For those of us who have always been sceptical of the aphorism with which Tolstoy began Anna Karenina, A.M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven is both disappointing restatement and overdue corrective. All happy families, one might reasonably demur, are demonstrably not alike; their contentment is as variegated as the miseries of their less fortunate neighbour. In Homes’s novel, Harry Silver is a frustrated Nixon scholar and bachelor, teaching by the skin of his teeth at a middling liberal arts college and experiencing often intense jealousy and loathing for his successful, boorish, married-with-boarding-school-children TV executive brother, George. What’s remarkable about this set-up is how quickly it is washed away by a great torrent of story in the novel’s first fifty pages: there is a car accident, an affair, a murder, a death, a transfer of power of attorney … in short a total up-ending of both Harry and George’s lives; what’s more remarkable is that, somehow, Homes then continues for more than four hundred further pages.
This doesn’t become quite as attenuated as it may sound (though repetition and derivation are keynotes of the book). Rather, May We Be Forgiven becomes a lengthy picaresque satire, more Humphrey Clinker than Brothers Karamazov, in which an extended family is put under the microscope and poked a bit. The children from George’s marriage come to be in the care of his brother; Harry himself begins to meet women from the internet for anonymous sex; cousins and grandparents drift in and out of unsteady orbits. Homes’s first assumption is that modern American society is atomised – from the canned laughter on sit coms (“You know it’s not real people laughing,” Harry informs one of his conquests; “It was once,” she replies [pg. 254]) to the “electronic minders” which prod children to click a button, then inform their parents that they are OK (“if we don’t respond it calls a list of names” [pg. 91]), distance is the very character of all the novel’s relationships.
There are some gestures towards the sins of the baby boomers – “I am a grown man who has barely grown,” Harry opines [pg. 151], whilst also noting that “my parents expected George and me to grow up and be president, [but] they didn’t believe were actually even capable of crossing the street on our own” [pg. 201]. But analysis of how Harry and his cohort got here isn’t the novel’s strong point, or its purpose. This is a humorous book in which Don DeLillo appears as a homeless man, and the ghost of Updike’s Henry Bech is conjured only later to be exorcised; it is profoundly intertextual, but is less interested in all that ‘state of the nation’ posturing than it is in what might happen next. May We Be Forgiven satirises not just America, but also, and perhaps primarily, American letters: in the sexual neuroses of Harry, in the institutional adventures on campuses (Harry is, of course, fired) and in hospitals (one of which is, of course, converted into a conference venue), and in its pictures of small town Westchester life, May We Be Forgiven feels very often like a mildly subversive recapitulation of all that has gone before.
The difference here, of course, is that Homes is a woman intent on exploding the sterility of the Updikean pose. One of Harry’s most significant sexual encounters, for instance, is with a woman who refuses to tell him her name, initiates all contact, and disappears as soon as she has had her way (“I am not someone that things happen to” [pg. 301]; this at first seems a fairly de rigeur denial of the masculine agency of which we might expect Harry to boast in this sub-Villages set up, but later his interloctuor, revealed eventually to be nursing two elderly parents and named Amanda, exposes her true identity (“I MAKE FUCKING QUILTS” [pg. 326]), and Harry is denied even the mysteriously sexy lust figure. Elsewhere Harry realises, “Part of building my relationship with the kids is talking with them more often and more honestly, as though they’re real people” [pg. 262], and such is Homes’s project: to humanise not just the central protagonist in this classical American tale, but to renew the argument for a more social vision both of the novel and an individual’s place within it. May We Be Forgiven is anti-Updike, agit-pop Roth.
On the other hand, the resolution feels too pat. We see that to be a happy family is to take into consideration all the many idiosyncrasies that lie within it, rather than exercise any kind of totalising template. But did we need to learn that? When Harry discusses his life with Amy, “all that comes out is so short, as though the story has sucked itself back into a deep ether” [pg. 299], and the reader wonders why, then, he has spent 477 pages bombarding us with so much more detail. It is certainly there that the devil lies throughout the novel, but Homes’s recursive satire begins to wear thin as the layers are peeled away to reveal more of the same. When Harry observes in conversation with his de facto daughter, Ashley (herself enmeshed, in a book that develops sub-plots like a game of Whack-A-Rat, in an abusive relationship with a teacher) that no family is quite what they seem, we get it; when he rants that “George is a paranoid bully who doesn’t see what’s good for him and looks at me as the enemy no matter what I do”, and a shrink replies, “And Nixon?”, we should be allowed a groan [pg. 448].
It is as if Homes’s prose cannot quite stretch itself across the chasm between Cheever-DeLillo-Roth’s stripe of Americana to a more holistic, compassionate form. May We Be Forgiven exhibits that usual kind of minimalism that inhibits so much contemporary American fiction in the first place; it is dialogue-heavy, description-light, and revels in bathos as an effect. That makes it an interesting but not entirely successful satire: aware of the limitations of American life and letters, but less sure how to compensate for them. It is at times rewardingly funny, and its individual episodes are expertly constructed – it belongs on the Women’s Prize shortlist if only for a brilliant passage in which Harry attends a school sports day. But it doesn’t quite hang together, even allowing for the bagginess natural to any picaresque, and – in a novel clearly straining to square a circle – that’s a shame.