“When you read the work of a great writer,” says Mr Watts, the last white man on an Oceanic island in the early 1990s, speaking to a group of local children in Lloyd Jones‘s Mister Pip (2007), “you are making the acquaintance of that person. So you can say you have met Mr Dickens on the page.” Some books I think, Yeah, I could fancy a pint or other suitable beverage with him or her, that’s an interesting evening in prospect. I’d consider that positive critical comment enough, though – I hasten to add – other criteria do come into play (aside from Dickens being dead, of course). Doesn’t apply as an over-riding concern with A.M.Homes after reading her May we be forgiven (Granta, 2012) but that does not stop me from being mightily impressed at its scope, ambition and achievement. Back on Bougainville, Mr Watts tells Matilda, his star pupil, why he loves Great expectations so much: “It gave me permission to change my life.” It was significant for me too, back in school doing A levels, promoted as Dickens’ warning – something of a mea culpa – to be careful what you wish for, and what I read as an anti-capitalist text (not that we called them that in those days). It also appealed to Mr Watts and Matilda because it entertained “The very idea that your life could change without warning” (as indeed it did for them). Which is also pretty much where May we be forgiven begins.
May we be forgiven
A.M.Homes has just won the Women’s Prize for Fiction (the old Orange Prize) despite being up against Hilary Mantel, who looked like winning pretty much everything going. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing and it belongs right up there with the best of her peers. Rather than talk of contenders to The Great American Novel, these days it’s more a genre in its own right; and that is where I’d place this novel. (Hell, we even get to meet Don DeLillo as a character in a neat little interlude in a hardware store: “Putting together your disaster kit?” the guy behind the register asks [him]. “Spring cleaning.”)
May we be forgiven tells of a year in the life of academic Harry Silver, a Nixon scholar who has been working on a book about the man for 15 years. His life changes without warning when his bully of a brother George, a television network president, diagnosed mad after a fatal road accident for which he was probably to blame, slips out of hospital and murders Alice – his, George’s wife – when he discovers her in bed with Harry. Harry’s Chinese-American wife divorces him, he takes on George’s house, dog and young teenage kids, Nate and Ashley, who are away at expensive schools with problems of their own; they urge him to do something for Ricardo, the orphaned survivor of the car crash, who also becomes part of the household. Which further expands to take in the fading parents of a woman who picks him up in a grocery store.
Not to mention, he has a minor stroke and, in the wings there’s Harry and George’s mother, in a care home but thriving again after a change of regime; and the woman Harry meets on the internet. Never mind Harry losing his job at the university, Nate’s mind-blowing bar mitzvah in South Africa (it’s too long a story) and an episode of secret service intrigue, excitement and misadventure in an American wilderness he could have done without. “I’m really just a former professor who sometimes gets dragged in over my head,” he says. It may all sound a bit of a sprawl but the elements hold together magnificently; it’s a 480 page page-turner. Some may feel the need to skim a few chunks of the Nixon stuff even if by doing that you’d be missing something.
Because in amongst all this he gets invited by the Nixon family to look at and bring forward for publication some newly discovered short stories – a big deal (and fictional of course) – written by the disgraced former President. I found the stuff fuelling Harry’s Richard Nixon obsession fascinating; it underscores a lot of what else is going on. It is also a reminder of how long ago his reign in the White House was. He resigned 1974; emails and mobile phones were all in the future when the Watergate scandal was happening. Anyway, accused of being paranoid (or, to be precise, “a paranoid motherfucker“), “I am a Nixon scholar,” he responds, “I know whereof I speak.“
“Do you have a title for the book?”
“While We Were Sleeping: The American Dream Turned Nightmare – Richard Nixon, Vietnam and Watergate: The Psychogenic Melting Point.”
“That’s a lot of title.”
So when he finally lets rip after years of humming and hawing (liberated maybe by the South African medicine man):
Time to rip out the stops – fuck it. Dick Nixon was the American man of the moment, swimming in the bitter supposition that for everyone else things came easily. He was the perfect storm of present, past and future, of integrity and deceit, of moral superiority and arrogance, of the drug that was and is the American dream, wanting more, wanting to have what someone else has, wanting to have it all.
Harry’s verdict on his book?
“Sometimes I think it is a brilliant, reinvigorating discussion not only about Nixon but about an entire era. Other times I wonder if it’s just a cultural hairball that took years to cough up.”
There is dark stuff going on here, personally, socially and politically, but it is also peopled with men, women and young people trying to do their best and make their way. And A.M.Homes can make you laugh too. In the end the Nixon family decides not to publish the short stories, despite considerable interest: “… we’re not sure that presenting my father as a fiction writer is consistent with the Nixon brand.“ She even gets away with the old going to the wrong room and ending up in Alcoholics Anonymous joke. I liked May we be forgiven a lot.
I’d read Lloyd Evans‘ novel Mister Pip (2007) – quoted at the top of this piece – before, but skimmed through it again for my book group (which was just as well because in my memory I’d confused it with another book and had placed it in another continent). A couple of people in the group had some knowledge of Papua New Guinea (or PNG as one can now call it) which helped the discussion. Mister Pip combines a number of themes and has some good patches – funny, tense, shocking, emotional, in turn – but overall I can’t get that enthusiastic about it; the disillusion with which it ends doesn’t help here. Apparently there’s a film imminent and I can see that might work in the way that good films never really come from great books – so much has to be left out – whereas good films can often come out of second division literature.
Mister Pip opens with a stunning image – a big black woman being pulled along, standing on a trolley, by the last white man on the island, sporting a red clown’s nose. We learn how that came about at the end of the book, in London; a sad love story is revealed, she a broken victim of the culture clash that is felt throughout the book. Matilda’s mum, for whom the only good book is the Good Book, objects to Pip in Great expectations as a bad role model, can’t understand why Mr Watts gives more credence to him than the devil. Other strands woven into the tale involve the power of fiction, of novels, to empower and inform lives, the futile brutality and waste of a savage and graphically portrayed civil war, and issues of personal bravery, sacrifice and morality. It ends with Matilda, the star pupil and survivor, years later going to London to pursue post-graduate studies into Dickens’ life and works, to meet him on the streets he used to walk and … I think I’ll leave it, anti-climactically, spoiler-free, at that.
I beg your pardon …
I never promised you a … Oh yes I did. Here’s the herb garden:
English mace at 4’30”. Don’t know what we’ll do with it.