Fiction: The Unfolding
By Sam Sacks
The apocalypse is such a longstanding obsession in American literature that it has been easy—probably too easy—for novelists to integrate extraordinary events into the worldview of their books. This is most recently apparent in Covid-19 fiction, which depicts the once-in-a-century pandemic as yet another symptom, alongside environmental crises and economic unrest, of civilizational collapse. But the same has gone for the dumbfounding results of the 2016 presidential election. The Trump presidency tends to appear in novels with the breathless, revelatory terror of a portent of End Times.
So there is a bracing reversal of expectations—and perhaps a reminder that Armageddons are relative phenomena—when A.M. Homes begins her latest novel “The Unfolding” with the devastating outcome of the presidential election . . . of 2008. A billionaire businessman and Republican super-donor named Hitchens (the only first name we get for him is “The Big Guy”) is in attendance at Phoenix’s Biltmore Hotel with his wife, Charlotte, and daughter, Meghan, when John McCain delivers his concession speech. The loss—and the envisioned future under Barack Obama—is so startling that it prompts Hitchens to re-evaluate his whole life. Hitherto he had focused on amassing his fortune; now, he pledges, he will devote his money and energy to what he calls “a patriot’s plan to preserve and protect” American democracy.
In the interregnum between Election Day and Inauguration Day, Hitchens convenes a band of like-minded men into a secret society, complete with code names, dedicated to throwing sand in the gears of the incoming administration. But the “turning point” of the election reverberates through his household as well. Charlotte, who has spent years self-medicating with alcohol, dries out in the Betty Ford clinic and demands that Hitchens confront the host of lies propping up their marriage. Meghan, a senior at a posh boarding school, undergoes her own “brutal awakening” from her zealously sheltered childhood. “The things I took to be ‘truths self-evident’ are not truths at all,” she thinks. As Hitchens ponders revolution, it’s not always clear whether he’s thinking about his country or his family.
As she demonstrated in “May We Be Forgiven,” her gonzo suburbia satire from 2012, Ms. Homes is good at exploiting holiday gatherings for seriocomic set pieces. Along with the political events, the one-two punch of Thanksgiving and Christmas plays a big role here. Scenes with Charlotte and Meghan are rich in outbursts and bewildered reconciliations. Some take place at inner-circle Republican parties, where Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush come off favorably next to all the dysfunction.
Mixed in are the golfing and hunting weekends Hitchens puts together for his newer family of would-be insurgents. Included in the boys’ club—they call themselves the Forever Men—are a loquacious Texas judge, a social historian, an anxiety-ridden accountant, an eccentric propaganda expert, a blowhard former military man who likes to show off by summoning members of his private army, and Hitchens’s oldest friend, an enigmatic White House special assistant who plans to continue working for Obama and who emerges as the novel’s surprising emotional lodestar.
Just what they plan to do to take back the country remains vague. There are oracular moments when their covert scheming about media manipulation and societal fracture darkly foreshadows our current political miasma. But just as often the gang comes off as bickering, over-privileged cranks playing at being power brokers to divert themselves from personal problems. Ms. Homes restlessly shifts between serious political critique, rollicking Pynchon-style absurdity and unabashed displays of sentiment. If the mixture leaves “The Unfolding” feeling somewhat gangly and unresolved it also saves it from falling into the ruts of ideological narrative. Beyond being good or bad, the characters in this impressive book are, above all things, unpredictable.