(For Book Riot's Tournament of Books rundown, Rioter Rebecca and I recently took on A.M. Homes' new novel, May We Be Forgiven. As opposed to a straight review, the following, which originally appeared on Book Riot, will actually give you a much better feel for the novel. Enjoy!)
If we’re judging a book by its cover, A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven
may seem a tad mundane. But then, within the first 30 pages, a guy
named George kills two people in a traffic accident, goes slightly
insane, catches his wife Jane in bed with his brother Harry, and bashes
her in the head with with a table lamp.
This is not a novel for the squeamish, and not just because of what
happens at the beginning. Harry, a middle-aged Nixon scholar, narrates
the fallout from these life-shattering events, and carries us through a
novel that is a lot absurd, more than a little hilarious, a bit sad, and
just a tad revolting here and there. A.H. Homes is known as a “fearless” novelist, not afraid to take chances, or take on any subject, and that’s fairly evident here.
Below, Rebecca and I discuss this Tournament of Books longshot.
Greg Zimmerman: So, before we even jump into Harry
vs. Life in the aftermath of his brother’s meltdown, let’s talk about
readability. I remember, before I started this, fellow Rioter Amanda
tweeted something about how she hated all the characters, but still
couldn’t put the book down. I feel similarly — many of these characters
are just atrocious to the point of being Sherwood Anderson-esque
grotesques. But you can’t turn away. Homes is so smooth, so readable,
even when dealing with some icky subjects, it really is hard to close
the covers. Would you agree?
Rebecca Joines Schinsky: You know, I don’t really
agree. I didn’t love any of the characters, but I did really sympathize
for Harry and the kids and came to like them quite a bit. And I wouldn’t
call the characters atrocious. Every last one of them has made some
Very Bad Life Choices, but they make — taken alone — the kinds of bad
choices any of us could make in a moment of weakness or desperation or
really-not-thinking-straight-ness. It’s just that they happen all at
once here. And isn’t that how life is? Poor Harry thought he was just
committing run of the mill adultery (albeit with his sister-in-law, so
add in a side of family betrayal); how was he to know his brother was
going to go batshit? That’s where Homes’ skill with the absurd comes in.
She layers bad choice upon bad choice, weird circumstance upon even
weirder circumstance, and somehow, it really works.
GZ: The problem with Harry, though, doesn’t seem to
be that he makes bad choices or has moments of weakness. It’s that he
doesn’t make decisions at all! Indeed, as the story continues to unfold,
it seems more and more that Harry is tugged along by forces beyond his
control. That things just happen and he just goes with them. (His wife
telling him to “take care” of Jane while George is away is his
justification for adultery?!) And to me, that’s why we don’t put too
much thought into the cause and effect of the absurd things that happen —
why, for instance, Harry finds himself in a suburban sex club with a
married woman, and we think “yep, that seems about right.” Harry does
eventually begin to figure things out, though, and as he does, that’s
when he becomes more sympathetic. So I think we agree on Harry that he’s
not atrocious in the end, we just took different paths to get there.
RJS: That’s really well put, G. Harry is
go-with-the-flow passive to a fault. He sorta-kinda-maybe knows what he
wants, but he’s incapable of identifying the incremental steps to
getting those things, so he just floats along on the tide of other
people’s decisions. Jane comes on to him. George leaves him responsible
for the children. Cheryl invites him to the sex club, and Amanda starts
the thing in the grocery store (and hello, whose wish fulfillment moment
is this to meet a stranger in the grocery store and start an affair?),
not to mention all that follows with her parents, Cy and Madeline. The
kids push and pull him into other critical moments. But he becomes more
capable of dealing with them as the book — and the year of life it
presents — progresses. The situations he finds himself in don’t become
any less absurd, but we buy into it all the way through. How do you
think Homes pulls that off?
GZ: You’re right — that’s the best trick of this
novel: That we continue to buy into the absurd! Could it be because we
simply learn what to expect with Harry, and so the absurd becomes the
new normal? Or maybe, because Homes is terrific at distracting us with
comedy. I mean, we range from maybe-too-easy-but-still-snort-worthy
bathroom humor, like a banner for the kid’s bar mitzvah that reads
“Congratulations on the Big BM,” to deadpan one-liners, like Harry’s
response to a guy who asks him how he thought the rabbi did: “It’s not
my policy to review funerals.” The humor here was one of my favorite
parts of Homes’ writing.
RJS: I loved the humor too, particularly as it
played out with Amanda’s parents, Cy and Madeline. And Harry’s visit to
see George at The Lodge — the insane asylum where he’s awaiting trial.
It was so depressing, but also completely ridiculous. By incorporating
humor into the sad things that happen to her characters as they age and
do horrible, hurtful things to each other simply because they can, Homes
reminds us that they aren’t villains — they are only human, and we are
them. That “we” in the title is significant, don’tcha think?
GZ: I’m really glad you brought that up, because I
think that’s the main theme of the book — that in order to be
well-adjusted humans, we (yes, we are them) have to learn how to love or
like or abide or at the very least tolerate other humans that are
distasteful to us — especially when they’re family. And the sooner we
learn this, the better we can be. I loved that many of the principals in
this novel “get better” in one way or another. Harry ruminates on that
as he watches the kids be attentive to their guests at Thanksgiving
dinner, instead of gluing themselves to their phones, as they did the
previous year, when this whole mess started. I think it’s the mark of a
good novel — that the characters, who start out odious (though I know we
disagree on the degree of odiousness), learn and improve.
This may be a Tournament of Books longshot, but if you’ve never read
A.M. Homes, I think we’d both agree that we’d highly recommend this.
It’s a lot of fun!
RJS: Tons of fun. And the book is something of a
critical darling, so you never know. If Homes goes down in the first
round, her zombie resurrection chances aren’t very high, but a first
round pairing against something that plays things a little straighter
(cough Beautiful Ruins cough), or one of the more ambitious but less-well-executed novels (I’m thinking Ivyland) could mean May We Be Forgiven goes further than expected.