Reading AM Homes’ new novel, The Unfolding, immediately brought to mind the work of another American author. With its state-of-the-nation tone and overtly political background — after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, a group of powerful white men plot a coup — you might be forgiven for think of Robert Penn Warren, Jonathan Franzen or Philippe Roth. But the book in question was Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife, which captures so perfectly in its opening pages the type of men in Homes’ troubling cabal: about other men, women, furniture, villages. Why should they care? They have everything, the seas and the mountains, the quivering volcanoes, the delicate and turbulent rivers.
The Unfolding gives the reader unlimited access to such men from the start. After watching a magnanimous John McCain concede the election hours before, the book’s protagonist, The Big Guy, is licking his wounds in a residents’ bar in Phoenix, Arizona, when he meets Eisner, a like-minded historian . He begins to formulate a plan that will turn into “a slow wave, kind of coup d’etat that will sweep through this country largely unnoticed until it’s too late – until the American people have been decimated economically, intellectually and spiritually”.
From the obvious setting of Phoenix (where better to rise from the ashes?) to Thomas Wolfe’s epigraph – “I believe we are lost here in America, but I believe we will be found” – there is nothing subtle in the novel of Homes. It’s a big, brash book that seeks to examine issues of identity, freedom, and democracy from the perspective of a group of millionaires who feel weakened by Obama’s victory.
Within the group there are different types: a sleazy military general, a public relations whiz, a White House adviser, a doctor obsessed with health, a big data specialist, a “scribe” who will record the plans for the posterity. Through tons of dialogue, which makes up the vast majority of the book, we get to know these men, or rather we learn what they stand for and what they fear: “There is no succession plan, there is nothing in place. to say who will rule the world after they die.
Calling it a conspiracy is perhaps an overstatement. The bigwigs come up with a morally dubious plan but the plan never gets off the ground
Sometimes group discussions and the constant brainstorming of ideas for a better future make it hard to see these characters apart, but Homes counters that with a side story about Big Guy’s family. His wife, Charlotte, is a middle-aged woman who tries to suppress her demons through alcohol and an eating disorder. His daughter, Meghan, is a bright and open-minded teenager who is more than a match for her father: “You wanted me to be strong, fierce and take care of the things that matter, except when he is about you.” To which he replies: “Correct”. Their relationship is brilliantly handled, working to humanize the Big Guy’s more egregious personality traits and offer him hope for redemption as the plot unfolds.
Calling it a conspiracy is perhaps an overstatement. The bigwigs come up with a morally dubious plan, but the plan never gets off the ground. Set between the day of the vote and the day of the inauguration in 2008/2009, the “suspension cycle”, one gets the feeling in the following parts that we are reading the first of a series. The neat and surprising ending reinforces this idea, or at least it evokes EM Forster’s view that the best endings focus on expansion rather than completion.
Homes is the author of seven novels including The End of Alice, This Book Will Save Your Life and May We Be Forgiven, which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2013. Her new novel, the first in ten years, deserves accolades. to be congratulated for his ambition. In its skilful recreation of real events, it recalls Mario Vargas Llosa’s fictionalized accounts of political upheavals in the Dominican Republic and Guatemala. With the family plot charged, there are echoes of Wolitzer, and also of Christine Dwyer Hickey’s excellent The Narrow Land, particularly when Charlotte emerges from her decades of transience: “I forgot to have my life . I’ve had your life for a quarter of a century. The last time I had my own life I was about eleven years old.
The main success of The Unfolding is the way Homes merges its personal and political plots. In Wolitzer’s The Wife, “The women were dazzling, they could be possessed, and when they became writers the things they wrote were also possessed: deadly miniatures that often focused on a particular corner of the world, but generally not about the whole world itself”. The Unfolding is a decidedly political novel that pushes that idea aside, an awe-inspiring read from a writer who dares, as one of her characters puts it, “to insert words into the mouths of powerful men.”