The End of Alice
Looking Glass, Darkly
By Heather Lewis
A.M Homes's The End of Alice takes a Lewis Carroll quote for its epigraph, "A stopped dock is right twice a day." It's an apt introduction to the narrator, a pedophile and murderer caught red-handed in 1971, locked away for some 23 years—a man for whom time has stopped, and whose perceptions we might well assume to be impaired. Except that he's right, some of the time.
Determining when he's accurate is just one of the challenges posed by this complicated and surprising man, who begins his own story by describing the girl whose story he purports to tell. She's 19, home from college to spend her summer vacation safely tucked away in Scarsdale, her lush suburban home. But something's amiss out there because she's written to him. Told him about her "oddly awkward taste for the freshest of flesh." His words, not hers, to describe her fixation on a 12-year-old boy she aims to pursue and conquer.
As a celebrated psychopath, he still gets plenty of mail after all these years locked away. So he's picked this girl who, like the narrator, remains unnamed—from among many potential correspondents for her "willingness...to transcend...her chosen category or group." That he sees her as transcendent, not transgressive, seems no arbitrary word choice. He's asking us to meet this same challenge, not play the passive voyeur. Right on the first page: it's close to a dare. "Who is she? What will frighten you most is knowing she is either you or I, one of us.
"These questions are at the heart of The End of Alice. And we can't escape them. The narrator won't let us. "I collect the headlines... The untamed environs, the suburban subdivisions... are much more violent, more dangerous, than what you imagine happens in these hallowed halls. Your capitol dome and bureaucratic bulges, gubernatorial pitches for reform, coupled with the grisly grit of who was killed, who was maimed.. stun and stone me... What I'm getting at is that, with so many of us locked up. you'd think it would stop. That it continues means that it is you and not me."
So, there's a lot of play on assumption here, his and ours, and play period, which gives Homes room to use Carroll too much effect. That the narrator and girl remain unnamed reminds us of Carroll—that names are of use only to the namer and not the named. And pivotal events in this narrator's life, past and present, occur on the Fourth of July—the same day Carroll began his Alice books, telling the stories to Alice Liddell in 1862. But while these echoes are there throughout, Carroll is less a model than his method is an inspiration. The book's juxtapositions prove ingenious: the implicit dialogue between narrator and reader, the correspondence between an aging pedophile and an upper-middle-class Scarsdale girl—these devices alone set the stage for manipulations and mind games.
What distinguishes this book is Homes's refusal to settle for cleverness. And so the genius lies in what these juxtapositions lead to, add up to, where they take us. How the placements and relations continually shake out assumptions and alliances. If this narrator remained merely cunning and clever, in control and intact, he couldn't take us anywhere, couldn't show us anything. But he loses his grip. He tries not to. He tries to stay in control—of himself, of us, of his girl correspondent. He lets this girl speak very little. Instead he speaks or her. "She writes of the memory of one particular afternoon—or perhaps I write for her—her syntax, articulation, and understanding are still the stinted, stilted language of youth."
We distrust his attempts at control, distrust his own syntax, and his rigidly articulated diction. He knows this, too. "I must ask that you excuse the idiosyncrasies of my sound, of my thought, for I so rarely speak these days that all I do say seems to hurl itself forward, collecting references, attachments to both past and present."
But it's through these attachments of past and present that he becomes trustworthy. We begin to believe him because he can't control the girl, can't control the effect she's having on him, where she's taking him. "Today she drives me further in. She drives me to know things about myself, things I already know too well. Goddamn. I am wild. I am trapped." She has taken him back down his rabbit hole—back to Alice, the other girl, the one whose murder landed him in prison. "She is the one who sent me into this world, this evacuation of my experience, and now I resent her intrusion. I am in my thoughts with my beloved, with Alice and she has come barging in—a poor substitute."
The girl's taken him further back, too, long before prison. Soon he can't stick to the story he wants to tell: the girl's. Instead he keeps slipping back to his own. He can't not tell it. And in his tellings and retellings of present and past, in their relation, we truly meet him. We learn that this man we're so wary of possesses a childlike honesty, a candor that's completely disarming.
He tells us about his dead father; how two years later his mother was carted off to an insane asylum. His fate after his mother's removal he describes simply, succinctly. "My bags are packed. I'm removed from my own life and taken to live at my grandmother's house. In my memory it is always summer. I have a yellow toy truck with real rubber tires. I love the tires."
When his mother returns from the asylum, "near the Fourth of July" she takes her son, now eight to "the old Roman baths." Once they're safe in a private room, safe in a great big tub, his mother has it her way. "My hand is inside of my mother, in a place I never knew was there... 'Fist,' she says, 'make a fist, curl your paw.' It doesn't go at first. Too large. 'Push,' she says. And I do... My fist is in and almost out and then in again. Her fingers dig into my biceps, she is controlling me... Whatever I do I can't stop. She is filled with fury and frustration and there is no way of saying no."
This memory sequence is interwoven with the present, a humiliating trip to the prison doctor. "While I'm still shackled, my shirt is unbuttoned, my pants are pulled down, trousers and boxer shorts bunched around the steel at my ankles." The seamless threading of past and present, the tight stitchings that make up this novel, lets the narrator unravel. And that unraveling takes us beyond pity or disgust, beyond even empathy to a place where we can't not look at ourselves. He begins to have the same effect on us that the girl has on him, forces our own excavation of experience.
It's his mother's death in 1949 more than his imprisonment decades later that seems to stop him in time. He can't imagine the child's Big Wheel or the turkey burger his correspondent describes. And her contemporary suburbia is a kind of fifties Stepford surreal where the mothers are "the last lost generation of homemakers, trained to be deaf, dumb, and blind."
Our narrator and the girl? Arrested development cases—grown children, unable to adjust their perceptions, to dull their perceptions, though they try.
What they can't do is succeed. Their failure becomes this book's success. Their perceptions, the things they see in themselves and others, just keep getting clearer. By the time the Fourth of July rolls around, in the present, things become so clear that the narrator shatters, begins his true crash through the glass, and he's brought face-to-face with himself, with his crime.