The End of Alice
BLEAKNESS IS BACK, and I can't help but look suspiciously upon all the cultural product of late that gets labeled "shocking," "disturbing," or above all, "darkly comic." In a world where everyone wants to be cutting-edge, the way to do so, it seems, is to learn to chuckle ironically at ever-mounting horrors. New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani called it "designer nihilism" in a recent article, citing evidence from Trent Reznor's music to Damien Hirst's dead animal art to Leaving Las Vegas.
A.M. Homes's The End of Alice was named too, and for good reason. It's got people chewing scabs and lapping up blood, a BB gun fired into a vagina, an unconscious child fucked "every which way," and piss used as hair pomade. Nearly every page is engorged with sweaty smut, stuff we want to deny and are simultaneously dying to see.
But unlike much of the current pandering zeitgeist--as well as the infamous American Psycho a few years back--The End of Alice does more than strike a shocking pose; it makes the disturbing unusually human. In bringing to life a monstrous, unnamed pedophile imprisoned for 23 years for the murder of the titular Alice, Homes brings us to an uneasy understanding of his warped mindset. The killer (let's call him P) has established a kind of epistolary mentorship with a neophyte psycho, a college sophomore on break from a prestigious women's college. This girl, also nameless, long ago set her sights on a neighbor boy; in the fine ripe Scarsdale summer of '94, she finds him in his pedophiliac prime, the 12-year-old's limbo between childhood innocence and ugly adolescence.
While P claims to relate a few passages directly from the girl's letters, he has "long suspected that youth knows far more than the sugar-glazed gap between mind and body allows it to articulate"--and therefore insists on telling the girl's story in his own words. (His fondness for alliteration can be amusing, impressive, or annoying, depending on your taste.) Therefore, as with Lolita and American Psycho, there's room to speculate about what takes place for "real" vs. how much occurs in the characters' heads. Homes's other work has showcased her bent, often hilarious view of suburban life; here it's filtered through P's hothouse of a mind, which is further removed from society by years of isolation (he has no concept of Doc Martens or turkey burgers). As he plays up the differences between a ward for sex criminals and the casual, sanitized luxe of Scarsdale, the latter realm comes to seem like its own prison.
The girl graduates from tennis games with the boy to dinner at his house to babysitting jobs, and here Homes's debt to Robert Coover's "The Babysitter" becomes apparent: Suburbia is conjured as a sordid sexual milieu, where a mom proffers overly affectionate kisses on the girl, a dad masturbates himself purple between his son's Batman sheets, and eventually all kinds of fun and games ensue between the girl and her mark. Frenetic fantasies are intercut so thoroughly with reality that soon the reader doesn't know up from down. Most of this is P's doing, of course; The End of Aliceis not so much a story as a narrative slipstream, with imagination, embellishment, and exaggeration all trailing a few tenuous facts.
What with all the calculated uncertainty, it's also a kind of perspectival card game among Homes, P, the college girl, and the reader. Call it strip poker, even: "You see me like this, so desperate--how do you think I feel, so permanently undressed?" P pleads, hinting at the author's own risk in laying bare such ugly depravity. Nor do readers get off scot-free--though we may get off. At one point, P takes us aside to confide, "I am fully aware of what you've been doing while you've been reading this," launching into a raunchy acknowledgement of his words' power to arouse.
To borrow a friend's coinage, it's all very pomoerotic. But there's more to the book than hermetic literariness and nauseating sleaze. "I would assume that you are bright enough not to buy the surface of my grotesque," urges P (again, a veiled Homes?), "but know how to push it aside in order to see what's really here." And that is a sad, pathetic old man who, as he argues, could be any of us. Toward the end, as he slides from instability to insanity, P's relationship with the girl is eclipsed by a long remembrance of his summer with Alice in a conscious resurrection of Lolita. Oddly enough, it's here that he finally exhibits some morality, stating that "I do firmly believe it is up to an adult to ignore the attempted flirtations of the young, to allow the child to express her powers of persuasion... it doesn't necessarily mean that she really wants it or even knows what it is." Of course, by then such knowledge is of little use to him--just as, for our part, all the self-consciousness in the world doesn't put us outside the indictments of a book like The End of Alice. CP
A.M. Homes reads fromThe End of Alice Friday at the Hungry Mind Bookstore; see the A-List on p. 33 for details.