AM Homes: ‘Every piece of a woman’s freedom is up for grabs’
By Sarah Gilmartin
How do you solve a problem like America? It’s a question at the heart of AM Homes’ new novel The Unfolding, which follows a group of powerful white men as they hatch a plan to save their country (and in their own heads, the world) from a nefarious enemy called Barack Obama. Set over a number of weeks, between election day November 2008 and Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, the book was 10 years in the making. What took her so long?
Homes breezily lists the reasons in a frank, funny way that is typical of her manner throughout the interview. There’s the acclaimed collection of stories she published in 2018, her teaching job at Princeton, writing work for TV, Covid, the fact she has to earn her health insurance. “Also, when I first started this book it was way before Donald Trump was president,” she says. “I still have these moments when I think: did that happen? If it wasn’t for the fact that we’re still having these [January 6] hearings, I would think maybe it was just a zombie apocalypse that came along with Covid. The last eight years have been pretty weird.”
Speaking over Zoom from her "little writing cabin" in the artist haven of Springs, Long Island, where she's been going since 1985, there isn't a whiff of an apocalypse from Homes. In a summery white shirt and black-rimmed glasses, her screen darkening sporadically with flashes of internittent sunshine, she laughs frequently as we try to parse the weirdness of recent times.
"I feel as if there is an enormous identity crisis on the table right now," she says. "People don't know who they are or what they're doing. We don't feel as attached to our social and political structures as we were. Covid was really hard on people in ways we don't even have language for. I feel very blunted in my ability to connect with and be in the world. It's complicated."
Brought up in Maryland in the '60s by adoptive parents, Homes has always been preoccupied with the issue of identity. Her brilliant 2007 memoir The Mistress's Daughter recounts the experience of having her birth parents track her down when she was in her 30s. Identity looms large in her fiction too, from the exploration of gay parentage in her debut novel Jack, written at just 19, to her most controversial novel, The End of Alice (1996), told from the perspective of a paedophile, to the 2013 Women's Prize-winning May We Be Forgiven, an intricate story of warring brothers and the hope of redemption through family.
The Unfolding is perhaps the most overt exploration yet of her perennial theme. A big, bold, unapologetically political novel, it meshes personal and public identity crises with gleeful energy. The book's protagonaist is the Big Guy, convenor of the grou of bigwigs, who is also in the middle of a family crisis with his alcoholic wife Charlotte and their bright, sensitive teenage daughter Meghan.
What drew Homes, a bisexual woman raised in a liberal family, to the Republican mindset? "Men like that dominate our political infrastructure, and dominate a lot of the conversation, [but] we don't actually know them or hear what's really going on inside," she says. "That was the challenge, to try to figure out what he might be thinking. And in a way, too, to account for his own, some people call it 'privilege'. I would also call it cluelessness, his own deafness to his family, his wife and child, all of that was interesting to me."
The way in which people construct their identity from what they've been told, either at school or at home, is examined in the book. Homes was promited to think about this by her daughter, then aged nine, asking her whether there were any women in history. "I thought it was so interesting because when you're learning it as a kid, it doesn't occur to you that there might be a whole piece of the story missing. Increasingly it's become clear that the version of history we have in America is one version, but there are enormous numbers of histories that are untold and unaccounted for."
As a result, The Unfolding is a book full of awakenings, "the realisation that one doesn't have to accept the history or the narrative they inherit. But then the question is: what kind of narrative are you going to make for yourself? Which is really difficult, as we all know."
It could be argued that America today is more divided than ever when it comes to figuring things out. The recent decision by the Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs. Wade is one obvious example. "It's terrifying," says Homes. "There are all these different fallouts, the idea that in some states now, there are things that say you can't get divorced if you're pregnant. It's every little piece of a woman's freedom suddenly up for grabs, and that is really worrisome. They've clearly signalled that civil rights are next, whether it's gay marriage or interracial marriage, or whatever it might be. All of that is super scary. We are in a much darker and more dangerous place than we were when I started writing this book."
If the world at large is under threat in The Unfolding, so too is the family unit, that old goldmine of comi-tragic fiction. A question on dysfunctional families prompts a characteristically wry response: "Are there any functional families and if so, could I please meet one? Is there a zoo where they keep them?" she says. "In families, people tell a story. This is who we are. This is what we believe in. This is what our faith is. This is how we express things. This is how we vote. And always in the family, there's one person who's like, I don't believe that. They're usually identified as the black sheep. Historically, they came to other countries and made a new world and a new life."
It's also a good description of a writer, a person who feels compelled to say how things are as opposed to how people would like them to be. In the past, Homes has been deemed transgressive, a writer who goes to extremes. Does she think that's fair? "I don't know because I didn't give myself that reputation," she says. "I feel like I'm always writing about the world we live in. There's nothing I write about that isn't present in the world. I'm trying always to push people to talk about things that are hard to talk about. That is inescapable. That is something I've done as a person, a child. I'm that person."
Her portrait of a group of uber-rich, Republican alpha males will no doubt provoke further discussion, not least as to whether The Unfolding falls into Great American Novel territory, "It's very relevant to this book, that historically speaking, men have always written the Great American Novel," says Homes. "That is meant to be the large book of social and political scale. And women are supposed to write the small domestic stories. I never have agreed with that, ibviously.
"But with The Unfolding, I really wanted to try and weave those two things together... I've had students come to me and say, 'Were there women writing in the 20th century?'
"They'll show me their course list and it's all white men and at the end, they read a Toni Morrison book. I write them a list and I tell them to give it to the person teaching that class - with my thanks."
As to who she reads herself: "Right now I would say Margaret Atwood. I think she's a visionary, incredibly intelligent. I would add Angela Carter (Homes' former teacher) in the same way, brainiac, bright, very aware of literally the earth and our relationship to the earth. Marilynne Robinson too. I put them as the three fairy godmothers on my list."
When it comes to her own writing, she's more humble. The Unfolding may not be the Great American Novel because Homes has a problem with the word 'great.' "I don't have a very big ego," she laughs, "so I'd be like, it's 'the pretty good American novel.'"
Which is something of an understatement for a book that packs in history lessons, political intriuge, family drama, and astute social commentary. In short, a study of America as a country in free fall by a writer who knows exactly where it's at.
The Unfolding will be published on September 8 by Granta.