Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
A.M. Homes’s dark and mysterious view of contemporary domestic life occupies a narrative terrain that effortlessly moves between quotidian realism and the strangely fantastic. Like other chroniclers of the American vernacular—John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford—Homes understands that the well-rendered gesture can reverberate with a much larger significance. Combining telling observations of everyday life with an exploration of the psychosexual imagination, her stories uncover an underlying sense of alienation, horror, and sexual desire beneath the repressive veneer of domestic trappings. Homes’s suburban landscapes become a place of wonder and anxiety—and it is this hyperbolic realism that aligns her with other American artists as diverse and wide-ranging as Edward Hopper, Joyce Carol Oates, Eric Fischl, Diane Arbus, and Sally Mann.
In The End of Alice, her most recent novel, Homes inhabits the mind of an imprisoned aging pedophile whose only continuing contact with the outside world is through an exchange of letters with a troubled college girl from Scarsdale. She’s an unlikely doppelganger who forces him to confront his traumatic past and his sexual obsessions. This ambitious and daring work consolidates, and collapses, the shifting ground between literature and pornography, attraction and repulsion, fear and desire. Despite its unrelenting tone of manic sexual transgression and perversity, The End of Alice is at its center a romantic, and even moral, tale.
I met A.M. Homes for lunch at the Whitney Museum, where between viewing the Robert Frank retrospective and a screening of Cocksucker Blues (Frank’s banned 1973 documentary on the Rolling Stones), we discussed her work … and other matters.
Gregory Crewdson Many of your narratives occur within a domestic setting, within the home. What is it about this seemingly familiar landscape that you’re drawn to?
A.M. Homes Home. It’s as simple as that. It’s hard for me to reconcile the psychological and emotional, these very internal experiences, with the everydayness of things. I’m fascinated with the fine line between what is public and what is private.
GC What does home mean to you?
AMH It’s a place of safety, and on another level domestic life is a situation in which people can see you at your worst, observe things you don’t want anyone else to see. I’ve been wrestling with this since I was a little kid. There was a fracture in my life because I was adopted. I’d always look at other people’s families to see how they operated. There was and still is a question of: Where do I really belong? The closest and safest place for me was in my head and in the stories I made up.
GC I’m often struck, in reading your stories, by the tension between what we think we know and what remains unknown—the uncanny. The tension between what on the surface appears comfortable and safe, and what can suddenly become terrifying or mysterious. Your recent book, The End of Alice, has the most extreme gap between yourself and the character—an aging pedophile who is in jail. Art can be made out of one of two strong reactions. On the one hand, art can be a refuge, an oasis; or art can be made from extreme danger or discomfort, putting yourself in a compromising position. Certainly, that seems to be where you want to put yourself as a writer—in a dangerous place.
AMH I don’t want to write fiction that’s just a documentation of daily life: I want it to be a hyper-condensed version of things. I don’t want to tell a story from dead-on. I choose the least likely person to tell the story, because they bring a perspective to it that I wouldn’t have. For instance for a young woman to write from the point of view of a 53-year-old man in jail.
GC Your first novel and many of your short stories are written from the male point of view. Often people are surprised that you’re female because your name is genderless.
AMH When two of my stories ended up in the Penguin Book of Gay Men’s Fiction I considered it a real compliment. (laughter) I feel that I actually understand men better than women, and most of my models of writers are male.
GC Which writers in particular?
AMH Dostoevski, Kafka, Capote, Cheever. When I was growing up, women wrote “women’s fiction”—fiction about women’s lives. And I couldn’t have been less interested. I wanted a broader world. Obviously the home and domestic life are wildly social, political, economic and volatile. But there is a certain way that stories are told which codes them as male or female and often I find the male version more appealing. Grace Paley talks about writing the truth according to the character. The beauty in fiction is that your characters have lives other than yours. You’re constantly checking yourself asking—is this accurate for this character? In The End of Alice the struggle was to maintain that truth, regardless of what I thought or how frightened I became. It’s very hard to be in my imagination asking, what is this man’s concern? What does he see when he walks into a room? How would he describe it? He’s a fancier guy than I am. He used words I didn’t know. I had to catch up to him, which is a wonderful thing. And at the same time he’s also not as smart as he seems, a really tricky balance. He’s a good, old-fashioned unreliable narrator.
GC Orson Welles once described Los Angeles as “a bright, guilty place.” He was referring to the Hollywood filmmaking industry. But this phrase carries through to your work, this conflict between the artifice of domestic trappings and the darker tensions of psychological horror that exist beneath that surface. How do you relate to this phrase, “a bright, guilty place,” as a kind of psycho-topology?
