One wants to like Music for Torching by AM Homes, a book that I read at the insistence of some people after asking for recommendations of worthwhile English-language authors. Suburban decay is a lovely theme for a novel by an American about America, and Homes' first chapter is worth the big deal everyone's made about it. (Briefly: an ungrateful, completely unhappy suburban couple with two young boys attempts to burn down their house. It only partly succeeds. Novel goes from there.) Yet I never fully felt that this novel had captured my interest.
Homes writes with a minimalism and casual nastiness somewhat reminiscent of Raymond Carver. Everything in the world of Music for Torching is carefully hewn to fit into a certain aesthetic that might be labeled "Ugly American." Here, young boys don't give each other Indian burns–instead one pisses on another; rebellious teens don't stop at piercings–one gets a disgusting little set of barbells implanted beneath the skin of his forehead. So on. Each character–from the too-good-to-believe neighbors to the shop girl at the mall–is her own little ball of reflexive irony and quiet aggression. One admires Homes' discipline and her fortitude, that she can bow everything in this vision of suburban life to the same shrieking tone.
That said, the attempted transgressions in this book feel empty; despite many ugly details, this portrait of hell in America lacks any sort of real power. It's interesting to note that whereas the book as a whole feels insubstantial, the first chapter, in which the house is torched, does pack a punch. The reason the burning house registers is not because it is transgressive but because it is well-built fiction. But then Homes' storytelling abilities start to flag. After the fire we get a parade of arguably worse transgressions that fail to register at all: high-level drug use; lesbians with strap-ons; genital tattoos; crossdressing; obese woman porn; and the final transgression, the one at the very end of the book, that I won't reveal here.
I'm willing to believe that this flatness is purposeful. (What's closer to hell: a world where transgressions can still shock, or where they've lost the power?) Yet a world that only wants to show us a place where transgression no longer registers doesn't have much to tell us. This is another way of saying the Music for Torching lacks good development after the initial setup.
That, combined with the fact that these transgressions all feel so empty, makes Homes' book a little dull. The characters have nowhere to go; really, that's their problem, that whatever they try to do they essentially can't jolt themselves out of their horrible life. Fair enough, but then why should we care about these people or their predicaments? What power, or what authority, can their story claim?
I suppose that in the end Music for Torching simply fails to offer anything that feels truly new or necessary. It is a nice read that jets right along, but I rarely felt that it distinguished itself. This might be usefully compared with Raymond Carver, who also wrote about dreary-but-banal circumstances, and who used a far more pared-down prose than Homes, yet who managed to give his stories his indelible stamp, to make them feel both original and necessary.
I think Kafka also can be usefully compared to what Homes attempts here. Kafka's work instilled a sensation of complete ineffectiveness on the part of the protagonist while also instilling a great sense of pity (at the protagonist) and disgust (at the world he inhabited) into the reader. At the same time it is a continual thrill to watch Kakfa elaborate his world, seeming to go off at his own caprice yet maintain it all into his world's strict order. At times Homes' book begins to create this kind of effect, but the effect is not sustained. More often the feeling is that of watching a cartoon where the same or similar things keep happening over and over again.
In Homes' favor, she can write and she can plot. The book never lags and Homes generally gets across what she wants to get across in good, economical prose, on even even say muscular. The world the novel takes place in is fairly compelling, and the concept behind the novel is very interesting. The book might very well have worked, but in my reading it didn't quite. It was just good enough that I'd read another Homes novel if someone I trusted recommended another book of hers very strongly, but this seems more like first-novel territory than fifth.