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May We Be Forgiven

Life's big plot twist

By Samantha Selinger-morris

Believe it or not, behind the controversy and crusading lies a perfectly normal person.

A.M. HOMES admits that when people meet her in the flesh, they're often shocked by what they find. ''People are always, 'Oh, you're so normal!''' she says over the phone from her Manhattan apartment. ''What do you expect? A two-headed monster?''

A.M. HOMES admits that when people meet her in the flesh, they're often shocked by what they find. ''People are always, 'Oh, you're so normal!''' she says over the phone from her Manhattan apartment. ''What do you expect? A two-headed monster?''

I laugh but, truthfully, who can blame her readers for thinking they'll be confronted by, if not some sort of circus sideshow act, someone a tad more menacing than the actual Girl Scouts troop leader that she is?

Because, for the past 23 years, Homes - a literary star in her home country who also, somewhat unusually, has a ''blind deal'' writing and producing TV pilots for CBS - has been drawn to explore the grotesque elements of human behaviour much as a maggot is lured to decomposing flesh.

Her 1996 novel, The End of Alice, is told from the perspective of a convicted murderer and paedophile who corresponds, from prison, with a would-be female paedophile (who dreams about eating a young boy's scabs). Music for Torching, about a desperately unhappy Cheever-esque couple, ends with a Columbine-style shooting.

And in her latest book, a satire on modern American life called May We Be Forgiven, we get child abuse (again), adult abuse (a woman abandons her ailing parents into the care of a relative stranger), a graphic description of a stillbirth and spousal murder.

The book focuses on two brothers who abhor each other: Harry, a Richard Nixon scholar, and George, a nrcissistic TV producer who murders his wife, Jane, when he finds her in bed with Harry. George is remanded to a Lord of the Flies-like prison, where the ''cells'' are the wilderness itself.

''People are always saying, 'The work is shocking','' Homes says about all her books. ''To me, that just means I hit a nerve, and that actually means that I'm alive and that the reader is alive.'' And, furthermore, as she wrote in her 2007 memoir about being adopted, The Mistress's Daughter: ''It seems as though what I'm writing about is extreme, but in truth it happens every day.''

She clarifies, over the phone: ''To give you a very painful example, [there's] my British publisher Sigrid Rausing and her brother,'' she says, referring to Rausing's brother Hans Kristian, who was arrested on suspicion of drug possession in July after his wife, Eva, was found dead (of a suspected overdose) in their Georgian townhouse in London.

''That's a horrible family tragedy. It's a very extreme one, honestly; they're in the newspaper every single day. But I think it's naive to think that people don't behave strangely and that suffering doesn't happen.

''Even as I was writing this [May We Be Forgiven], friends of mine were reading it, about people having sexual relationships with people they meet on the internet,'' - after Jane's death, Harry struggles with his new role as a sort of adopted father to George's two children, and in an attempt to awaken his numbed soul stumbles into a rabbit hole of random sexual hook-ups - ''and they're saying, 'I don't think it's true. Do you really think that people do that?' People do that all the time.''

Homes has been on the receiving end of this sort of push-back for most of her life. Readers, she says, disputed the fact that kids smoke crack in the suburbs, when she included that plot point in her short-story collection The Safety of Objects. And when she wrote - in Things You Should Know, her 2002 collection of stories - of a senile woman who has an electronic chip implanted in her so her family can find her, ''An agent actually said … 'You can't do that!' I thought, yeah, you can.''

Homes wasn't wrong. A year before her book came out, a US company named Applied Digital Solutions began to consider selling its implantable microchips, until then used in animals, for people, after one of its vice-presidents noticed firemen writing their badge numbers on their arms in pen, during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. (They did this so they could be identified if their faces and teeth were destroyed.) That Homes was exploring a fear that was already lurking in her culture but no one was talking about cuts to the heart of what all her 10 books are about.

''I think I feel compelled, always, to try to pop the denial and make people see what's out there,'' she says.

''It probably comes from my family and a bit from wanting my experience to be validated.''

She is referring to what she has called ''the wound of being given up'' by her birth mother - who became pregnant at 22 during an affair with her much older and married boss - and the legacy of secrecy and shame that followed. Because, although Homes was adopted by a loving, educated Jewish family in Washington, her birth father, Norman, treated her like a dirty secret.

According to her 2007 memoir, after she sought him out at age 31, Norman insisted she call him on his car phone (so his wife didn't hear their conversation) and that they meet in anonymous, non-descript hotels, presumably so he wouldn't be recognised. He refused to introduce her to most of her extended family.

Homes' response was to make sure her side of the story was unflinchingly - sometimes, surely, humiliatingly - honest and public.

Addressing ''the intimacy of the sensations'' she felt after she met Norman, she wrote: ''I imagine him saying, 'I've got a room, I want to see you naked'. I imagine undressing as a part of the procedure of proving who I am, part of the degradation. I imagine him f---ing me … It is the strangest set of imaginings and I can tell he has them, too.''

She says on the phone: ''The reason I wrote it is because it was very true, it was incredibly palpable how true it was.'' Yes, she admits, she thought, '''Oh my god, my mother's going to read this!' … [But] I honestly felt, you know, somebody's got to stand up and just say, 'This is not to be ashamed of. There's nothing about being adopted that makes you a bad person, or an illegitimate person.'''

While fellow authors have long applauded her kamikaze approach in both her non-fiction and fiction books - Salman Rushdie, a friend, calls May We Be Forgiven ''flat-out amazing'' - critics and booksellers have frequently disagreed.

''Shock effect seems to be the only point,'' wrote a New York Times reviewer about Things You Should Know.

And after Homes wrote The End of Alice - because ''until we're willing to have that conversation [about paedophilia], as a society, it will continue to happen'' - a British chain of shops, WHSmith, refused to stock it.

It's a rejection that brings to mind Harry in May We Be Forgiven: his biography of Richard Nixon is put in jeopardy after he's sacked from the university at which he works. (His boss says that because he obsesses about the past, his teaching is irrelevant.) Homes has certainly had to contend with letting go of the past, but what the book's really about, she says, is coming of age in the middle of your life.

''It's about a guy who hasn't really grown up, hasn't come into his own, who's sort of forced to,'' she says.

"Can you rise to the occasion or not? And to me that's a much more universal story [than the more extreme plot points].''

Homes dropped out of high school at 16 and later struggled somewhat to fit in at the legendary Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she found peers such as Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace overly competitive. At 50, she has very much come into her own. A mother to a much-longed-for daughter, nine-year-old Juliet, she says she finds gratification in helping others.

She teaches a writing class at Princeton University, has served on the board of the prestigious American artists' retreat Yaddo, advocates for the rights of adopted children to know about their birth families, and chairs the Writers' Emergency Fund at PEN, an organisation that aids writers who face persecution. ''I'm amazed and appalled at the way we treat each other … [at how] people can wilfully not notice each other,'' she says.
Should her ''goody-goody behaviour'' also disabuse people of the notion that someone who writes about things that go murderous in the night can't also have a wholesome side? Well, that's just an unexpected bonus.

As she told Britain's The Daily Telegraph: ''It's especially fun, when people think of you as this dark, transgressive novelist, to tell them that your Girl Scouts troop has just delivered 400 boxes of cookies.''

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