Books: Hell in Wonderland

`Revolting trash' or modern masterpiece? New York novelist A M Homes has brought Lolita into the 1990s and outraged America. Elizabeth Young defends her

A M Homes's novel The End of Alice (Anchor, pounds 6.99) was misinterpreted and excoriated by the moral majority on its original, highly controversial American publication. Like Bret Easton Ellis before her, the author was practically imprisoned for having written fiction. Homes is a 35-year- old teacher of creative writing at Columbia University in New York. Her previous books - the novels In the Country of Mothers and Jack, the short story collection The Safety of Objects - have attracted praise and awards. No longer. Michiko Kakutani, the influential lead reviewer on the New York Times, has called her new work "revolting trash". "The End of Alice made me sick," Elizabeth Wurtzel added. Yet this is certainly the best novel I have read this year - not because it is sick or deviant but because it is the most literary of books.

From the epigraph, taken naturally from Lewis Carroll - "A stopped clock is right twice a day" - to the heart-breakingly poignant death-rattle of the final sentence, we are seduced into a horrific hall of mirrors where we catch grotesque, lightning glimpses of ourselves and Homes's varied protagonists. They include a dead giant, an insane, incestuous mother who smears her small son's lips with her menstrual blood for lipstick, a gang of suburban teens, and - far away and long ago - a nymphet chasing butterflies in the sun. This is Alice.

Chappy, our paedophile narrator, is the orphan of the giant and a crazy mother. He is spending his twenty-third summer in gaol for the abominable crimes he committed against that 12-year-old Alice. He is the stopped clock with (literally) a looking-glass in his head - splinters from an accident.

The prisoner starts receiving mail from a college girl aged 19, on vacation in suburbia. ("Scars dale", as Chappy writes it). She has, as Chappy translates, an "oddly acquired taste for the freshest of flesh" and lusts after the insouciant crudity, the unselfconscious purity, of a local 12-year-old, Matthew.

Chappy is hooked. Although she is far too old for his tastes (like John Ruskin, he detests pubic hair), he is drawn excitedly into her desire, pursuit and seduction of prey. In fact, he takes over. We read little of her actual letters, written "in the stinted, stilted language of youth". She is one of the "overly undereducated". Pruriently, voyeuristically he refashions her fantasies and invites us, "Herr Reader", to share them.

When she finally writes "And then we did it" his always barely suppressed rage roars out: "I cannot forgive her the imbecilic nature of her communication." And because, to Chappy, lust is indistinguishable from memory, he starts to tumble helplessly down his own rabbit hole, away from the charged, homosexual tension of the gaol and back to his deadly encounter with Alice herself.

The book is stitched so tightly that it would take another one to unpick it. It is this triumph of form that allows Chappy to unravel so completely and accept "after a lifetime of abstinence" the illicit drugs from the Sicko Wing dealer. Always, we are brushed with the softest intertextual wings. They suggest Lewis Carroll's own Alice - begun on the Fourth of July. More important is Vladimir Nabokov, and Chappy's predecessor: Humbert Humbert of Lolita.

As in Lolita, there is the constant dialogue with the reader who is "teased" and made complicit. Also Chappy, like Humbert, is pathetic, sympathetic, funny and clever. A M Homes has said of her elusive narrator, "I think he's deeply crazy. Smart - but not as smart as he thinks he is. He has a certain moral centre." This is where she dives deep.

Through Lolita, Humbert surveyed the crass, gum-chewing commercialisation of 1950s America. So Chappy, through his young correspondent, gazes at and judges the 1990s suburbs. Transgression, rape, corruption and ennui lurk behind the sunlit piles of consumer "toys" in a slack, soulless vista familiar from Homes's previous books.

For Chappy, the relationship sours: "God, they are so annoying when they believe they can think for themselves." The girl's "silly summer's delight", her Matthew, is merely "a rite of passage" before she sails away (to Europe) into adult womanhood. She is not to be compared with him, a "true connoisseur". Chappy damns the emptiness and sterility of America, as did Nabokov before him: "The decay is everywhere."

To him, these teenagers "were fucking because... it was free... because there was nothing else to do, because it was easy... Everything had gone loose and lazy, they'd lost their grip." Chappy is swept after a much more old- fashioned child, wholly unlike the sugar-doped Matthew: Alice herself; delightful, lethal, "the devil".

Delicately, Homes presents a panorama of paedophilia in its cultural and historical context. Its facets flash by as the culture dumbs down (Chappy is white trash compared to Humbert Humbert).

We meet the changing images and expectations of childhood, our deeply savoured repulsion towards its abusers, the gross dichotomy in our attitudes towards woman and boy, man and little girl. And then the infinitely subtle, sadomasochistic nature of such encounters - the zigzag of power and seduction from one to the other and the terrible misreading of signals on both sides that can constitute paedophilia.

Chappy, like Humbert, is something more devious than an unreliable narrator. It takes a very close reading indeed to differentiate between fact and fantasy in his memories, between truth and the self-serving pleadings of a murderous paedophile. That we can still see Chappy as a victim, even throughout the utter agony of what happened to Alice, is a tribute to Homes's genius.

They meet by the waterside - like Poe and his lost Annabel Lee, or Humbert and his first nymphet. Alice at 12 is bewitching, feral, precocious, with poetry written on the soles of all her shoes - including Plath's "Out of the ash I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air." "She was the one," he writes, "one in a million", recalling his wretchedness even in bliss. Again we hear the whispers from Lolita when Alice initiates sex with Chappy. Like Lolita, she has had previous experience (almost certainly abuse) but is not quite prepared for the adult reality: "it was she... who took me" with an "apparent, if addled understanding of adult desire".

The final 100 pages are a miracle of controlled cohesion. The present (Chappy's appearance before the parole board) and the past (his time with Alice) combine seamlessly in his drugged mind. A symmetry of the senses has seldom been better evoked.

Despite a few moments of wobbly judgement, stagey stylishness and a love of alliteration, this is everything fiction should be - wrenching, disturbing and emotive. Shame on the British publishers who rejected it (such as HarperCollins). And congratulations to Anchor's Jon Saddler, who argues that "people don't have to read it, just as they don't have to see Sensation".

Homes seems to acknowledge Nabokov, rightly, as il miglior fabbro. She implicitly includes her own work in the process of general cultural deterioration. "Is being explicit the same as being pornographic?" she has asked. Read. Re-read.

The "A", by the way, stands for Amy.

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