x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Book review: AM Homes's strange novel reflects Nixon's downfall

AM Homes's contemporary satire focuses on an academic's obsession with Richard Nixon, whose political downfall is reflected in its crowded plot, writes Hannah Forbes Black.

May We Be Forgiven
AM Homes
Granta Books

AM Homes's often wonderful, strange seventh novel begins breathlessly with a love affair, sibling rivalry and murder, and spins out into an intricate and soap- operatic web of plots and subplots to rival a Mexican telenovela.

May We Be Forgiven is at once dystopian and utopian, hovering somewhere between satire and sentiment. In this respect, it is absolutely, almost eerily "of its time". This contemporaneity isn't just in the details, the references to Obama, Facebook and other familiar brands, but in its atmosphere, at once upbeat and exhausted, dazzling and hollow.

To sum up the crowded plot without too many spoilers: at a family Thanksgiving, middle-aged historian Harold Silver begins an affair with the wife of his hated older brother George, a sociopathic TV mogul who resembles a malign Larry David. The consequences go way beyond what Harold could possibly anticipate, the family unravels, and Harold ends up stepping into George's shoes, taking responsibility for his children, his house and his pets. Following a single dramatic year, the book sweeps through twists including an experimental free-range prison, love among pensioners and sexual intrigue at a girls' boarding school.

Harold is a specialist in Nixon studies and is writing a book about the disgraced US president: "Is there room for another book about Nixon? People often ask me, and I say, Well, you heard about Nixon's trip to China, but what about his passion for real estate in New Jersey? What about his interest in animal welfare?" Elsewhere, Harold makes a mental note to revise the subject of "Nixon and his relationship to stuff".

Harold's Nixon obsession, like the novel itself, is magpie-like, airy, focused on trivia, both passionately attached to the past and completely remote from it.

Yet Nixon is the book's ambivalent centre. Is Harold's respect for him supposed to be sympathetic or laughable? Often it's both - but Nixon's presence is important because his presidency straddled a breaking point in recent history.

He wasn't entirely responsible for the character of the era we now live in, but he happened to be there at its birth, presiding over the tentative beginning of the end of the Cold War, the opening up of relations between the West and China, and a period of global economic crisis that we have so dramatically returned to since 2007.

Trying to explain his Nixon fascination, at one point Harold says, "I am most interested in his personality and the ways in which his actions and reactions were those of a particular era and culture - the era that built and defined the American Dream." How much more clearly could a writer possibly signify that hers is a "big book", in the famous American mode? As if to underline the point, there are several cameo appearances by Don DeLillo; in one scene, Harold offers the famous novelist a cup of coffee outside a Starbucks, only later realising to whom he was talking: "That was … Don DeLillo. I would have loved to talk to him about Nixon." May We Be Forgiven bears comparison to DeLillo's most darkly domestic work, White Noise, in which a suburban couple plunge into a shared narcissistic fear of death as disaster unfolds around them, first ersatz, then real.

The events in Homes's novel are similarly hybrid, real and unreal. When George is condemned to an open-air safari-style experimental prison, the satire is pitch-perfect, both funny and painful because it is plausible: "The Woodsman is a back-to-basics model for human management using the Physics 300a or 300b microchip, tracked by satellite … should there be any kind of uprising or behaviour problem, it can be neutralised either temporarily or permanently …" Homes riffs fluently on this kind of vacuously evil corporate-speak.

The "American Dream" (note the brand-name capitals) whose origin underlies Harold's interest in Nixon is, by Homes's account, more loopy fantasy than real possibility. It takes place in a medicated suburbia - almost everyone in the novel is on prescription drugs - in which moments of human contact are exotic, almost miraculous. And yet Homes seems to want us to really believe in these moments of contact; for example, a scene in which Harold's adopted family play a game together in the garden is imbued with almost sickly sweetness: "Nate and Cy are coaching Ricardo. Madeline is cheerleading. It is twilight - the lightning bugs are blinking, and except for the mosquitos, it is sublime. Ashley and Nate's embrace of Ricardo is unqualified - one never has a sense of the two of them apart from him or competing with him." This rosy tint belongs more properly to the soap operas researched by Harold's niece Ashley for a school project, and the TV effect distances Homes's apparent celebration of human contact, in contrast to the atomisation she diagnoses elsewhere.

This can't be blamed on any lack of skill on Homes's part - this is an incredibly accomplished novel, an almost perfect example of the form - but no imaginative prowess can help that images of warmth and communal spirit have been colonised and commodified by TV and the social network. This novel lives in the uncomfortable conjunction between the longing for togetherness and its present impossibility.

It's made clear that the closest real-life analogy to Nixon in Harold's life is his brother George, who shares Nixon's populist sensibility, his ruthlessness, and his sense that "rules didn't apply". George's downfall is as spectacular as Nixon's. But Harold, too, identifies with a fantasy Nixon - Nixon as the thoughtful, misunderstood, hard-knock president.

One of the book's pleasures is how incredibly nice its hero is: it's fun to witness Harold getting to grips with parenting his brother's children, looking after his pets, reaching out to his neighbours. But the writing is sharper and funnier than this makes it sound, and Harold's automatic benevolence is only the flip side of George's rage. He is Nixon leached of evil; Nixon without the dirty tricks, without the secret bombing campaigns, without reality.

Parts of the book read like an attempt to rewrite recent US history as benign - a little quirky perhaps, a little misguided, but essentially forgivable, evoking the plea of the title. A trip to South Africa for a bar mitzvah reads as if colonialism never happened. And yet Homes seems to know very well that this redeemed America is impossible, and can only come to life in hallucinatory hyper-reality.

Or, to go further, May We Be Forgiven can be read as reimagining the career of Richard Nixon as a domestic melodrama, to strange, often comic effect. The cocker spaniel with which Nixon charmed America in his famous Checkers speech becomes pet dog Tessie; Nixon's famous visit to Maoist China is transposed into Harold's relationship with his Chinese-American wife; Nixon's paternalistic style is reflected in Harold's parenting of his adopted children. And, instead of geopolitical intrigue, it's all staged against a soap-operatic background of family dysfunction. It isn't exactly satirical, and it isn't exactly sincere. In fact the book's relation to the past is strangely numb. The plot reads like browsing videos on YouTube, paying equal attention to touching scenes of family life, historical documents and grotesque performances, although this weightless effect could only be produced by a writer in full possession of her powers. Despite Homes's affection for the objects of her semi-satire, she can't help that the present moment that her novel so perfectly inhabits is characterised by the sense of having reached a dead end. In our world as in the world of May We Be Forgiven, subplots proliferate, but, deprived of dreams, American or otherwise, we lack the power to interpret them.

Hannah Forbes Black is a writer and artist who lives in London. Her work has appeared in The Guardian and Intelligence Squared.