A friend of mine is currently judging a book prize and May We Be Forgiven is one of the books up for consideration. He asked me for my opinion of it so it gave me a good excuse to get to this book I've been meaning to read all year. When I saw AM Homes read from it on the shortlisted authors' panel at the Woman's Prize for Fiction reading at the Royal Festival Hall earlier this year I enjoyed the funny engaging tone of the book. At the heart of it this book is about a man named Harry who has been emotionally sidelined all his life and feels a little detached from both his past and his current actions because of this neglect. He's been overshadowed by his successful brother George who always belittles him. However, at the beginning of the novel George has a sort of breakdown leaving Harry to pick up the pieces. Through a string of misadventures Harry gradually develops a new idea of what a family is – and it's not necessarily those you are bound to by blood, but people who really appreciate you for being you.
Homes does an impressive job analyzing the disillusionment of the 'American Dream' in this book and I really like how it trashes the idea of the traditional nuclear family. I've always felt the image of the perfectly balanced family - a sort of leftover from the 50s - has had a haunting effect on what the majority of society socially aspire to in creating a balanced happy life - like this is a model where any deviation should be stamped out. So the way in which this image is imploded from the very beginning leaving the brother to gradually construct a non-traditional family based on personal values rather than society's image is really effective and builds to a really tender emotional resonance. However, I felt the style at times to be somewhat distancing when it would lapse into scenes which felt farcical like in one scene where the authorities set up a sting operation to seize George who is with an Israeli with an ipad and the narrator brings cookies as bait. Sometimes it felt as if Homes is mocking the characters with corny race jokes like when Harry remarks what a good Jew a Chinese woman is when she asks him for a big donation. For some reason moments like this felt more jarring to me than some other scenes I found actually funny like the family's longstanding feud about the correct way to make matzoh balls and scenes of miscommunication like when Harry returns home from the hospital at one point after having a stroke. He tells a lawyer over the phone he had a small event and the lawyer replies he hopes it was pleasant. This kind of mis-fired understanding resonates because it shows the day to day breaks in communication we frequently experience in small ways because we function inside our own heads so much and let most of our interactions become routine. Like when the narrator comments, "Hard not to be surpised, when the bulk of conversation goes like this: 'Paper or plastic?' The loss of the human touch scares me." This seems to be speaking to what Homes is really trying to get at throughout the book – a sort of breakdown in genuine connections replaced with very modern sorts of substitutions that blanket emotion: online hook up sex with random strangers… food as something to be gorged upon rather than nourish.
In this novel people seem to inhibit their feelings continuously until they burst out sporadically like one scene where a boy named Ricardo’s aunt spews out her dissatisfaction with her life and when Harry's nephew Nate has an outburst after meeting an organ donor recipient. At the beginning the priorities of the narrator are all perverted like it’s more important knowing the calorie count of brownies than discussing what’s happening with his troubled brother. Homes seems to be using the narrator as a conduit who represents this dissociation – someone living perpetually in the present who literally can’t recall the past but by charging forth he makes connections with people he values and who value him in a way that his brother, mother and father never did (their frequent put-downs and insults towards him having ground him down to make him feel worthless).
I do like how she uses simple declarative sentences to effectively underpin the sense that the central character doesn’t understand his own motivations. It’s effective, but I think I prefer some short stories by Homes that I’ve read more than this novel. She can create a very evocative powerful scene quickly yet the effect in this novel is shuffling through a whole slew of these scenes so fast I found it sometime disorientating and distancing. In her book of short fiction Things You Should Know, Homes wrote a very good story about Nancy Reagan living a spooky isolated existence in her old age where she chats on a former first ladies' online forum that’s very funny. She seems to find something really powerful and resonant invoking American figureheads as guiding beacons for people’s values. I also found it somewhat distracting at times how heavily Homes marks out how she's in dialogue with other writers by making references to authors - Don DeLillo popping up in some scenes and naming a law firm in the novel after a combination of Saul Bellow titles and the spectre of John Cheever popping up in a parking lot. I guess it’s kind of fun but feels a little pretentious and heavy-handed.
May We Be Forgiven is a really interesting and entertaining read. Comparing it against other books on this year's Woman's Prize shortlist, as a novel I think Kingsolver's Flight Behavior stands up as something which keeps up a steadily paced narrative which develops and mounts to a whole piece rather than disjointed scenes. But reading this novel has made me want to go back and read more of Homes short fiction.