May We Be Forgiven, by A.M. Homes
The contemporary family saga novel has been reinvigorated by writers’ awareness of the complexities of the merged family. Typically, remarriages force children who may barely know one another to live under the same roof as they adjust to parents’
new partners, new schedules, demands, “lifestyles”. How such children of divorces, particularly in the upper middle classes, cope and bond (or don’t) has been the subject of superior novels such as Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints, Chad Harwick’s The Art of Fielding, and the slightly underrated The Grief of Others, by Leah Hager Cohen.
A.M. Homes virtually leaps into this territory in her newest–and utterly splendid–novel May We Be Forgiven. Two brothers with a longstanding detestation of one another structure the novel; their early background in lower-middle-class New York Jewry defines a nasty competition which will never end. George, the more successful, if younger, brother–he’s become a television executive–not only mows down a family with his car (not paying attention), killing all but one prepubescent boy, and, shortly afterwards, murders his own wife. All that action takes place within the first approximately fifty pages of the novel. Lawyers and emergency room personnel take all this for granted; one of my favorite lines occurs when brother Harry arrives at a hospital and virtually begs for some help for George, who needs….whatever, and a nurse replies “we all have needs” as she walks on by.
Brother Harry will pick up the pieces, beginning with his guardianship of George’s two seemingly sullen children, both in fancy boarding schools. Harry’s own supercold corporate wife will divorce him as she will find these complications in the way of her career.
Homes great strenth in this novel is her understanding of those aspects of contemporary American life in which these events unfold. Every nasty American trait will find its place in the novel, whose insightful language includes a mixture of pop psychology-cum-political correctness-cum -corporatespeak pervading American life. When everyone knows these idioms–lawyers, mental health professionals,’teachers,
cops, teenagers, aging parents, et. al, absurd situations become more so as people skirt truths, buy their way out of criminal charges, routinely partner for afternoon sex with people they meet on the internet, alter identities at will, dump children and aging parents wherever and whenever expedient. I particularly enjoyed the interfacing of the criminal justice system and mental health professionals, and their collusion through, of course, special military operatives.
Homes’ eye and ear for the callous cold carelessness of contemporary America surrounds her characters. She is utterly successful in defining contemporary American life and culture in ways we once hoped for from the now declining Martin Amis. Harry might once have been an Ann Tyler man , but one who has now been through shock therapy.
Harry will succeed in bonding with his stepchildren, including climbing fake rock walls on parents’ weekends at prep school and negotiating a settlement from another school after learning that a teacher has been sexually abusing his stepdaughter. (He is quick on the uptake as he learns to expect anything). A bar mitzvah in a small South African village is as funny as the party planner in Westchester County who doesn’t miss a single detail in expediting this event there. America in extremis still yields the witty practicalities of its citizens, more so when they live in greater New York.
The higgeldy-piggledy family over which Harry eventually will preside is moving and lovely and even seems rational and reasonable under the circumstances; the stepchildren lead him there and their adaptive traits are the novel’s redemption, in spite of divorce and murder. It’s befitting that the final scene in the novel is an extended family Thanksgiving dinner.
Homes’ novel is smart and funny and as insightful into the manners and mores of a country on the edge of complete chaos. May We Be Forgivne is absolutely one of the best novels of 2012.
Arcadia, by Lauren Groff
An entirely different model of family life is presented by Lauren Groff. She describes the optimistic beginning, heyday, and the decline and ending of a commune in Western New York State in the l970s. Focusing on just a few key characters, including the musician/founder/con man Handy, and the partnered Hannah , who bakes and writes, and Abe, the communal carpenter, and their tiny new baby Bit, so called because he is so small for so long, a little bit of a thing. Other characters cycle around these, as communal living requires; a midwife makes a strong appearance, amongst others. The group discovers and renovates a dilapidated manor house, which they call Arcadia House, in honor of their utopian dream.
The sheer amount of work, mainly subsistence farming, required to keep Arcadia afloat, is well delineated, and Groff brilliantly describes how the various seasons affect people’s moods and habits; the writing is romantically charged when spring or summer or fall come; the residents are very aware of flowers, buds, growing things, far more than their city cousins are. Hannah’s depressions, which arrive in the late fall, annually, coincide with the declining light, and they are well rendered, and their origins explained, but more importantly, Abe’s ability to help her through them while young Bit wonders what is wrong with his mother, are some of the most tender scenes in the novel. The evolution of Bit’s consciousness and his acute sensitivities to other people’s needs and moods and to nature’s cycles are magnificently portrayed; this family unit works, and the lure and appeal of utopian communal living are brilliantly depicted, and so convincing that we may well long to live in such a setting (the back-to-the-land movement of the late sixties comes to mind; most of those communes were in southern Vermont and upstate New York). The author’s own natural sympathies and empathies pervade this very, very lovely book. We may wonder if Bit is a touch autistic, and Groff makes his voice the narrator’s; Bit’s observations of his parents, the natural world, friend his age, and his eventual discovery of an old woman living alone at the far end of a forest raises the narrative to nearly mythic/fairy-tale proportions (she is the last survivor from the original manor house).
