Our true selves
by Keith Taylor
From the April, 2014 issue
Despite all the complaints we hear about shrinking attention spans and the trivialization of our culture, we live in an age of expansive, even sprawling novels. Those of us who like to disappear into a book, submerge for a week or two, and reemerge a bit shocked by the regular world of laundry and grocery shopping live in a fortunate age. These big novels can suck us into history or fantasy, the hidden spots of contemporary culture, or the fascination of art. A.M. Homes shows us in her 2012 big book, May We Be Forgiven, that these books can be dark, funny, instructive, and deeply moving all at the same time.
May We Be Forgiven won the Women's Prize in Fiction for 2013, the award given for the best book written by a woman in the English language. It is the richest prize given for fiction, other than the Nobel itself. Lest you think that this means the book is slow and unrelievedly weighty, let me assure you that before page 15 we have multiple murders, infidelity, insanity, and, incredibly, several good laughs. Homes has written one of the most spectacular beginnings to a big novel that I have ever read; it is a definition of tour de force.
Her protagonist, Harold Silver, is about to lose his job as a scholar of Richard Nixon, and the world keeps interfering with him in other ways. He is drawn into the intrigues of suburban New York by the insanity of his financially successful brother, George. If readers of twentieth-century American fiction start hearing echoes here, let me reassure you that Homes includes cameos for both John Cheever and Don DeLillo; she knows what she's doing. At first Harold is more acted upon than acting, accepting responsibility for the people abandoned by the murderous and the irresponsible. We feel sorry for him and laugh at his weaknesses.
But Harold Silver is not simply an academic lost in a heady
mist. He observes the world outside himself, a world, it seems, that he barely understands.
There is a world out there, so new, so random and disassociated 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 digitized version--it is easier, because we can be both our truer selves all at once, with each carrying equal weight.
Perhaps Harold is not really so clueless? By the end of May We Be Forgiven, after all the horror and the laughter contained in this dark comedy, we realize that Harold Silver may have found a version of his truer self: he has arrived at a heroic place of honor and acceptance that we can only envy.
A.M. Homes reads at UMMA on April 17.
[Originally published in April, 2014.]