Burning Down the House May 30, 1999, Late Edition - Final
By Gary Krist
MUSIC FOR TORCHING
By A. M. Homes.
358 pp. New York:
Rob Weisbach Books/
William Morrow & Company. $26.
Some novels you either love or hate unequivocally. Others -- and these often prove to be the most durable of all -- elicit a more complex response. To say that I loved A. M. Homes's ''Music for Torching'' would be a ridiculously inadequate description of my feelings about this nasty and willfully grotesque novel. The fact is, I was at times appalled by the book, annoyed by it, angered by it. Its ending struck me as cynical and manipulative. But even so, I found myself rapt from beginning to end, fascinated by Homes's single-minded talent for provocation. And for the two days it took me to read the novel, I could think about little else.
Anyone familiar with Homes's career knows that you can't even mention her name without raising a cloud of political dust. This is largely because of the reception of her third novel, ''The End of Alice,'' a sympathetic portrait of a homicidal child molester. The book caused an epidemic of critical outrage when it appeared, and there were even attempts in Britain to ban the book entirely. In many ways, the whole flap was ''American Psycho'' redux, and just as boring, although the fact of Homes's sex added a refreshing feminist dimension to the controversy (aren't women allowed to be as revolting as men?).
With ''Music for Torching,'' her fourth novel, Homes is again out to rock our cherished middle-class complacency. But whereas the effort seemed humorless and self-important in ''Alice,'' this time Homes is far more effectively unsettling, mainly because she serves up her feast of deviance in a narrative that is much more difficult to dismiss. Paul and Elaine, the characters at the center of the new novel, look from the outside like ordinary denizens of a slightly dated version of suburbia domestica. Paul works at a blandly generic job in New York City, while Elaine stays home in Westchester to mind the household and care for their two (''Aren't you supposed to have two point three?'') children. Banal happiness would seem to be their due, but hey, we've all read our Cheever, so we know that there must be a deep, dark emptiness at the heart of these prosperous lives. And although exposing this emptiness might seem a little redundant by now, Homes is able to revitalize the tired genre of suburban despair by employing methods that bear as much resemblance to Cheever's as Jerry Springer's do to those of Jack Paar.
The first chapter alone -- which created a stir when it appeared in The New Yorker -- is a tour de force of over-the-top outrageousness. Paul and Elaine are cleaning up after one of those sexually fraught suburban dinner parties that I, a suburbanite for three- quarters of my life, have encountered ad nauseam in novels but never in real life. In time-honored fashion, the couple's prickly interactions in the kitchen (''Gristle,'' he says. ''You're doing it on purpose. Poisoning me'') reveal the insecurities and dissatisfaction underlying their relationship. But while some writers would take pains to communicate these tensions with understated delicacy, Homes has little interest in subtlety. Her suburban spouses go at each other with an almost comic intensity, their spat escalating rapidly until Elaine takes a carving knife to Paul's throat. He responds by shaving off all his hair (well, who wouldn't?). Much wrestling, biting and hurtful bickering ensue. And before the end of the chapter, the two of them are splashing lighter fluid on the walls of their house and, by mutual consent, setting it afire.
After such a tremendously sensationalistic opening, you might think that Homes has nowhere to go with these characters, and to a certain extent you'd be right. Their sense of alienation is so exaggerated that it leaves room for little else in their psyches. Too often Paul and Elaine seem to blunder around like brain-damaged escapees from a Pirandello play, complaining about being ''unbelievably unhappy'' and ''incredibly, horribly stuck'' but showing no capacity for any kind of purposeful thought or action. As a result, Homes has to keep the external volume high. She bombards her characters with malignant stimuli from the outside world (a psychotic nymphomaniac, a menacing cop-rapist, a verbally abusive architect, etc.), so that Paul and Elaine need only react to them, usually in inappropriate ways. Thus Paul gets a genital tattoo and starts sleeping in silky nightgowns, while Elaine allows herself to be seduced by the supercompetent housewife/dominatrix who lives nearby. Simply put, Paul and Elaine find themselves so beleaguered by circumstance that the cell walls of their identities break down entirely. And the results, when they are not horrifying, can be hilarious.
Any notion that ''Music for Torching'' might be intended primarily as a comedy, however, is erased by the novel's brutal ending. I'm reluctant to reveal much detail, but in the interest of good citizenship I should warn parents of small children that they will be unable to read the book's last chapter unshaken. But here, again, Homes proves herself such a virtuoso portraitist of modern depravity that any sense of violation is complicated by an overwhelming exhilaration. The scene is so electrifying, in other words, that you can almost forgive Homes the blatantly aggressive impulse behind it.
And that, really, is the lingering question about ''Music for Torching'' -- to what extent does the novel, for all its brilliant writing, rise above the limited and ultimately adolescent goal of shocking Mom and Dad? Homes has claimed that she writes ''in response to things going on in the culture'' and that the newspaper ''is filled with things far more frightening than my stories.'' But this stock answer carries a whiff of disingenuousness. In her last two novels, the desire to outrage is so conspicuous that it risks obscuring her powerful gifts as a novelist. There is such a thing as shock fatigue, after all, and an art of such unrelenting stridency threatens to exclude itself from the really meaningful cultural discussion, closing minds before they can be reached. Granted, serious fiction is most valuable when it challenges comfortable assumptions. But lobbing Molotov cocktails, however attention-getting, is not always the most effective means of opening locked doors.