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Music For Torching

Homes cuts to the quick of what's wrong in suburbia

By Fredric Koeppel

In one of those prescient acts that propel a work of fiction ahead of its competitors, A.M. Homes aims her new novel, Music for Torching, straight at the daily headlines. Luck was surely involved, perhaps extraordinary canniness, but somehow Homes anticipated our newfound concerns that the safety and wholeness of the suburbs are tinged with melancholy, fear and loathing and fraught with disorder.

The incomprehensible nightmare of the Columbine school massacre in Littleton, Colo., and the copy-cat but nonfatal shooting at the school in Conyers, Ga., have generated thousands of words of commentary about gun control, parental responsibility, the effects of violent television and video games and isolating, alienating reality of suburban culture. In Music for Torching, Homes extends the frightening question, "How well do we know our children?" to "How well do we know anyone?" and in providing the answer—not very well at all—reveals how an ordinary schoolday can be transformed into a ludicrous and terrible realm where SWAT leaders intone, "I want to close this situation down as quietly as I can," and television reporters whisper fatuously into their microphones, "One has the sense that something awful has just occurred."

Elaine and Paul Weiss live with their two sons in a suburb north of New York. Paul commutes by train to Manhattan, where he engages in business activities that Homes doesn't make clear, which doesn't matter because they're not very clear to Paul, either; he's mainly afraid of screwing up in some way and getting fired by the boss, who is younger than he is.

Elaine stays home, and when she wakes in the morning her "thoughts race, speeding through a giant checklist, a litany, of all she has ever done, all she meant to do, all her ideas and good intentions." At the grocery store, in some aisles, "she takes nothing from the shelves; expiration dates make her anxious, the dairy case upsets her enormously—too much pressure."

We understand from the opening pages, as Paul and Elaine clean up after a dinner party and exchange weary sarcasms, that they are as complicit in shared resentment and unhappiness as in love. Each is smart, though Elaine seems sharper than Paul, more helpless than he but more aware. "I hate you," she says one night during sex in the living room.
"I'm bored. I'm so bored it isn't even funny."

One summer evening, Paul sets the grill a little too close to the house and squirts charcoal lighter over the outside wall. "Is this what you want?" he asks Elaine, and she kicks the grill over and they watch as the house begins to smolder. They get the kids, have dinner at a restaurant and check into a motel. The house doesn't burn down; it's just wrecked enough to require a lot of bothersome and very expensive repairs. The boys move in with friends, and Paul and Elaine move in with Pat and George Nielson; Pat keeps the most obsessively neat and organized house of any woman among their group of friends.

The burning of Paul and Elaine's house works symbolically and actually to tear at the foundations not only of their little family but of each individual. The boys, Sammy and Daniel, turn aggressively odd and inward. Paul shaves his head (and then entire body) and begins sleeping in a nightgown. He has been having an affair with the mother of one of Sammy's chums, but now he explores a bizarre relationship with a young woman called simply "the date," a woman who, when asked the habitual question, "So what do you do?" replies, "What do you want me to do?" He meets her at lunch-hour downtown one day, and, terrified that she will think he is a coward or, worse, uncool, submits to getting a tattoo of twining ivy on his groin. Elaine, for her part, becomes an object of desire from several unexpected quarters.

A century-and-a-half ago, Kierkegaard defined modernity as the desire to live an unconditional life. Paul and Elaine are empty vessels, spending the weeks encompassed by this novel frantically trying to fill themselves, to recreate themselves. On the train to town, Paul occasionally chats with the chairman of a pharmaceuticals company, who passes out wisdom and many-colored pills. "You are your own beginning," he tells Paul toward the end of the book. "Every day, every hour, every minute, you start again," he says, enumerating the liberating and debilitating mantra of the 1990's.

Music for Torching is hilarious and terrifying. Homes composed her previous novel,The End of Alice, a shattering homage to and perversion of Nabokov's Loita, in breathless, brutal poetic prose. Music for Torching is both more laconic and nervier, its constant cinematic stream of satire repartee and howling pain expressed in short, simple sentences. Homes manages, a few times barely, to breathe disdain and compassion into the same situation, even into the same phrases, lending the book a sense of acute tension while withholding resolution, but that's part of the exhilaration of reading this novel.

The combination of Homes's cool assessing eye and fevered imagination produces ideas and scenes that might have been created in a conference call between Evelyn Waugh and Terry Southern. The suburb the Weisses inhabit, slyly-(and occasionally broadly-) parodied Cheever and Updike territory, is part sitcom, part Boschian nightmare. The dire, fitful flames of unaccommodated wishes blaze underground, and weird creatures, like masked workers who stream in to sterilize the Weisses' house, lurk like demons of new and strange eras, languages and moralities.

It takes a while to warm up to Paul and Elaine; at first they seem too typically 90's smart-alecky in their dissatisfaction and misery, New Yorker cartoons fleshed to narrative. But Homes gradually, with wit and sorrow, unfolds their yearning and emptiness, and we cannot help being swept into their sad, awkward compass. And the last few pages of Music for Torching, beautifully written, tough and aching, will break your heart. We're so fragile and vulnerable it's pathetic.