AMH Love that word, psycho-topology. I’m not sure what I think about guilt, but I do think that we use our domestic lives to comfort ourselves. We use the places we live, the way we live in them, to define ourselves, to make ourselves feel better. And yet, we’re a culture under enormous pressure to live a certain lifestyle, to live in particular neighborhoods, all of which are interpreted by class. That’s a lot of what I’m getting at without ever stating it, that disjunction between what a person may really want or crave and this need to be a part of something acceptable, to be the same as one’s neighbors. The gaps between our fantasies of ourselves and the reality fascinate me. When people choose a partner, get married, and decide to have a family, they’re playing out a fantasy. Theoretically and hopefully, you choose a partner who can participate in and fulfill your fantasy. Couples battle about whose fantasy will win. Whose fantasy are we living? And then children come into it and they haven’t chosen anything. They arrive into someone else’s fantasy. It’s all very unspoken and dreamlike.
GC You’ve created a literary style from the tension between surface comfort, and psychological terror. What would you call it?
AMH Someone else once called it an emotional science fiction.
GC One of the most fascinating aspects of Alice is the unreliability of its narrator’s voice. You play with complex levels or removes or interpretations of reality throughout the book.
AMH It’s his fight to be honest with himself. The more lucid he becomes, the more he remembers, the more unbearable the story becomes for him. In remembering, he’s driven insane, which is tricky. He’s both credible and incredible. You trust him to take you through it, and you know he’s distorted. He confronts the reader. It was important for him to come forward and talk to the reader directly.
GC It acknowledges the process of interpretation. Let’s talk about the relationship between the young girl and the older man. At times the point of view is entirely the older man’s, a fantastical response to letters he’s received in jail from the young woman; at other times it shifts to hers. There’s no fixed perspective—everything becomes enormously unstable.
AMH At first I didn’t have her letters in the book, but I realized that you were only hearing his interpretation of her, and I wanted some documentation of her presence so that one could see the gap between how he describes her and what she’s actually saying. In fact, she sounds like a boring teenager, and yet he spins her into this enormous fantasy. At a certain point he confuses his fantasy of her with the little girl named Alice, who was truly the love of his life. He explodes—or implodes. He comes into consciousness and then almost loses consciousness from the force of his awareness. He meets with a Kafkaesque parole committee thinking that he might be getting out of jail, and you’re thinking there’s no way he’s ever getting out. They ask him questions about Alice and show him a set of grisly photographs of her and, like a Rorschach in reverse, instead of seeing what’s on the paper he sees incredibly beautiful things. “Flowers, trees, a path through the woods.”
GC There’s a tension between attraction and repulsion in the book that elicits an almost guilty response from the reader.
AMH For many people this book is erotically arousing. Part of the challenge was to put the intellectual, the horrific and the sexual all together. Attraction and desire are deeply, deeply complicated. They’re not always healthy, they’re conflicted. I think we have to acknowledge that. The book is also about the abuse of children.
GC I’m curious about the question of a writer’s responsibility to her subject, and whether or not you feel you have ever gone over a line, or if indeed you push yourself to go over lines.
AMH My responsibility as a writer is to raise the questions. I can’t answer the questions. I don’t like stories with endings that wrap it up for you and tell you how to think or feel. The responsibility of an artist is to create works that people can respond to.
GC It seems that you’re consciously attempting to explore culturally-bound taboos. Throughout the book there are examples of pedophilia, incest, sadomasochism, and even cannibalism and necrophilia.
AMH What was I thinking?
GC What propels you to approach these very difficult subjects?
AMH If you look at mythology, at the stories our culture is founded on, they are grisly tales: this one ripping that one’s head off, another one stealing that one’s wife, this one disemboweling another—they’re horrific. We’re playing a game in pretending that these ideas are new, that I’m bringing them up. How does a culture document, expand, and understand itself without music, painting, photography, literature, and poetry? And where else can you deal with those aspects of human nature in a constructive rather than a destructive way? I am writing about taboos in a way that is more approachable than a text about the theory of taboo. People say this book gives them nightmares, which to me means it’s getting into their heads but they don’t necessarily feel comfortable with it. Look at the Katie Beers situation, the little girl on Long Island who was kidnapped and held in a special compartment under a neighbor’s house. It’s so surrealistic. It was on TV, we all zoomed in towards it. Why were we consuming it? What need is that? Is it that we feel so sorry for this little girl? What is the level of fascination? I don’t have the answers. I want to explore the questions.
GC How do various talk shows deal with that fascination?
AMH We’ve become a culture of confession—a combination of 12-step and the psychoanalytical. Every TV show is, “This is the story of my life.” If you confess, then you are free or absolved somehow. The narrator in The End of Alice (I always call him the criminal) finds a certain amount of relief in confessing. And yet, he’s also playing a game with you. It’s a constant dance—he’s testing you, daring you, asking what’s your limit, at what point will you have had enough.
