When I first picked up my copy of May We Be Forgiven, I had to explain to JG the significance of front cover: the maroon, cylindrical gelatine was, actually, canned cranberry sauce. It is a Thanksgiving staple for many an American family (mine included) that I think most Americans would recognise. It looks utterly repulsive. And yet, when presented with Whole Food’s organic alternative once upon a Thanksgiving past, my grandfather turned his nose up at the more visually and gastronomically pleasing jam. He wanted the cranberry sauce his own parents had put on the table, not this strange fruit. But that’s America for you – we’re chockfull of curious habits that are passed down for the sake of tradition. And if tradition dictates that this plump cranberry worm, having been wriggled out of its container, must be cut into fleshy slices and arranged like lunch meat, then it will be so.
A.M. Homes accomplishes something noteworthy in May We Be Forgiven by satirising precisely this type of American behaviour – that which is quintessential to American life but incomprehensible to the outsider. She makes concepts like canned cranberry sauce and our obsession withTV seem strangely and often comically alien. But, in fact, this is all part of of the novel’s grand machinery. It breaks down the American dream, the American understanding of success and family, by making the most intimate aspects of life seem foreign.
Her weapons of choice are punchy prose and unrelenting satire, a combination that engages the reader from the first page. We encounter our protagonist, Harold Silver, at a strained Thanksgiving dinner. He is hosted by his younger brother George, an enviably successful media executive with a wild temper, and George’s attractive family. It seems like an average Thanksgiving amongst a fairly typical family, but within the first thirty pages we breeze through adultery, a fatal car crash, and a mental breakdown.
The best way to enter this text is down the rabbit hole: it is a darkly comic, intense picaresque. It has the setup of a soap opera, immediately wrapping the reader up in a swirl of dramatic events, but with the complex characters of a thoughtful novel. Harry is a Nixon scholar, completely unprepared to take up the responsibilities of George’s suburban life after his breakdown – children, pets, extravagant house, finances, and an ensuing legal battle. So he eats Chinese food. He sleeps around. He daydreams about plans for his magnum opus: a biography that will redefine Nixon scholarship. He is forced to throw the safety of his now defunct marriage by the wayside, and his first steps into this new life are shaky to say the least.
Through Harry’s forays into an untapped side of American life, we encounter a large and colourful cast of characters. Some of these characters are one-offs, providing a briefly comic turn of events. My personal favourites were the two children who hold Harry hostage in an attempt to punish their adulterous mother; the circumstances are absurd, but the moment provides room for a germane cultural comment. Characters make frequent entrances and exits, and the constant state of change makes the plot fairly unpredictable.
On the whole, May We Be Forgiven is certainly a novel of big ideas. It deals with traditional notions of family and success, suggesting that happiness requires more than ticking achievements off of a to-do list. This may not be a new idea, but Homes delivers the message with a keen contemporary focus that makes this idea relevant us in the present day. Technology’s role in our understanding of our private and public selves is also broached; Homes suggests that the Internet becomes breeding grounds for another version of ourselves. It connects us to people around the world, yet isolates us from the person we’re sitting next to. And, of course, Harry’s redemption is predicated on forgiveness, particularly forgiveness as a way to gain a sense of closure.
Yet, as Homes grapples with these paramount themes, one cannot help but notice that something feels amiss. Critics have claimed that the story is uneven, action-packed at times and unbearably slow at others. While I agree with this assessment, I do think there is a more chronic problem: despite the novel’s contemporary consciousness, the tone feels oddly outdated at times. A few jokes fall flat in the way embarrassing dad jokes tend to, for instance, at Starbucks:
“Medium coffee,” I say.
“Grande,” the girl says again.
“Non parlo italiano,” I say, pointing to the medium sized cup.
Maybe it’s that I’m twenty, but I had to roll my eyes. Flat jokes aside, there is still the matter of deadpan descriptions and dialogues that are simple to the point of dullness to be wrestled with. Sometimes this brevity stands in ironic contrast to the chaos of ongoing events, but the feeble banter between characters and three-line sequences of events are mostly unremarkable. Too often the brevity comes across as plain rather than sharp. May We Be Forgiven is certainly an entertaining story that highlights issues that Americans struggle with everyday, but I doubt that it is this era’s Great American Novel. Its humorous approach is both a strength and a hindrance, alternately enlightening and trying on one’s patience. That said, it is a difficult novel not to enjoy.
Homes has written commendable work of literature in its own right, but it is her ability to capture the reader’s attention that makes me hopeful for Homes’ public career. Now more than ever, authors must be fast-paced, engaging, and entertaining if they wish to succeed in strictly financial sense. The reality for 21st century literature is that novels now compete with an array of other media for people’s attention, often media that is more easily accessed and which does not require so much focus. It is novelists like Homes, I think, who may be able to properly compete with these new contenders for the public’s attention. Her knack for quick, entertaining prose may be just what contemporary readers need.
Dates of first published are listed, regardless of reprint or cover-edition