I attended the A.M. Homes reading last Thursday night at Vroman's, where she read from The Mistress's Daughter and answered questions. I was particularly eager to attend this reading because I attended her reading for This Book Will Save Your Life not so long ago. I was curious: would the tenor of the book change the tenor of her reading? Would she still be the funny, acerbic A.M. Homes that I'd seen months before, or would this book's topic mute her somehow, lessen her wit? The answer is both less and more complicated than I'd expected.
She arrived without a fuss, as seems to be her style. She came in with another woman who quietly sat down while Homes went up to the front. Jeans, crisp white button-down shirt with the tails out. Black sweater over top. She jumped right in - also her style. The introduction from the Vroman's employee had mentioned something about her work being translated into many languages and Homes joked that she was going to actually read from one of those works in translation instead of reading in English. Laughs all around, as expected. Yet she paused for a moment, caught herself pausing, shook herself out of her reverie, and mused aloud "It's weird to have your books translated into so many languages -- that somewhere in Estonia they are reading this book about Los Angeles and I wonder, how am I in translation? Do I make any sense?" There was a moment, ever so brief, where it seemed she really was amazed at both the accomplishment of so many translations and the idea that she was communicating to others in their tongue...a tongue she does not know spoken in places she's never been. She finally deemed the situation surreal and moved on.
She didn't set the book up - at all. She just plowed ahead as if it were fiction...and even with her fiction readings she gives you something to grab hold of, set the scene. She read from the beginning straight through to the meeting of her mother and father. She even covered events after that, which I'll leave out to save some of the suspense for those who've not read the book. She read for 36 minutes - a healthy chunk of reading time that I've only seen a few authors give freely in my years of attending readings. It was generous, yes...but also needed. The book and its events needed to unfold enough so that you could get a sense of the enormity, some idea of the terrain.
I was surprised by how much I liked it - how engrossed I was in the story. I have read so many reviews and litblog musings about how difficult it was to read, how distant she was in her telling of these events, which resulted in many readers being uncomfortable with the book, some even proclaiming to not want to carry it around because of the mental heft it represented. Others felt the distance was a clear indication of how scarred Homes is by the events. I found this to be wholly untrue.
While the events are difficult to imagine and discomfiting to read about, it is not a failure on Homes' part that these events happened and that she is writing about them. It is not the act of telling them that can be faulted. The structure perhaps, the order in which the events are told, the way in which information is shared or held close -- those points can be held up to the light for scrutiny. Yet, it seems a failure on the reader's part to take issue with Homes' reaction to these events - the arm's length distance and a razor-like perception that runs through all of her work - both fiction and non. All of her work has a cool, distant style. In fact, the creation of characters who are unable to connect with the world and the examinination of their struggles within their self-created isolation seems to be her strong suit. Is it a surprise, then, that the results are similar when the writerly gaze is turned inward? I don't think it should be and I don't think she has gotten a fair assessment on this one.
All this "she's so cold" business leads me to the inevitable question: what did you expect? What treatment of these events would seem more acceptable to the reading public? By counting the number of "cold" declarations, I'm left to guess that readers wanted more warmth. But warm how? And why? Had readers hoped she would have reached out more to her mother? Her father? To not let so much time pass between their visits, their calls? To end it all in light and happiness? I'm not sure what was expected - but the critique of "too distant" doesn't cut it. Not for me. I also don't buy the "she's so scarred from the events that her writing suffered" angle. Please. The writing is excellent - crisp, short. Pregnant pauses full of meaning. It is even,in parts (dare I say it?), funny. Yes, funny.
Perhaps it is a matter of the work being read aloud, by the author, rather than reading in a vacuum. Homes is a terribly funny person...in person. Someone I'm quite sure I'd have a rollicking good time with at dinner. Does she possess a darker side? Certainly. But she seems ever-aware of her darker side and mocks it openly without irony, without fanfare. A particular passage deemed especially cool and unfeeling by Sven Birkerts for the LA Times was this one:
" 'Come into the living room. Sit down,' my mother says.
'Who died?' she wants to know.
'No one died. Everyone's fine.'
'Then what is it?'
They are silent.
'Is it about me?'