Bit and this woman secretly bond: that he finds her by getting lost in a forest is very much how fairy tales begin and evolve. Their bond seems mystical, ethereal, otherworldly; some of Groff’s loveliest and most persuasive writing is about this unlikely friendship and their mutual need to love and protect one another on two sides of a great age divide. This section of the novel could stand independently, as either short story or fairy tale; Groff proposes little distinction beteen the two. Her writing about these two people is mesmerizing, beautiful, creating longing and hope in the reader. She is quite apable of making life at Arcadia appear idyllic, partly because she creates so many lovable characters, workload and weather and housing problems notwithstanding. Arcadia is that much lovelier when compared to the America evolving outside of it.
The success of Arcadia, of course, is what causes it to fail, in the end. Word gets around about the place; by raising money having rock concerts, all sorts of outsiders land there (think Woodstock) , thousands of needy people eating Arcadia’s food, introducing all kinds of drugs (marajuana being a regular staple at Arcadia), and these spoiled outsiders expect to be fed, bedded in both senses of the word, housed, entertained. Years and years of hard work are ruined in just a few days, when the inevitable drug bust occurs and the place is virtually flattened. The departure of the lead characters is remarkably sad.
We will follow Bit to New York City as he struggles to create an adult life, involving partnering with a girl/woman from the communal days, troubled though she always has been; she will vanish entirely, leaving Bit a single father, a photographer (his skills as a watcher return as a profession) and an adjunct professor. His loneliness is more acute since he is used to communal living and the differences are beautifully delineated. He continues to touch lives.
Reunions occur at Arcadia, an excellent plot device, and Arcadia remains the central element in every character’s development. Lauren Groff has created one of the most beautiful families in recent literature, and her sense of the idyllic and the strong friendships and love which surrounded Arcadia act as an internal force field of energy , always. Groff succeeds in taking her readers into the enchanted world of Arcadia, where we might like to stay, too: this little novel packs a huge emotional wallop and is one of the sleepers of 2012. You may literally read it and weep.
English Graphics, by Tom Lubbock (Francis Lincoln Limited Publishers)
Every now and then, a quirky book seems to mosey my way, just when I am weary of the conventional wisdoms and platitudes of contemporary art critics and theorists (Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia; anything by John Berger; Ann Beattie on Alex Katz all come to mind as fresh and , at the time of publication, transformative). English Graphics is such a book. It’s a compilation of essays written by the (alas) late English critic Tom Lubbock, who served as chief art critic for The Independent from l997-2011 and was, himself, also an illustrator.
Mr. Lubbock is erudite, enthusiastic, and full of interdisciplinary ideas and interpretations of the heyday of the English graphic arts, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He selects the pieces about which he writes brilliantly and, perhaps, eccentrically, but his enormous mental energy and imaginative powers wrap us in this small niche of a corner of the visual arts until we are engrossed, informed, charmed, and , occasionally, transformed. Lubbock reminds us of the power of the romantic tradition within the English illustrative mode, which parrallels the era of the great English “nature poets”.
Although one understands that Lubbock will build to some of the text and images of the great “visionary”/spiritual William Blake, some of the strongest work–both the original graphics and Lubbock’s commentary on them–are small landscape artists, such as Samuel Palmer, Francis Towne, and George Romney. A section of the book on “Vignettes”–I was unfamiliar with the word in art, if now with the images-types–is one of the book’s finest.
These are black-and-white, very small illustrations we might have found in illustrated chidrens’ books; they are narrative in intent, even when they are purely descriptive of a small piece of nature. Oblong in shape, they convey a very strong sense of a very particular outdoor scene and are very powerful evocations of nature; they are really miniatures, and they enchant as they did when I was a child (I had an English grandfather): they are superb sparks to the imagination, and Lubbock gives them primacy of place in this extraordinary book.
Many of Lubbock’s examples are religious and/or figurative. He muses over maps, stained glass windows, charicature, frontispieces to books, beasties,, and on and on. His text is rigorous and his explanations/criticism exemplary, exuberant, and brief. His writing quickly reminded me of art critic John Berger’s , and the author of the introduction to English Graphics, Jamie McKendrick, makes the same claim.
Thinkers like Berger and Lubbock are rare because they come to their tasks without preconceived notions or scholarly pomp. Original and witty, brilliant and quirky, Tom Lubbock refreshes the obscure field of English graphics, and reminds us what the best writing about art is like.