Tuesday, April 01, 2008

A.M. Homes, "The End of Alice" (1996).

Once in awhile a book is written that enters public consciousness as a work of almost complete transgression. What gives it that status is the prevailing climate of morality and the prevailing perspective of the society into which it is released. Certainly Marquis de Sade is a good example of a transgressive author. I'd actually suggest that Justine still stands as one of the most challenging creations ever written. Throughout the centuries, other titles have arisen to draw public ire, and have been held up as examples of filth and depravity. D.H. Lawrence, Nabokov, William Burroughs, and Georges Batailles are all noted for being especially controversial. Often the literary establishment simply censors these works, and draws more attention to them as a result.

Nowadays it is very unlikely that a book will become unavailable due to censorship. While public school libraries will remove it from the shelves, and universities will strike them from the curriculum, transgressive literature is invariably available from some source. This provides fodder to both sides in a nebulous 'culture war' which is said to be fought continuously in our nation. Personally I have almost always found myself defending the right of provocative authors to be heard. The sole exception in my life has been the aforementioned de Sade, whose 'masterpiece' I sought to burn in my apartment in college. I wasn't thinking 'straight' at the time, and felt that I'd better destroy it rather than risk it falling upon some impressionable mind. Since then I have adopted a fairly non-paternalistic approach.

These last few decades have seen a general shift in the limits that confine writers. Bret Easton Ellis, Kathy Acker and others have tried their very best to outrage modern sensibilities, but that's tough to do in an ever-expanding media environment. Most parents aren't scared that their children will read an inappropriate book. Their fears have generally been transferred to the internet. While that's liberating for readers, it may actually have the effect of repressing the publication of extreme writing. If it's not likely to generate any publicity, then there is little incentive to put it out. The overall audience has narrowed and grown more refined. Those who may have picked up a salacious trade paperback in the past are now looking to be shocked elsewhere.

Having said that, stuff slips by now and again. A. M. Homes crossed several invisible lines with The End of Alice (1996). The narrator is an unnamed pedophile, who has found himself serving a long term in prison for the murder of a pre-adolescent girl. The reader is asked to entertain this man's explanations for, and descriptions of, his behavior. Homes details the perp's crimes in such salacious detail that it is at once profoundly disturbing and horribly provocative. She doesn't go out of her way to pronounce judgment on the criminal actor. In fact, we find ourselves in the position of having to determine on our own the likely truth of the situations explained. The narrator is distinctly unreliable, and made more so by his particular predilections. After all, who wants to empathize with, or put any trust in, the accounts of a man who sexually exploits children?

Homes has indeed demonstrated her remarkable ability to get under our skin. There is no such class of human less sympathetic than a molester. Yet somehow his humanity seeps through on to the pages like the vile secretions he visits on his targets. We are not burdened with detailed rationalizations and justifications. True to form, the narrator was abused by his mother as a child. But his behavior is not blamed outright on these past incidents. We understand the progression that has brought him to his current situation- locked in a cell and communing by letter with a young female adult with her own aspirations of exploitation. Still Homes avoids bludgeoning us with easy answers or pat conclusions. We are given a window into a world few of us would seek to enter, and we finish with a bit more awareness of the mindset of a child abuser.

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