The sense of America as a nation in crisis is perennial. But in the past 15 years, as the hope of the Obama era has been replaced by the paranoid divisions of Trump and the geriatric uncertainty of Biden, this narrative of decline has become starker, and something of a truism.
AM Homes makes this rupture in American self-confidence the focus of her new novel, which reflects the instability and uncertainty of its times. This isn't necessarily a good thing. Because although interesting as a study of character and excess, The Unfolding is a frustrating, unsettled book, never knowing whether it wants to be a satirical thriller, a state-of-the-nation novel or something in between.
It's set largely in 2008, in the lead-up to Obama's inauguration. The Big Guy (a nickname used seemingly without iron, either by his friends or by Homes) is a wealthy patriot who weeps every time he hears "The Star-Spangled Banner" or eats a hamburger. As the novel begins he's in Arizona at a Republican soirée, with his wife Charlotte and their daughter Meghan, waiting to hear whether John McCain has lost the election.
The day before, The Big Guy (I'm not sure I can bring myself to keep calling him this, let's try TBG) has taken Meghan to vote for the first time. This is treated reverently by all involved. People mutter in hushed tones about the sacred duties of democracy; TBG lectures his daughter on the wonder of a civic function designed 200 years ago still being honoured today. "It meant a lot to me, too," Meghan tells him, "we're making history one day at a time. I cast my vote in honour of all those who have come before me and with an eye on the future ahead." Conservatives gonna conserve.
Back at the party, Obama's election is received as an existential disaster. "A Black man just got elected president of the United States," someone says, "Oh my fucking god." He does not mean this in a positive way. TBG realises not just that he is a dinosaur, but that he and his kind are facing extinction. This may sound like a common-or-garden midlife crisis, but because TBG is, well, a big man, his crises are bigger than other people's.
"What I realized last night," he tells Charlotte, "was that there's something inside me, profound anger and grief at why I spent all my time trying to get rich but didn't do something more interesting with my life, something that might change the course of the world." It's this bombastic self-certainty, and the elision of "interesting" with "something that might change the course of the world" that, you might respond, is precisely the problem.
Undeterred, TBG decides he wants to save America, and so he assembles a geriatric A-team of proto-fascist sympathisers to foment a slow revolution. They gather at his ranch and in fancy restaurants, talking about guns and wine and American culture and the state of the nation. They give each other cute nicknames ("Zenith", "Hot Waste", "T-Rex"), and make little lapel pins to identify themselves. They call themselves "The Forever Men". Are we supposed to cringe as hard as I did at all of this? Reader, it remains unclear.
While the men speechify, TBG's family life falls into melodrama. Wife Charlotte is an alcoholic, probably in response to the hidden trauma that percolates through the second half of the book. Meanwhile, Meghan herself is undergoing a Damascene liberal conversion, precipitated by the discovery that a girl in her school was once murdered in some woods and that her father's best friend Tony is actually gay.
Homes has never quite been a straight satirist, but she is interested in extreme situations and characters, creating caricatures to locate the borders of social acceptability. Her most celebrated novel, The End of Alice (1996), was about a paedophile who groomed a teenage girl into abusing children. There the ambiguity of the narrative voice was deeply discomforting; here it's just annoying.
To some extent The Unfolding is meant to satirise masculine stupidity and myopia. But I found it too credulous of some of the perceived threats facing democracy - the paranoid visions of men in grey suites holding all the power - and too solemn and fawning of its traditions to really place them in stark relief. The novel seems in sympathy, if not with the politics of its characters, and certainly not with their racism, then with their reverence for American political exceptionalism - the nation's storied norms and traditions. It's a novel full of wise taxi drivers extolling the virtues of the liberal consensus and young people saying things such as: "In my father's country, when the government changes, many people die... That is the good thing about democracy, no one dies." But they do, every day; they just die in less obvious ways, and further from where the decisions to kill them are made.
It might be comforting to think that the past 14 years are the result of a bunch of elderly conspirators sitting in a room and deciding the future. The alternative - that history, like politics, is messy and predictable, and involves us all - is more frightening. But it is also more true.
The Unfolding by AM Homes, Granta £20/Viking $27, 416 pages