Thursday, November 08, 2007

A.M. Homes, "Music for Torching" (1999).

Knowing me to be an avid reader, a friend recently asked me if I had discovered anything worth mentioning. Although I have been spending a lot of time with books this Fall, I didn't have any particular recommendations. As I've mentioned on this blog on several occasions, I have developed a penchant for the True Crime genre. That's the kind of material that has occupied my mind for months. So between entries of that type, I've tried to make it a point to seek out some worthwhile fiction now and again. Several years ago I had a phase where I encountered several writers who have since become favorites. But it's been awhile since I've identified a new author worth exploring in depth. That's why my experience with A.M. Homes' Music for Torching is notable. She's a contemporary author with a distinctive voice that I expect to be revisiting soon.

Homes, who was born in 1961, has written six novels and worked in television. She is based out of NYC, and teaches at Columbia University. She seems to be fairly private about her personal life. In her own words- "I've dated men and I've dated women and there's no more or less to it than that". Her background includes being adopted, and The New Yorker has published an essay she wrote about meeting her biological parents. It was entitled "The Mistress's Daughter". Her most famous book so far is probably "The End of Alice", which documents the inner life of a maximum security prisoner who attempts to reconstruct the memories and urges of his own pedophilia. A story from her collection The Safety of Objects describes the twisted relationship between a teenage boy and his sister's Barbie doll. Homes is obviously not intimidated by the darker aspects in life.

The influences of Homes' favorite authors Don Delillo and Roald Dahl find comfortable inhabitation in her work. It's interesting to note that Homes set out to write a "lighter" novel when she began working on Music for Torching. But what started out as a short story examination of the private follies of a suburbanite couple soon revealed itself to be a full-length comic tragedy. From the first page to the conclusion, there is nothing but trial and tribulation for the main players. Yet it is not a case of Homes arbitrarily visiting intense suffering on insufferably innocent characters. Instead the reader can see the troubles developing, even when the characters themselves cannot. Their flaws are exposed without excessive commentary, and that makes the exigencies of fate seem most natural. They so often get exactly what they asked for, even if it's not in the package they expected.

Music for Torching kicks off when Paul and Elaine impulsively decide to burn their own house down. Their marriage is rapidly deteriorating, and the blaze seems like a better alternative than sitting down to another stifling family dinner. The narrative is mostly split between the interior lives of each half of the dysfunctional couple. They are both up to no good, and rashly strike out toward unknown consequences that seem to hold more promise than their seemingly untenable situation(s). Sadly, they have two young boys that must negotiate their own paths through the increasingly chaotic mess of their lives.

Despite memorable moments of humor and humanity in Music for Torching, reading it can often be quite depressing. The frightening thing about this aspect of Homes' writing is that the reader can imagine his/her own life spiraling toward such desperate circumstances. While the overall picture is dramatic and even a bit surreal, it's not hard to recognize the components of minor tragedies and disappointments that we experience in our own daily lives. Perhaps it's appropriate to wonder what benefits I get out of reading such despairing drama. I think that it's not unlike any other urge to vicariously experience others' misfortune- it serves as a reminder that acting irresponsibly and/or throwing our necessary caution to the wind can lead to genuinely horrific results. There but for the grace of good sense go I.

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