The End of Alice
The Killer As Aesthete
By Will Self
The most controversial novel of the autumn belongs to an established fictional genre. If people are outraged, it's because they find it arousing.
God knows it's tempting to write a novel like this one. I know, because I've succumbed; as have Bret Easton Ellis, John Lanchester and Thomas Harris (to pick an arbitrary, contemporary grab-bag). Illustrious names have created this genre: one thinks of Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Musil and, plunging backwards in time, we find perhaps the original serial killer novel, which murders narrative reliability at the same time as its protagonist takes out humankind, James Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of Justified Sinner (1824).
If A.M. Homes is at the fag-end of an established tradition the exhaustion doesn't show, in her themes, or in her thought, or in her prose. The End of Alice, her novel about paedophilia, is properly exacting, while stiffly extracting a reader's uneasy, complicit arousal. But as with other key texts in this genre, the novel is as much about the banality of erudition as the banality of evil.
It was said of Nabokov that in order to write Lolita he spent months researching the psychological profiles of paedophiles. Being Humbert Humbert, one is forced to conclude, didn't come naturally to him. I'm not sure being the nameless narrator of this novel comes that naturally to its author—but she makes a brave fist of it. Incarcerated at Sing Sing in upstate New York, this particular American psycho displays all the characteristics we know he should, culled from our readings of true-life crime, "thrillers" and newspaper stories: father died young (terminal absence); mother a manic depressive who sexually abused him and then committed suicide; loveless upbringing by grandmother.
After college our subject drifted through a number of jobs before becoming a shoe-store clerk. In this capacity he was able to get his jollies during children's fittings, before the urges became too strong and he took his work home: to a little girl's home that is, and raped and (possibly) murdered her. On the run, he pitches up in New Hampshire where he falls into a distorted relationship with Alice, his landlady's 12-year-old daughter. This doesn't end in tears—it ends with the kind of graphic discorporation we associate with Bundy, Dahmer, Nilsen and the Wests: a mix '0' match of steel and penile penetration.
The narrative is constructed not so much in flashback, as trickle-down. We have the psycho in his cell, occasionally being buggered by his roomie, Clayton, a former Ivy League jock who wears his fraternity pin as a nipple ring. We have him being shot up in the tongue by the wing drug pusher, Henry, a carnivorous former abortionist. And in between the painstakingly detailed humiliations of incarceration, we have the psycho's apparent epistolary relationship with a 19-year-old, female, wannabe child abuser. You would have to say that this was the ultimate correspondence course.
Not that we believe, it's really taking place, this nameless young woman's seduction of a 12-year-old neighbourhood boy, with which she regales "our" psycho. There's that egregious namelessness, for one thing, and then there are other problems with grammar, with syntax. For the ender of Alice, like Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, or Lanchester's Tarquin Winot, or Harris's Hannibal Lecter, or indeed my own "Fat Controller," is a compulsive pedant, addicted to periphrasis, to longueurs, and to compulsive anachronisms. His fabrication of the apprentice pen-pal paedophile is written into every line of her faux letters, in the form of an over-preoccupation with constructing the details of a world he hasn't seen for 23 years.
There's that, and there's also the trickling, awful realization, that this particular fantasy is the form for all paedophiliac fantasy; that the fantasy of the young woman who wants to sleep with young boys is also the fantasy of the adult man who wants to do... whatever... with children. In other words, as one "reality" trickles down into another, the whole content of the book is seen to be the abuser's construction of an elaborate system of denial. His deliciously enacted fantasies of minor "consent" are the prolegomena for his defilement: "She wanted me to do it... Oh, you're aroused are you, you naughty girl..." and so, nauseatingly, on.
Homes grounds her narrative firmly in its genre by fashioning smooth, intertextual graftings. Thus Alice collects butterflies, like Nabokov, and like the serial killer in Harris' Silence of the Lambs. When one of the guards quotes Thumper from Bambi—"If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all"—he is really quoting Thumper picking up a bon mot originally dropped at the Mad Hatter's tea party. Taking a bit of Dodgson for himself, and pinching much of the middle section ofLolita to infest, our psycho is a triumphantly unreliable narrator. What Homes is about here is what we've all been about in this line of work: drawing parallels between the workings of the human psyche and the workings of literature. Orthodox Freudianism sees a dichotomy between the latent and the manifest contents of the psyche; similar instabilities exist within the notion of narrative "truth," or even consistency. Thus it is no surprise to reach the middle of this novel and find its narrator attempting to define himself as a construct: "However obvious, my retreat is an attempt to extricate myself, to surrender my responsibility—after all I know how the story ends." This novel has garnered a vast amount of outraged response both here and in the US. It's easy to see why: the ornate prose with which Homes delineates the baroque perversion of her protagonist can be gratingly alliterative—"My appeal must be appealing, not entirely revealing, tucking in the tendency to be argumentative, artfully augmenting my audacity with the acuity of my observation and the alarming accuracy of my action"—but much the time it's chillingly precise and almost beautiful.
The aesthetical psychopathic killer is a fictional trope, not a reality. Check out any of the real biographies of psychopathic killers if you want to establish quite how banal their imaginings were. But the effect of malting the psychopath erudite and articulate is analogous—in this genre—to the way eroticism is conflated with the most extreme of sadisms. Put another way, the reason why critics and readers are outraged by well-written, valid and even important books such as is this at they find them arousing.