Following the news that AM Homes had won the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly known as the Orange) for her sixth novel May We Be Forgiven, I decided to give it a go. The book had been praised to the skies by Miranda Richardson who chaired the judging panel: ‘So fresh and so funny – darkly funny – and so unexpectedly moving,’ she said. ‘It is a book where we all found ourselves laughing out loud on trains or wherever we were reading,’ she added. Well, I must have a different funny bone, because mine wasn’t tickled, and I certainly didn’t laugh out loud. Overall, I found the novel tedious, uneven and somewhat pointless.
I gather that May We Be Forgiven began life as a short story, and this shows. Whereas the first 50 pages are a tour-de-force of outrageous black comedy, thereafter the novel sags and meanders through a series of increasingly implausible scenarios before finally being tied up in a neat bow with a matching, but contrasting scene, to the opening.
The story begins and ends with two Thanksgiving dinners a year apart. At the first, Harry Silver, an academic who teaches Nixon Studies (this Nixon thing runs through the story, and I could never get a handle on what Homes meant by it), reveals his loathing for his taller, richer, more aggressive brother George, a TV network boss, who sits ‘at the head of the big table, picking turkey out of his teeth, talking about himself’. This opening scene is a great piece of writing, a savagely satirical observation of a contemporary American family gathering. George’s children, aged 10 and 11, sit ‘like lumps at the table, hunched, or more like curled, as if poured into their chairs, truly spineless, eyes focused on their small screens, the only thing in motion their thumbs – one texting friends no one had ever seen and the other killing digitised terrorists’. Meanwhile, brother Harry is picking the stuffing out of the turkey carcass in the kitchen when his sister-in-law Jane kisses him suddenly on the lips.
A few months later George is arrested after driving through a red light and crashing into a car, killing a couple and leaving their son orphaned. It may or may not have been an accident. In rapid succession over the next few pages, a series of bad things happen: Harry starts an affair with Jane, there is a murder and a divorce, and George ends up in an asylum run by some very odd people. Harry suddenly finds himself in sole charge of his niece and nephew.
Up to this point I was gripped, but after this exhilarating start the rest of the book disappoints. The narrative constantly shifts between the tedium of Harry adapting to the responsibilities of caring for the kids (plus a growing collection of other relatives, animals and chance acquaintances) and a series of implausible, episodic adventures. Characters are hospitalised repeatedly; sacked, kidnapped, and incarcerated in sinister experimental correctional facilities. There is child abuse, another murder, abuse of prescription drugs, internet sex, and a swingers’ party at the local shopping mall. We discover that Richard Nixon was a sensitive man who wrote short stories. There is a bizarre episode involving secret agents and an Israeli arms dealer and a weird Bar Mitzvah celebration in a South African village.
About 300 pages in there is a passage which may, I suppose, sum up the vision of an atomised, alienated society that Homes intends to convey:
There is a world out there, so new, so random and dissociated that it puts us all in danger. We talk online, we ‘friend’ each other when we don’t know who we are really talking to – we fuck strangers. We mistake almost anything for a relationship, a community of sorts, and yet, when we are with our families, in our communities, we are clueless, we short-circuit and immediately dive back into the digitised version …
Later, much later, Harry tells his psychiatrist why he is so interested in Richard Nixon:
I’ve been thinking a lot about the drug that is the American Dream as the American entitlement, which gave way to the American downfall.
Later still, when 11-year old Nate is celebrating his Bar Mitzvah in the South African village where his charitable contributions have financed a school, the boy is disgusted to find that what the villagers yearn for most is not having a well dug to deliver clean water, but ‘cable television, a really big TV … refrigerators’. Harry, now inhabiting the thoughtful, responsible parent role, tells him:
‘It is human nature to want, for each generation to aspire to more. People confuse things with achievement, with other kinds of progress. It’s the measure of success.’
‘Whoever has the most toys wins?’
You feel that – with better writing and more plausible characterization and plotting – there might have been a fairly decent novel here. Instead, May We Be Forgiven is uneven novel, meandering and repetitive. If Homes is offering a vision of redemption, it seems to consist (like the cakes that are baked repeatedly throughout) of a sickly, less than nourishing mixture: basically, be nice to children, animals, and strangers. At the end, they all sit around the Thanksgiving table: a new, liberated American family.
Philip Womack reviewing the novel in the Telegraph spoke more generously of May We Be Forgiven than I can:
These things happen, Homes suggests, because we all live in bubbles, incapable of communicating, kept alive by suspicion and medication.
There is a sense that we are becoming desensitised, not just emotionally, but in all other aspects, through technology. Everybody in the book is seeking some kind of relationship, even if, like George, they are incapable of keeping it. A female teacher finds comfort in George’s 11-year-old daughter; two demented old people that Harold ends up housing nurse dolls as if they were children. And yet nobody really knows how to connect with others in a true manner. Harold muses: “The loss of the human touch scares me.”
The narrative is unrelenting, and yet it makes a kind of sense that all these troubles should be brought to bear on a few individuals. What’s interesting about this book is that for all its ferocious now-ness, its messages are old fashioned. Peace is found in a South African village, amongst community and participation; acts of kindness bring their own rewards. Homes, however, is not a pious or a schmaltzy writer – she is aware that things are compromised, as when George’s son Nate realises that the South African villagers he’s been supporting are really only interested in what material goods they can buy. But this doesn’t detract from the morality of the book’s core. Only connect, Homes tells us, and we can escape the nightmare of the 21st century – if only for a while.