‘All Bets Are Off’: AM Homes at the Wheeler Centre

The Wheeler Centre’s Jo Case reflects on A.M. Homes’s conversation with Toni Jordan about her body of work. Watch our website for the video soon.

‘I’ve written just about everything except greeting cards,’ quipped bestselling New York novelist A.M. Homes, talking to Toni Jordan at the Wheeler Centre last week. ‘I’m looking forward to writing those.’

With her dark humour, eye for the absurd and knack for the surprisingly moving, an A.M. Homes greeting card line would probably attract a cult following. But given her success as a literary writer, at a time when publishing is increasingly under threat, she won’t be turning to greeting cards anytime soon. She’s one of the few who can be confident, it seems, in her ability to make a living doing what she loves.

May We Be Forgiven is a rollercoaster ride of a novel, with adultery, murder, divorce and family collapse all coming within the first 30 pages. After middle-aged history professor Harry’s egomaniacal brother George kills two parents and orphans a child in a careless car crash, Harry moves temporarily into George’s house to comfort his wife … and when George lets himself out of hospital in the middle of the night, and finds his brother and wife in bed together, he bludgeons her to death with a lamp, leaving Harry as guardian of his house, pets and children. As Harry’s own health, job and marriage falls away, he is forced to piece a semblance of a life back together – questioning, all the way, what a good life (and a good person) might look like.

‘It was fun to write,’ Homes said. ‘Publishing was at such a bad time when I started this book that I thought, all bets are off – just write what you want to write.’ The risk paid off; readers have happily devoured her black literary soap opera, with all its quirky elements (for example, Harry is a Nixon obsessive) and in-jokes (Don DeLillo, who lives in the area where the book is set, makes a cameo as a local), juxtaposed with a ripping satire of ordinary America.

‘I think I’m almost afraid of people who go through their lives asleep, not attending to what’s happening in their families,’ said Homes. At the heart of May We Be Forgiven is Harry’s rude, unwanted awakening to the world around him – the accident and its aftermath jolts him out of autopilot. Destruction begets renewal; it’s not easy and it’s not pleasant, but it is the route to a more genuine and engaged life.

This theme was also central to Homes’s LA-based previous novel, This Book Will Save Your Life. It, too, starts with a collapse, as wealthy Richard, a man so closed-off from the outside world that he has literally not been outside his house in weeks, suffers what seems like a heart attack and is rushed to hospital. On the way home, he stops at a donut stand and befriends its proletarian immigrant owner – the start of a re-engagement with the world, as he begins to venture outside and connects with his neighbours, his estranged son, and a woman he finds crying in the frozen food section of the grocery store (because her husband and kids don’t appreciate her).

‘It’s harder to be hopeful,’ said Homes. ‘It’s so easy to just be depressive. How do you think or write optimistically when you’re living in a world that’s not inherently optimistic?’ The answer, as found within her recent novels, seems to lie in the connections between people – both strangers and family.

Talking about the centrality of humour in her work, Homes observed that it’s there partly to make it fun for her as a writer (‘it’s there to get me through the process – I’m glad everyone else likes it’) and partly for a more, well, serious reason. ‘Humour allows us to talk about things that are very painful, and to go a bit deeper.’

May We Be Forgiven has been talked about as an example of the mythical Great American Novel – that synthesis of ideas about politics, history and the way we live now, woven into the lives of the characters who tell the story. It is, as Homes observed, an accolade bestowed far more often on men than women. ‘Only Jonathans are allowed to write the Great American novel,’ she joked. (Earlier she had commented on the dearth of women authors who win major literary prizes by saying that the prizes are habitually won by ‘white men named Jonathan’.)

The Great American novel interrogates the American dream – the fantasy of freedom and equality of ambition for all, with social mobility based on ability and hard work rather than inherited resources. ‘I’m interested in the dream as both the hope and the fantasy,’ said Homes. She acknowledged that some of the characters in her novels who are most engaged with that dream are immigrants who have been lured to America by it, like doughnut-maker Anhil, who is a symbol of the comfort of the ordinary for new friend Richard - but is, himself, drawn to the aspirational American lifestyle symbolised by Richard’s luxury car.

The main struggle with May we Be Forgiven, said Homes, was to find a way for the hapless Harry to emerge from his downward spiral. That emergence answered deeper questions, not just about how Harry might recover from his particular set of trials, but about how a person might go about transforming themselves.

‘Life to some degree becomes habit. If I wanted to try to do better, how would I do that? Where would I begin?’ she mused.

‘How, in storytelling terms, would I turn that around without being false about it?’

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