GC When you were writing this character did you feel that he took over your life?
AMH Near the end of writing the book, I went one Saturday to Barnes & Noble to look at criminal investigation handbooks and I actually started crying. I was depleted from writing the book—I think I still am. Now, I wonder where I am going to go next. He was such a commanding character, such a strong voice, but I don’t think I’m up for that again. Novels are like relationships; I’d like the next one to be with a nice, happy character who’s warm, generous, and cute.
GC In The End of Alice there are two primal scenes that will forever alter the universe of its characters. One when the main character recounts being in the bathtub with his mother as a young boy, where he’s sexually abused by her in a very complicated way. And the second is from the point of view of the young girl, when she literally eats a piece of Matthew’s skin, a scab. These two scenes seem to almost split these people’s lives, between before and after. Their rites of passage are defined through a profound and disturbing sexual experience. Do you think the answers to the mystery of the criminal narrator’s persona can be traced to this event between himself and his mother?
AMH M. G. Lord wrote for Vanity Fair, something about that scene along the lines of “Homes does for bathtubs what Psycho did for showers.”
GC All roads lead back to Hitchcock.
AMH Clearly, the abuse was a dividing moment in his life because his mother dies shortly thereafter. He feels that he’s murdered her. That’s what’s so interesting about it, his confusion. Some people who were abused as children talk about that confusion of being drawn to something and at the same time being severely damaged by it. Adults have a responsibility to not play those things out.
GC It’s important to articulate that the event was his fisting his mother in the tub. To me it’s not only a very graphic image, but also a very touching image, back to his mother’s womb. It’s the same tension in your other works, between something that’s regarded as safe, warm, and comfortable, and something extraordinarily damaging. And then his mother has her period, and he feels like he’s …
AMH He thinks he’s injured her. And he doesn’t understand. To her it means nothing, and to him, he’s killed her, which contributes to his problems later on.
GC And of course this scene between the criminal and Alice is replayed at the end of the book.
AMH According to Carol Gilligan’s Harvard study, girls’ self esteem plummets as they near adolescence. In order to fit in, girls have to sacrifice parts of their personality, and Alice has quite a vibrant, large personality. She can’t be a typical good girl. She is larger than that, and she’s feeling those pressures, great discomfort at the prospect of having to grow up and behave in a certain way. She’s going through puberty and she’s grief-stricken. That’s why the book is called The End of Alice. It’s about the fact that there isn’t room for little girls to be true to themselves the whole way out. Childhood, in light of the fact that children can be stolen from shopping malls, is not what it was when I was growing up.
GC Yet when the main character first encounters Alice, she, not he, is the aggressor.
GC She takes him.
AMH I very much wanted to show this girl as a participant, a powerful person. In reading Lewis Carroll’s new biography, I discovered that Carroll’s Alice was a very powerful little girl. Apparently a lot of adults were drawn to her, and I think my little Alice is not dissimilar to her in that sense. I think of the name Alice as being synonymous with “girl”—all little girls are Alices.
GC Clearly the book makes allusions to Lewis Carroll, but also to Nabokov and Lolita.
AMH While it’s important, it’s also unfortunate. People will latch onto Lolita because it seems an obvious influence. The actual influence of Lolita in creating Alice was something I overheard, which was that Humbert Humbert didn’t actually sleep with Lolita.
GC You overheard that?
AMH Yeah, I overheard it in Dean & DeLuca. And I thought, how fascinating, because of course he sleeps with Lolita, he’s quite clear about it. He tells her that her mother’s dead and she damn well better sleep with him, because he’ll send her away if she doesn’t. The idea that someone could read Lolita and choose not to see that astounded me. There was also an odd letter in the New York Times Book Review several years ago. A man wrote in saying he thought that Lolita was a wonderful book because the language wasn’t smutty as compared to a lot of literature today. And I kept thinking Lolita was written in the late 1950s, when culturally and socially we were much more repressed, less explicit, in talking about how we felt, what we thought, what we saw. I was curious to consider how the language of literature had progressed in those years. My feeling was that if you brought the ideas in Lolita forward, they would be represented much more explicitly now than in 1959, when that book was first published—which wasn’t even in this country because it was considered obscene. It was first published in France.
GC It could be argued that Lolita couldn’t have been written—the way it is—today. It’s very much a product of its time.
AMH David Smith, the sculptor, talked about how an artist can only create work in his time, because you are working in response to the moment you’re living in. Your job, as an artist, is to look at the world that you live in and respond to it. It’s a dialogue that furthers our understanding of ourselves. Ideally.