'Yes, it's you. We've had a phone call. Someone is looking for you.'"
Yet, in the reading, this passage was read with humor and a wry smile. Homes delivered the "Who died?" line with a smirk -- the audience in on the joke as we've all been there. The "Is it about me?" was delivered with a raised eyebrow and a mock-innocent chuckle. There were moments when she'd stop reading and look-up to say "You see? I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried."
Similarly, several reviewers have taken issue with her "mean" and "unfeeling" description of her mother:
"Hers is the most frightening voice I've ever heard — low, nasal, gravelly, vaguely animal. I tell her who I am and she screams, 'Oh my God. This is the most wonderful day of my life.' … In the background there is a flick, a sharp suck of air — smoking."
Again, this passage was read aloud with great humor, great feeling. Homes does an excellent New Jersey gravelly-voiced mother impression, by the way. She read several passages in her mother's voice during the reading and each time, you got the sense that Homes is just as surprised as we are that her real mother is a bit of a crack-up, a bit of a caricature -- someone so unlike herself. Homes was raised by artists, thinkers. Gravelly New Jersey mother was never in the picture and her reaction, while perhaps not one that you would have (or you, or you, or you), is the one she had. It is her story, after all. What the hell is wrong with that?
There is such honesty in this passage, such cutting truth. How can that be called to the floor? Do you not think that Homes would rather have had a charming, witty, well-read mother out there who contacted her late in life and they became good friends? Certainly. (She even jokingly mentioned during the reading that she had always imagined that her mother was Susan Sontag and her father Jack Kerouc and so was quite surprised not only to learn that wasn't true, but to see what stunt the universe had pulled instead.) But that isn't what she got - and she didn't dress it up to be anything other than what it was. That is the duty of a writer -- to capture the ugly truth of the moment no matter how unpopular or unsavory it is.
There are many writers working today who would have dressed it up -- or at bare minimum would not have had the guts to document their raw emotions, to put initial impressions out there so plainly, without fear of judgment or consequence. Without readers thinking the author is a crummy kind of person. They would never have been so frank. Only one writer comes to mind as having done this recently: Stephen Elliot's recent piece in The Believer. He lays it out there and it may shock you and it may be off-putting, but he doesn't dress it up. While no one is calling him "cold" (that I'm aware of), several passages within that piece could easily be read as distant or insular.
It is this willingness to lay it bare that seems to be at the heart of the "she's so distant" criticism. If it's not smoothed out and touched up and rendered pretty (or by contrast, campily violent, in the Tarantino mode of letting the audience know its okay to laugh at the violence), it becomes too raw, too uncomfortable. Have we become so watered down and misguided by reality television and the like that we feel competent, required even, to sit in judgment of someone else's reality - unfiltered by cameras and scripting and double-takes? It is a sad state of affairs when we're not even happy with the renderings of reality by some of our greatest working writers. That we can even presume to take issue with her feelings is offensive.
Take issue with the structure, with the way she crafts her sentences, with the success (or no) of how lots of biographical information is delivered to the reader and at what point it is delivered and did that work (I would argue here that it doesn't entirely work, that the last part of the book bogs down under the weight of her family tree searching). All of these things make sense to examine, to analyze. Compare them, even, against other memoirs of similar ilk if you find it interesting. Yet, to take issue with the actual content - the what happened and how the author responded - seems inappropriate, wrong even. It's as if you are taking issue, truly, with the very core of who Homes is as a person. While she has knowingly put her life out there in these pages (which again, I challenge any writer to do as bluntly and openly), it doesn't feel right to judge her for how she reacted, how she felt.
And so - in my reactionary tirade about her decidedly not-distantness - I've gotten away from my initial task of presenting the reading as it happened. I had not intended to make this my "In Defense of Homes" piece. I've not done all the proper research, I didn't provide multi-part and multi-sourced answers and evidences. Yet, as I sat down to write this post, I found myself increasingly frustrated by the nasty press coverage she's been given on this book - her most personal and most painful. I do apologize for derailing the train -- but this does segue nicely into the Q & A portion of the reading in which an audience member was just as rude on this "cold/distant" theme, if not more so, than any of the coverage I've just railed against...