The End of Alice
By Cathleen Medwick
Suppose that you hold in your hand a trim little book of horrors: a tale told by a sexual deviant who seduces little girls, a man who, from prison, reaches out his hand (and Lord knows where it's been) to you, the nervous reader. He wants you to know his secret; he seems to know yours.
You take your book on the commuter train. The smartly suited businessman beside you slides a glance onto your page. He reads: "another reason I dislike girls of significant age is that uncorked, uncovered, they reek of sexual steam, like something long simmering finally released. I hate the smell of cunt ready and waiting. I want it green.... " Oh.
Casually, you shift your posture, turn toward the window, as if you need more light. The train is garishly well-lit and so are you. Here is the problem posed by A.M. Homes's shamelessly unnerving new novel, The End of Alice (Scribner): As soon as you agree to listen to your unnamed narrator, to hear his story of seduction (hers? his? yours?), you become a participant in this book, a player. Maybe you are a pervert yourself, and this thrills you; or maybe you hate the very paper this book is written on, you want to burn it and throw it against the wall.
Maybe you just squirm. And suppose you mention that to the writer, a pleasant woman in her mid-thirties—someone you'd very much enjoy knowing, not by any means an aging murderer who spends his time in prison corresponding with a teenage suburban girl, your daughter or mine, a girl who sometimes makes him look like a sexual ingénue...
"That's good," says Homes, pondering my discomfort over a diet Coke at a West Village cafe. "I wanted, I think, to write something that was intellectually and morally challenging, and that does make somebody uncomfortable, that's also arousing and repulsive and provokes a full range of human responses."
Well, sure. But does she get a kick out of making me squirm? The question bothers her. She returns to it in the course of our conversation, as though she's been rolling it over, letting it cook. "I don't know that I get pleasure out of making people uncomfortable. I get pleasure when I've done my job." That's the job of prying people's eyes open, making them look at something they'd rather not see: the children's-shoe salesman who presses the tiny foot to his crotch; the babysitter who puts a dog collar on the child and ties him in the yard while she seduces his older brother, the mother who forces her young son into the bathtub and makes him service her.
"If I was less explicit, you could ignore it," Homes says over a modest salad (her interviewer is wolfing down a bloody burger with fries). Her worry, she confesses, is that people will conflate her with her narrator—a man who also feels the need to make people face the truth: "Am I being too presumptuous," he asks the reader, "claiming to know who you are, when just as easily you could be someone else, a bum, or someone suprisingly like me?"
"In fact, what the guy in the book is doing is going one further," Homes says. "He's constantly saying, Okay, I told you that one, now try this one. He is pulling out every possibility, and each time coming right up to a line and pushing you. He's putting your face right in the thing. He's holding your head and not letting go."
The scene is Suburbia, USA. There is a predator on the block obsessed with sex, sniffing out a twelve-year-old boy in his bedroom. She's gotta have him. She's nineteen. In her spare time, she writes to a sex criminal who is behind bars—our forlorn narrator, her dangerous plaything. From his point of view, she's almost too old to bother with, but he's in no position to be choosy. She is not the girl he kills—though he might like to, if she doesn't kill him first...
This is virgin territory, a fictional admission that children can be feral, even lethal. "We really are at a moment when innocence in childhood is changing drastically, and the whole thing of growing up, of what it is to be a young girl, is kind of up in the air," Homes says. "Carol Gilligan talks in her books about adolescent girls losing their self-esteem. But she doesn't talk about the adults being terrified." The girls in this novel—the one who's dead and the one who's prowling—wield their nascent sexuality like a knife: "Dressed only in cowboy boots and a skirt, Alice dances around the room, grabbing at her chest, pinching her nips. Hopelessly hard beneath the cover of a stale sheet, I watch the devil parade. 'God, I hope I don't get big boobs,' she says, looking at me."
If you can believe the narrator (and who says you can?), his Alice was a demon who tormented him, bringing him just to the brink of ecstasy and leaving him there to—well, to squirm. What does this do to our victim theory and to what we think of as abused children? Homes asks. "I think that young girls do play with that kind of power. Theoretically, the job of good adults is to acknowledge that but not respond to it, to not take advantage of it. The whole thing is trying it all out, and hopefully you try it out in a safe enough place."
Not many readers will be sanguine about this theory. Or fact. Homes doesn't expect a fatherly pat on the back from Jesse Helms. She expects to be accused of writing pornography ("Is being explicit the same as being pornographic?") and to be misunderstood by those who insist that childhood is a state of grace.
The girls in this book are aroused and desperate. They come from the same street in the same town. In a sense they are one child, as frighteningly self-possessed as Lewis Carroll's Alice, whose image haunts the book. Homes's Alice, like her unnamed successor, is "the unseen side of being an adolescent girl in this country. She is confused in terms of her sexuality, she's deeply uncomfortable."
Aren't we all?
Homes actually does seem comfortable, considering that she has Just written a kind of Lolita for the grim '90s—a book many will see as deviant, if not criminal. She's had some experience with censure: Her first novel Jack, and her book of short stories, The Safely of Objects, had plenty of shock value. But the writer does not shock. "Ultimately, I'm pretty normal. I have no really bizarre habits. I go to bed at a pretty regular time. I don't scream in the street very often. Yet I fought very hard to get to the point of normality, and I don't even know what the fight was about." She grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. She found it terrifying. Like Michael Cunningham (Flesh and Blood), Homes is part of a generation of young novelists who are muscling in on John Cheever's franchise and writing about suburbia, the place no one wants to come from, or return to. And the news from nowhere is scary. Who better to deliver it than a permanent outcast, a man whose prurient imagination still roams those quiet streets?
"I always have this thing about using the least likely character to tell a story. Change the angle on the thing, and it all looks different. This guy's really the least likely person to talk about children and growing up and sexuality and morality... a very odd position."
Homes wonders what will happen when the book is published ("How do the ladies in their living rooms sit around and talk about it?"). Will people hate it—or her? It isn't so reassuring when the publicist at Scribner can bear to read it only in snatches. And what will happen when Homes goes on her book tour? "I don't really like being confronted. I worry on some level about crazy people chasing after me. You're in some city, you don't know where you are, and you have to answer questions like, 'Why are you a pervert?'"
In a strange way, she carries her narrator with her. During the five years she spent writing Alice, she had to live with him. Sometimes he scared her. She painted his portrait early on (Artspace Books is publishing a companion book of sorts,Appendix A, in which Homes expands on one of the chapters in Alice and exhibits the murderer's fetishistic art and artifacts). "I ask myself, What does it mean to be the representative of this person?" At the same time, she confesses that she likes him. "I miss him. I certainly don't want to live next door to him, or be in the same room with him very often. I think he's deeply crazy, but he's a person I haven't heard from before. I think he's smart, but not as smart as he thinks be is. He has a certain moral center, and then be has something completely demented. And in the juxtaposition of the two and in his process of wrestling with the two, he has to come up with a logic that he can live with. And I think that the more he realizes what he has done, the more he falls apart."
In a crucial way, the killer is impotent.
Luckily for the unembarrassed reader of fiction, the writer is not.