A Big, Brash Novel about US Politics
Reading AM Homes’s new novel The Unfolding instantly brought to mind the work of another American author. With its state-of-the-nation tone and overtly political backdrop – following the election of Barack Obama as president in 2008, a group of powerful white men plot a coup – you may be forgiven for thinking of Robert Penn Warren, Jonathan Franzen or Philip Roth. But the book in question was Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife, which captures so perfectly in its opening pages the type of men in Homes’s disturbing cabal: “You know the type I mean: those advertisements for themselves, those sleepwalking giants, roaming the earth and knocking over other men, women, furniture, villages.Why should they care? They own everything, the seas and mountains, the quivering volcanoes, the dainty, ruffling rivers."
The Unfolding gives the reader unfettered access to such men from the beginning. After watching a magnanimous John McCain concede the election some hours before, the book’s protagonist, the Big Guy, is licking his wounds in a residents’ bar in Phoenix, Arizona, when he meets Eisner, a like-minded historian. He starts to formulate a plan that will develop into “a slow-moving wave, a coup of sorts that will sweep across this country largely unnoticed until it is too late – until the American people have been decimated economically, intellectually, and spiritually”.
From the obvious setting of Phoenix (where better to rise from the ashes?) to the epigraph from ThomasWolfe – “I believe that we are lost here in America, but I believe we shall be found” – there is nothing subtle about Homes’s novel. It is a big, brash book that looks to examine issues of identity, freedom and democracy from the perspective of a group of millionaires who feel they have been weakened by Obama’s win.
Within the group we meet different types: a shady military general, a public
relations whizz, aWhite House adviser, a health-obsessed doctor, a big data specialist, a “scribe” who will record the plans for posterity. Through reams of dialogue, which accounts for the vast majority of the book, we come to know these men, or rather we come to know what they stand for, and what they fear: “There is no succession plan – there is nothing in place to say who will run the world after they are gone.”
At times the group discussions and constant parsing of ideas for a better future makes it hard to view these characters distinctly, but Homes counters this with a complementary storyline about the Big Guy’s family. His wife, Charlotte, is a middle-aged woman trying to repress her demons through alcohol and an eating disorder. His daughter, Meghan, is a bright, open-minded teenager who is more than a match for her father: “You wanted me to be strong, fierce, and go after the things that mattered – except when it’s about you.” To which he responds: “Correct.” Their relationship is brilliantly done, working to humanise the Big Guy’s more egregious personality traits and to offer him some hope of redemption as the plot unfolds.
To call it a plot is perhaps overstating things. The bigwigs hatch a morally dubious plan but the plan never gets under way. Set between voting day and inauguration day in 2008/2009, the “cycle of suspension”, there is the sense in later parts that we are reading the first in a series. The neat, surprising ending reinforces this idea, or at the least, it evokes EM Forster’s view that the best endings focus on expansion rather than completion.
Homes is the author of seven novels including The End of Alice, This Book Will Save Your Life and MayWe Be Forgiven, which won theWomen’s Prize for Fiction in 2013. Her new novel, the first in a decade, is to be commended for its ambition. In its deft recreation of real-life events, it recalls Mario Vargas Llosa’s fictionalised accounts of the political uprisings in the Dominican Republic and Guatemala.With the fraught family storyline, there are echoes of Wolitzer, and also Christine Dwyer Hickey’s excellent The Narrow Land, particularly as Charlotte emerges from her decades-long fug: “I forgot to have my life. I’ve been having your life for a quarter of a century. The last time I had my own life I was about eleven.”
The chief success of The Unfolding is the way in which Homes merges her personal and political plots. In Wolitzer’s The Wife, “Women were dazzling, they were ownable, and when they became writers the things they wrote were ownable too: dead-on miniatures that often focused on a particular corner of the world, but usually not the whole world itself”. The Unfolding is an unapologetically political novel that pushes back against that idea, an impressive read by a female writer daring, as one of her character notes, “to insert words into the mouths of powerful men”.