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Music For Torching

Burning Down the House

By Michele Slung

In this remarkable fourth novel, A.M. Homes delivers a sad/funny, wild-card strewn indictment of the ways our lives don't work at century's close. And it's all the more superb for the depth of its humanity, especially coming as it does after the chilly fascinations of her last book, The End of Alice, a perverse tale that mesmerized even as it revolted.

The protagonists of Music for Torching are ostensibly ordinary folk, Paul and Elaine Weiss, along with their young sons, Daniel and Sammy. (Homes fans will remember meeting them earlier, in the midst of other self-indulgent hijinks, in her 1990 collection, The Safety of Objects.) The four Weisses inhabit familiar territory, i.e., that mostly prosperous suburbia north of Manhattan claimed so indelibly for literature by John Cheever in a previous era. However, others, notably James Salter (The Light Years) and Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road), have also given us their own dysphoric vision of the region.

"What's wrong with this picture?" Back when I subscribed to all the kids' magazines, that catchphrase was the signal to carefully study a landscape, then begin identifying the anomalies in it. I found myself reminded here of that juvenile pastime, as Homes forced the reader quickly past any notion of taking at face value the Weisses or their neighbors.

It's only a few pages into the story when Paul and Elaine whimsically decide to set their house ablaze, minutes later fleeing the scene with the boys for a nearby motel. We're left to marvel—shocked, indignant, guiltily envious—at anyone's willingness to act on such a gorgeously destructive impulse. A bonfire of the inanities that plague them, it's arson as couples therapy. Elaine, afterward, is half-boastful, half-appalled. Snuggling up to Paul in the strange bed, she tries out a formula that will fit the situation, "We're awful... Really bad," she declares. And it's true. But it's an awfulness the two of them have absorbed naturally from the no-limits society around them, and their pure expression of it is, in a way, innocent. As Homes has structured the novel, everything follows from that one moment of spontaneous release. No event from here on can really be separated out, unconnected to the one before it, and chaos turns out to be as contagious as a cold in a kindergarten. For example, there are the Nielsons, the friends who offer to put up the Weisses temporarily. What does one make of Pat Nielson, a near-Stepford wife, suddenly revealing herself able to expertly seduce the stunned Elaine on the kitchen floor? Or of the stranger sitting next to Paul on the commuter train, whose morning farewell is an unexpected kiss? Why has Paul been shaving off all his body hair, getting a genital tattoo, wearing a nightgown?

Can Elaine explain to herself how she came to be having sex with the muscular local cop? (He's been toting a pocketful of brightly colored condoms while keeping a hot, watchful eye on her.) Or how she managed to choose—out of the Yellow Pages—a balding vocational guidance counselor, plastic pen protector and all, to be her unlikely spiritual adviser? Why does Daniel, barely adolescent but fully rebellious, padlock his door and where did he get his taste for "fat-girl nudie magazines?"

How can it be—this is Elaine's epiphany in the supermarket, as she and Paul aimlessly rattle a cart down the aisles—that "we're all we have, and we're not enough?" Or that the only thing standing for "normal" in the Weiss menage is a cycle on the washing machine? Have Paul and Elaine, in their sublime fecklessness, simply strayed too far and lingered too long on the dark side of the American dream? Is there to be no exit from their improvised existence as make-believe grown-ups "playing house in a broken home?"

The answers, I should warn you, will not be found here. But it's the questions that matter, anyway, and Holmes poses them with a fierce intensity that's all the more powerful for seeming so deceptively natural in its effects. Moreover, the convergence of her narrative with recent headlines—about this particular plot point I won't say any more—is a terrific illustration of how she manages to keep very, very important information hidden in plain sight.

Music for Torching's pretty much a homeowners' guide "how not to," and one can take the title to mean the white noise, the background hum, of lives in perpetual, achey crisis. As regards their insurance policy, an obvious concern from early on, to their immense relief the understandably anxious Paul and Elaine learn that they're going to be allowed coverage under what their agent refers to, humorously, as "the stupidity clause." Whatever it's called, they don't care—it's at least a solution to that immediate problem.

The trouble is, it's a far cry from absolution. Although, in the absence of anything better, it'll have to do.