Entertainment News: Thursday, May 20, 1999

“Music for Torching” by A.M. Homes

Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times

A.M. Homes’ fifth book is daring, original, smart and artful, yet does not quite work as a novel.

Paul and Elaine, the lead couple, were first featured in Homes’ short story “Adults Alone,” from her collection “The Safety of Objects,” where they spend 18 pages obsessing about aging, and then smoke crack.

In “Music For Torching,” Paul and Elaine kick things off by trying to burn down their house.

“Why did we do it,” Paul asks.

“We did it because there was nothing else we could do,” Elaine answers.

The house, however, is only semi-damaged. So they attempt to put things back together and various absurdities befall them as they struggle on, like a yuppie Estragon and Vladimir in a suburban “Waiting for Godot.”

They stay with their neighbors until their house is habitable again and decide “that everything they ever suspected about how much better the lives of the neighbors are has been proven true. Everyone else is more organized, happier, their lives less fraught, more satisfying.”

Paul and Elaine are chronically dissatisfied. They ooze adolescent angst, which can be cool and hip if you’re young and writing songs such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but is not cool or hip when you’re a grown adult with your own children.

Elaine thinks of herself as “stuck.” She has two affairs – one with a neighbor woman, and another with a local cop. Paul has a couple of affairs also – one with a different neighbor woman, and another with a crazy nameless “date.” Nothing important results from these encounters. They are just part of a series of weird incidents in this twisted and plotless take on modern suburbia. A man kisses Paul’s palm on the train home. Who knows why?

Bret Easton Ellis comes to mind, particularly in the moments of black comedy, but Homes, unlike Ellis, shows flashes of an alarming earnestness. She seems to take seriously the neuroses of her characters, which undercuts the humor.

While the adults act like adolescents, the children retreat into their own private strangeness. Daniel, the oldest, collects his mother’s lipstick, and obese-women porn magazines with titles like Chunky Bunch. His little brother Sammy spends much of his time at a neighbor’s house. After the Columbine school shootings, every editorial writer in the country seems to be asking, who is watching the children? Not the likes of Elaine and Paul.

Elaine describes herself as “Bored and boring. And pathetic. And stupid.” Yes, yes, yes and yes. And so is Paul. They are also amazingly immature.

These two were perfect fodder for Homes’ distinct style of short story, but they simply cannot carry a novel of 358 pages. Homes tries mightily, though. She employs an array of writerly tricks, avoids false steps, occasionally soars with inspired passages – “In the end, the goal is to be left with something: a spouse, children, even parents if you can manage it. The goal is not to be left alone” – but still, most readers are going to want to punch Paul in the nose and stuff a fistful of Prozac down Elaine’s throat.

You do not care whether they can rebuild their house and lives, if they can “make things good again.” You know they won’t. You know they will whine instead. You know something awful is going to happen to them, and the only question is what.

The publisher is giving this book a big promotional push, and I could not help but think this would be more effective if the material had been edited down to about half its length. Homes’ voice is so sharp, so unique and particular to our time, that she might have overcome the problematic Paul and Elaine if their griping did not drag on so long.

As it stands, this novel is not likely to increase Homes’ audience, but it should satisfy and impress those who are already admirers of her work.


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