On the bookshelf
By AM Homes
Viking: 416 pages, $28
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AM Homes knows controversy well. Her first novel, “Jack,” written when she was 19, has been among the American Library Association’s most banned and contested books since its publication in 1989. Her fourth novel, “Music for Torching,” stung a nerve at an explosive moment. It dealt with a school shooting and its publication date – April 20, 1999 – coincided with the Columbine massacre.
His latest novel, “The Unfolding”, has a similar claim to uncanny prescience. Homes began writing it over a decade ago, around the time of President Obama’s defeat of Senator John McCain. In the book, a character identified only as “the Big Guy” organizes a group of wealthy Republicans to form the “Forever Men”, a secret cabal that has pledged to use any means necessary to sustain themselves and their species in the world. power. They assume that the women in their life will fall right behind them. But the Big Guy’s wife and daughter aren’t that flexible. They make discoveries that propel them on wacky journeys of their own.
I recently sat down to discuss “The Unfolding,” which comes out this week. The novel combines slapstick political satire with tender observations about the relationship between parents and children. Aspects of the story are reminiscent of Homes’ own adoption memoir, “The Mistress’s Daughter”, which traces the unexpected appearance of his biological mother in his life and the discovery of his biological father. It’s her first novel since “May We Be Forgiven,” which won the 2013 Women’s Fiction Award.
Homes and I have been professional acquaintances for years. In the early 1990s mutual friends insisted that we meet. At the time, I was writing a cultural history of the Barbie doll, and Homes recently published “A Real Doll,” a disturbing short story that begins, “I’m dating my sister’s Barbie.” Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
“The course” felt authentic because its fictional characters interact with real people. For example, Malcolm Moos, who wrote President Eisenhower’s 1961 speech warning against the “military-industrial complex,” is a real person. And George Washington too. What surprised you when you were doing the research?
I was fascinated by this feeling of confidence that comes not only from knowing its history, but also from having a legacy of historical significance. As I was finishing the book, this strange piece of information came to me: my ancestors owned the land that is now Capitol Hill – as everything Earth.
Ancestors of your biological father?
Yes, Dr. Thomas Gerrard. I also learned that two of my ancestors – they were sisters – sequentially married George Washington’s great-grandfather. There’s something about literally writing your way to some kind of story that you know on some level, not really knowing what you’re doing.
Are you saying you knew about a genetics level?
I am. My biological father had said things – and his own behavior was a bit “Big Guy” in that sense of large-scale trust and a sense of ownership or privilege of a place. And I didn’t quite understand that. But when I discovered this information, it made a lot more sense.
Who was your biological father?
A banker in Washington, DC In the book, the common thread of the Big Guy and his daughter Meghan is an echo of my life but also completely different. Because obviously I didn’t grow up with my dad. And we had none of those conversations and never spent more than 36 minutes together.
Your fiction has tended to be ahead of the curve – to portray cultural upheavals before they happen. Is it prescience or is it the reading of culture?
This is by no means the first time I’ve written my way to something. When I was writing “Jack”, my teachers were saying, “It’s going to be very controversial”. And I remember asking myself: Why? Was it because at the time there were no books about children whose parents were gay? Was it prescience? I like to think as a writer that it’s reading culture.
I like the way you evoke the values of an entire class with three terms that vanish: “nobility obliges, haberdashery and supper”.
I was thinking of a generation that, for me, is rapidly fading. When I look at what happened with Trump, you see so much rule breaking. A lot of those rules weren’t written down because no one thought we ever had to write them down. Because people were expected to behave accordingly – and they all had the same desire to preserve democracy. But then one of my editors in England said, “Well, I’m confused because they keep talking about wanting to ‘preserve democracy’ but they don’t seem to want to.”
And I’m like, well, now democracy means different things to different people. Your “democracy” and my “democracy” are not necessarily the same things.
Where do the Forever Men — and their plans for disruption — fit in? The book ends before Trump emerges.
I’ve always been very interested in America after WWII, the investment in the American dream and the loss of understanding of the dream. This fits with the rise of big money and black money in politics. I imagine these men looking at Trump and asking, “Did we do that?” In other words, would it be attributable to them?
What did you hope to accomplish with this novel?
It’s important to me that this book be a weave of the ideas that are considered the great American novel – that is, a novel written by someone named Jonathan (that’s what the Jonathans do) – and the domestic intimate, which is also the feminine novel. It was a chance to weave them together and capture the big socio-political ideas and experiences with that of family. It also illustrates the differences between our public and private selves. The way the Big Guy is one person with his family and another version of himself when he’s with the Forever Men.
Despite its humor, the book paints a grim picture of America. Is there anything to be optimistic about?
Looking at the January 6 hearings, I look at all the women — the Young women – who intervened and provided information. Who put themselves in difficult positions. They were in these rooms and witnesses of things and the men did not take their presence into account.
Meghan is very specifically her own person. She comes to her senses and realizes that she may see the world differently from how it was described to her by her family. This process of individuation and separation is universal. I loved watching her discover her own sense of agency. If you don’t enter into yourself in a certain way, no one will push you there. The Big Guy may think she’s going to fall into her ideas. But it’s the Big Guy who is naive about his point of view.
Lord, author of “The Accidental Feminist,” is an associate professor at USC.