“In the edge-lands of the action-zone” – The Unfolding by AM Homes

IMG_2022-9-16-111854The Big Guy is a major Republican Party donor who moves in White House circles and shakes hands with presidents. He’s a patriot, and he’s also a good dad and a good friend, and, if not a good husband, not an actively bad one. He’s very rich and very fixed in the moneyed world in which he moves. But it’s 5 November 2008, and Obama has just thrashed McCain. The Big Guy’s world is rocked: his world order, his world history, is crumbling, and his family seems to be following suit. What can he do? How can the rich old white men manage to cling onto what they’d always thought would always be theirs?

When people talk about literary fiction, they’re often thinking about the mythical quiet, descriptive book that isn’t ‘about’ anything; well, these critics ought to read AM Homes’ back catalogue. It’s all action and drama and biting comedy. She has a history of serving us wrong-headed men undergoing crises of conscience – Exhibit A, This Book Will Save Your Life; Exhibit B, May We be Forgiven – and she’s masterful at forcing her (likely left-wing, probably female) readers into the psyche of The Other: famously, the paedophile narrator of The End of Alice, and, in a story I love to foist upon my students, a kid who has an abusive sexual affair with his little sister’s possibly sentient Barbie doll.

The Unfolding, though, is perhaps a little different. It’s political, check; it’s uncomfortable, check, and it’s undeniably funny, but it’s also very quiet. This is a book about people talking, people who can’t just get up and do things: people who exist in the edge-lands of the action-zone, whether it’s because they’re silently pulling the strings or because they’ve been systematically marginalised (albeit, ahem, marginalised within the rarefied world of the super-rich political movers and shakers).

When we think ‘political novels’, we’re usually thinking about books that platform the dispossessed: here, we’ve got the opposite situation. The political elite have been toppled – but not into disarray (obviously, they’re materially fine). Rather, we’ve got the elite realising that the horse has bolted when they weren’t looking and trying to work out how to seize its reins once again. It’s a book about undercurrents, about quiet power and circles of influence—there’s no actual uprising in sight; it’s four hundred pages of men talking about fomenting right-wing revolution. But it’s also about personal turbulence: when the Big Guy’s wife, Charlotte, goes into rehab, his daughter, Meghan, discovers a long-hidden family secret, and thus while her traditional, reactionary dad is reckoning with the twin perils of Democratic success and the rise of the uncouth alt-right, Meghan is realising that the truths she’s always considered self-evident – about her self and her parents – are not self-evident at all. The book uses this family dynamic to mirror the upheaval experienced by the state. Meghan, representative of the new generation, is seeing for the first time that there are multiple histories out there. Which narratives will take hold next?

Homes being Homes, this is a very funny novel: the Big Guy and his friends meet in secret, like an Enid Blyton gang, and exchange fancy badges, and discuss baking and allergies and one-up each other as they go hunting while the housekeeping staff sigh and try to keep up with their mess. Meghan, the innocent, is the straight guy: she hobnobs with the great and (not so) good, and so we get to see Condi Rice at a Thanksgiving party and GW sulkily packing up his office; it’s a scathing insight into the gilded lives of the few. It’s also a depressing glimpse into the reinforced foundations of capitalism as a political mover: Homes does satire well. But she’s also a very humane writer, so the Big Guy is a real guy, a guy the reader pities, at least some of the time: that’s quite a feat.

Any Cop?: It’s an interesting topic – looking at that election as a seismic moment, but also reinforcing the continuity of the system nonetheless – and it’s an entertaining read. It is, though, rather long: three or four lengthy conversations too long, perhaps. I’d recommend it nonetheless, and send readers to her back catalogue afterwards.

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