A.M. Homes has developed a reputation for writing about horrible people. It’s not a competition, but worst of all would be the homicidal child molester who narrates The End of Alice, her controversial third novel, which was banned by a U.K. chain of bookstores. Close runners-up: the raging TV executive who kills his wife in May We Be Forgiven and the arsonist adulterer in Music for Torching. In six previous novels and three short story collections, she’s offered unflinching looks at ugliness, erring on the side of too much fairness to her subjects, with a stylistic panache more soberly deadpan than seductive.
Her seventh novel, The Unfolding, is an exceptional display of style with muddled sense. It tackles a timely source of ugly feelings: a Republican presidential loss. But it’s not the January 6th novel you might expect. Homes avoids the kind of wildly emotional characters that stormed the Capitol and sets her gaze instead on quote-unquote respectable Republicans at what might’ve been the twilight of their era. It’s the story of a major, mostly unspecified Republican operative, called the Big Guy, and the Big Guy’s family as they navigate personal and political (never far apart) turmoil from the night of John McCain’s election loss in 2008 to the day of Obama’s inauguration in January 2009.
The novel opens in Phoenix at McCain’s election-night party. The Big Guy is swirling his drink at the hotel bar, lamenting McCain’s impending loss, feeling a sort of motion sickness from Obama’s historic success. Another guy at the bar theorizes that he’s witnessed “a generational earthquake that splits the terra firma.” When the barmate asks, “What are we going to do?” the Big Guy replies, “Something big … A forced correction.” The Big Guy is determined to do what he’s always done, pulling strings to assert his dominance, and so begins his attempt at a conspiracy plot. Reading from a world that’s weathered stark and shocking reversals of that moment in time, there’s no doubt the correction will come. Instead, the question is: how much power does a Big Guy have anymore to force it?
The Big Guy assembles a motley crew of powerful men to plan the “forced correction.” Their plotting happens in bursts of bromance. After the group’s first meeting at the Big Guy’s home in Palm Springs, the men ride together in a hot-air balloon across the California landscape. The metaphor is obvious — maybe their “we will not be replaced” rhetoric is a lot of hot air. But it’s not strained, because these men also just like to do nice things together. They meet in more retreats to talk and talk. The Big Guy asks them bluntly, “Is trying to get back to our roots, to what made us strong, is that treason?” The dialogue is familiar, even quaint. Homes treats the men like twenty-first-century Archie Bunkers, representing a threat while defanging it. It’s almost comforting to imagine that America’s recent political horrors came from calculated top-down conspiracy instead of the roiling rage of the demos.
But the opening whiffs of a political thriller soon disperse. Focusing on the family, the novel reveals itself to be an awkward marriage of two mid-twentieth-century genres: paranoid conspiracy and wealthy suburban malaise. The Big Guy’s daughter, Meaghan, is existentially adrift at her D.C. boarding school, relating more to her riding horse than her peers. The Big Guy’s wife, Charlotte, drinks excessively in their many houses to manage feelings of helplessness. Homes brings gripping pathos to the family portrait. An evocative brush stroke: “Charlotte resents the responsibility of flowers. She feels like it’s her failure when they wilt. He ordered them anyway, hoping she can learn to live with something alive.” The Big Guy is not the bad guy he might’ve been. There’s no abuse, no scary domineering. He tries, in his way, though he’s woefully ill-equipped to give real attention to others’ emotions.
In their subtlety, the family dynamics offer clearer indictment of the callousness at the heart of a certain brand of conservatism than the overt political scenes. That may be why they take up most of the novel. Long stretches pass where one might forget a conspiracy plot is afoot. Family secrets are revealed, positioning the novel as a successor to Homes’ memoir, The Mistress’s Daughter, about her own family’s secrets. The family is treated not with total irony or horror, but primarily with pity. Towards the end of the novel, he tells one of his plotter friends, “For years I thought I was taking care of Charlotte, but it turns out that she was trapped, she couldn’t see past me to clear sky. I was living in my own world, built on the Ping-Pong table in my basement.”
Homes has often tried to shock before, and succeeded. But, a decade and a half after these historical events, our shock receptors are worn out. The Unfolding flops when trying to muster our last reserves. If camp is, per Sontag, “a seriousness that fails,” this is something like shock that fails. The conspiracy plot’s culmination, we’re told, won’t even happen by the present day. We’re given a date in the future to expect it. This alternative future/history feels more like an evasion. It’s not clear whether their plotting’s connected with the (actually shocking!) real events that have occurred since the novel’s endpoint. Is all of it benign group therapy or sinister radical action? It would make a difference to know.
Yet underneath this wobbly scaffolding is a finely wrought depiction of people attached to an ideology that hasn’t served them well. They turn to desperate attempts at domination because they can’t turn to each other. They don’t know how to manage their insecurity, their fear that the world is changing and they won’t be able to adapt. “It was all about me,” the Big Guy says in a moment of revelation, “my need to protect myself. What an ass I am.”
By A.M. Homes
Published September 6, 2022