Books: The unbearable oddness of being

Music for Torching by A M Homes Doubleday pounds 15.99
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P aul and Elaine are an unhappily married young couple. They live in suburban America, and have two peculiar children. Paul is having a number of affairs with women he has named after fruit (Mrs Apple, Ms Pear and Mrs Plum). When the book begins Elaine is faithful, but she too soon succumbs to extra-marital activity, with the bisexual wife of a neighbour and a policeman who carries a selection of coloured condoms. The children, too, seem to have unusual appetites, with one kid letting other boys piss on him and the other hoarding fat-girl pornography.

So far, so typical. A third-generation Xerox of a middling Updike novel, the book lacks the suburban poetry typical to this genre, as well as the moments of epiphany. What makes it different, however, is the unusual ferocity of the dialogue, and the extremity of the action.

Paul and Elaine are not that dissimilar in character from the quibbling couples favoured by Updike and Cheever, but their profanity-filled conversations seem underpinned by sheer hatred instead of sexual boredom and incompatibility. This ferocity erupts into action very early on in the novel, with Elaine taking a knife to Paul's throat in the first few pages. Things continue to build at ridiculous speed, with the couple attempting to burn down their house at the end of the first chapter.

This is a very curious narrative tactic. Homes's greatest weakness is the quality of her prose, and whereas in previous novels she has masked this with a series of well-orchestrated set-pieces, this book self-immolates in the first 20 pages, leaving Homes 320 pages to fill with no tricks left in her bag. For a while, Homes toys with the kind of American whimsy executed much more successfully by authors such as Amanda Fillipachi or John Irving. There is a neat repeated joke about a woman called only "the date" who calls up almost every character in the book to ask them what they are wearing. Later a character shows up to dispense odd multi- coloured pills to Paul, a scenario which seems rich in possibility, but amounts to so little that it's hard to take it even as evidence of the oddness of ordinary life. Yet Homes seems sceptical of this type of easy comedy, letting the occasional one-liner remain, but refusing to let these scenes build up into major set-pieces. Occasionally, it becomes hard to tell if the whole book is a deliberate parody, with some tropes so obviously borrowed from the previous generation and executed so lazily that it is hard to see the point. As usual in this sort of suburban fiction, there is an uneasy alliance between the father and the teenage neighbour, and in a scene that would have seemed dated 10 years ago, this teenage neighbour, Jennifer, shows up with a boy who has subcutaneous jewellery im- planted above his eyebrows. There are also the aforementioned sex scenes, which completely lack the vigour that someone like Roth would bring to the proceedings.

Nevertheless, this is a difficult novel to dismiss. All of these weaknesses are so clearly deliberate, and it is hard not to admire Homes' refusal to offer easy entertainment. Although I never want to read this novel again, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to a jaundiced reader. Much of the scandal that surrounded Homes' last novel The End of Alice seemed to stem from the fact that there was nothing edifying or even worthy about her depiction of child abuse. There was no hand-wringing, and no moral context, with Homes refusing to even take refuge in the usual writer's excuse that what she was representing was the hidden truth. This strategy is repeated here, and while it is easy to identify with Paul and Elaine, Homes makes no attempt to make them sympathetic. The couple are presented as doggedly determined to retain their individuality, and this is at the expense of being liked. The same is true of A M Homes.