tendentiously post-modern quality of this device, The End of Alice succeeds in imparting a claustrophobic atmosphere in which writer, character and reader all converge in malign synchronicity. (There is one level on which this novel can be read as being about itself, about the very act of imagining and Its effects. Appendix A, a chapbook published and sold separately by Artspace Books of San Francisco, written by Ms. Homes and containing invented data such as "Physical Evidence" from the crime scene, Chappy's "Confession" and a "Scrapbook" of pictures, provides an eerie photo-realist gloss on what purports to be a fictional construct). Chappy may be unrecognizably, hideously Other but he is also capable of emotions that are ours—or at least a shadow reflection of ordinary feelings. "I don't want to leave," he says after first meeting, Alice, sounding like any newly smitten Joe; and even as the bloody end of Alice is about to take place he claims the rights of a thwarted romantic: "I did love. The details I can't give, they only diminish it, force too many comparisons. She was the one, one in a million."


A.M. Homes has written a splashy, not particularly likable book whose best moments are quietly observed and whose underlying themes are more serious than prurient. The End of Alice is concerned with the fluid nature of identity, with the permeable boundaries that divide an overtly deranged consciousness from a smugly socialized one. (In the author's effort to address this point she has Chappy's young letter writer pose a series of increasingly anxious questions: "How do I know which one Is you?" "Do you leer?" "Do you look as crazy as you are?" "Am I the same as you?") Somerset Maugham once wrote that "the normal is the rarest thing in the world. To the extent that each of us believes the normal is both obvious and ours alone to define, Ms. Homes's novel comes as a powerful and disturbing antidote.

 

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