Thursday, January 10, 2008

A.M. Homes, "This Book Will Save Your Life" (2006)

After reading Music for Torching, I was resolved to seek out more work by A.M. Homes. I knew that she had a few novels and short story collections, and I was anxious to read what were said to be her most important books. Frankly I was expecting to find some rather dark material, as I had seen an interview with her that highlighted the edgy quality of her writing. It wasn't difficult to track down a few of her titles- Half Priced Books was well-stocked, and a fellow bibliophile encouraged me to borrow her copy of This Book Will Save Your Life (2006). She seemed to think that I would particularly enjoy Homes' newest book. I began reading TBWSYL with the confidence that I was launching on another great literary adventure.

The protagonist of this novel is Richard- a middle-aged divorcee who spends most of his time staring at his computer at home, and trying to stay healthy. Although his surroundings are extremely ordered, his emotional life is so repressed that he has no awareness of the disorder lurking beneath. All he can experience of inner life is an intense and spreading pain of indeterminate origin. Because of his physical habits, he decides that if he waits it out, it will probably just disappear in time. But instead it intensifies throughout the day until he feels compelled to call 911 for assistance.

This is the start of TBWSYL. Homes is obviously in no hurry to waste time on a lot of direct exposition. There is plenty of room for the reader to get lost in the building scenario. The way to confront the material is just to jump right in with the expectation that all will eventually be explained. And for the most part it is. Richard reveals himself slowly as he is examined by the medical professionals in the hospital, and later by a new physician at his regular doctor's office. This unfamiliar doctor is actually an interesting concept- he's a strange mix of psychologist and M.D. and provides Richard with the opportunity to begin his journey of self-exploration. Perhaps his malaise originates with some existential crisis. Our hero is definitely willing to explore the possibilities.

Along the way, we meet a variety of cleverly idiosyncratic characters and see Richard through a series of surreal experiences. His multi-million dollar house in the canyon begins to sink into a hole in the ground. He enlists the assistance of a neighboring movie star to rescue a horse from its center. Later he attends a week long retreat of silence hosted by a loopy new age prophet. He even gets to rescue an abductee from the trunk of her captor's car. Throughout all the chaos he continues to search for meaning through his attempts to reconnect with humanity. He meets a housewife crying in the produce section of a grocery store, and decides to adopt her. He befriends the immigrant owner of a donut shop. He rents a beach house next door to a slovenly enigma who claims to be merely a hack screenwriter.

But if there is an emotional center to TBWSYL, it is to be found in Richard's efforts to address his estranged relationship with his seventeen-year old son. It is through this plot thread that our protagonist finally gets clear of his sense of alienation. These are the scenes in the book that resonate most effectively with me. There is one father-son conflict in particular that blindsides the reader with such force that he/she is knocked back into the messy murk and essential fallibility of familial bonds. It's too bad that so much of TBWSYL is only pleasantly diverting. Ultimately I felt that the meandering nature of the writing would have better lent itself to a short story collection. There are many interesting ideas and situations- they just needed to be fleshed out more and not forced together in what seems like an arbitrary manner. Don't get me wrong- this was entertaining... it just wasn't cohesive.

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