GC One of the questions we must address is this confusion, or blurred line between pornography and literature. Is this a pornographic book, in your mind?
AMH Angela Carter, who was a teacher of mine at Iowa, was able to integrate political and sexual ideas into the writing of fiction. In her book, The Sadean Woman, she wrote: “A moral pornographer might use pornography as a critique of current relations between the sexes. His business would be the total demystification of the flesh and the subsequent revelation through the infinite modulations of the sexual act, of the real relations of man and his kind.”
GC But Alice is not particularly a critique, is it?
AMH No, but Carter goes on to say that, “Such a pornographer would not be the enemy of women perhaps because he might begin to penetrate to the heart of the contempt for women that distorts our culture even as he entered the realms of true obscenity as he describes it.” People read Alice and say, “How can a woman write this stuff?”
GC Is it a pornographic book? Part of what makes it so fascinating is that the book intentionally blurs the lines between being about pornographic activity and being truly pornographic.
AMH I hope to hell that it’s clear that an enormous amount of thought went into its construction.
GC Are you a moral artist?
AMH I hope I am. Alice has a very moral core.
GC The obsessive, hyperbolic sexual activity is unrelenting.
AMH I actually cut a bit of it. (laughter) It was accurate to the criminal; a book that culminated in one big scene wasn’t going to do it. He was going to just keep going, presenting scenario after scenario, asking—which one does it for you? Which is the one that throws you over the edge?
GC Which one is it for you?
AMH The one that everyone has the most trouble with is in fact the least sexual, in the traditional sense. It’s the scab-eating seduction.
GC I thought that was one of the most erotic scenes I’ve ever read.
GC It had so much to do with childhood. And cannibalism, wanting to consume someone. It’s this unexpected detail, which is so surprising and so mysterious. Throughout the book, the unexpected details take you by surprise, and ground it in reality. What makes it so disturbing is its credibility, that it’s grounded in the everyday world. I want to get back again to this ongoing, unrelenting sexual ambiance. I am reminded of the film, In the Realm of the Senses, which graphically explores an obsessive sexual relationship. But the sex continues in every scene. When the film begins, the explicit sex scenes between the two characters are titillating and exciting. However, at a certain point that absolute sexual obsession turns on the viewer: what once appeared enticing and desirous becomes claustrophobic and disturbing.
AMH Unrelenting and cumulative. It’s about tapping into people’s fantasies. I once started to write a simple, sweet story about a boy who was dating a Barbie doll. I bought two Barbie dolls and noticed that people who came to my apartment would take off the dolls’ clothes. Adults were telling me their fantasies, or things they’d heard. And my story turned into a much darker story. This is a little bit like that—reflective of not just one experience, but of many different experiences.
GC It’s a strength that at a certain point the continuing sexual obsession turns from attraction to repulsion. It becomes claustrophobic because we realize that the obsession is seen from the vantage point of a deranged man, from his jail cell, and there’s no escape from his persona. In Robert Johnson’s essay “Sex Crimes and Prison Punishment,” which he wrote for your Appendix A, there’s a very telling quote about sexual psychopaths who are in jail: “For many the line between reality and fantasy blurs. They live on the raw edge of repressed urges. The bare walls of prison cells serve as a screen on which to project their secret yearnings and worst nightmares.” I’m trying to tie this quote into one of the general themes in your book, and that is the complete blurring between fantasy and reality.
AMH Appendix A blurs all that because it’s manufactured evidence, a literal, visual, representation of my imagination. When I was thinking about what should be in the Appendix, I wanted to include a watch I had as a child which I always thought was a Cinderella watch. I found it and it’s not a Cinderella watch at all but a blue watch that says “Alice” on it, which scared me beyond measure. It was so telling, the process of the imagination, where an idea comes in and how it spins around and finally shows up in the work.
GC How you almost lose control of that, and then regain it. Perhaps if we look at The End of Alice as a Hall of Mirrors, in terms of its many levels and interpretations of reality. One might ask where you, the author, exist in relationship to this world?
AMH I would loathe to pinpoint a position. Similarly to when people ask, Why A.M. Homes? Why initials instead of my full name. I want to operate as a free agent, to create whatever I need to create, and not be bound by my identity or by the personal sound or cultural connotations of “Amy.” It’s not about escaping gender. D. H. Lawrence wasn’t escaping gender. It’s about coming up with a tag, an identification sticker. When I go to a party and it takes people ten minutes to realize, “Oh my god, this is somebody I’ve read.” I like that, I like to see how people treat you when they don’t know who you are. When I write from the point of view of such different people, I’m gaining additional space for investigation. I need to be able to take on a 53-year-old man, get inside his experience and feel my way through. I don’t want to document the experience of being a 34-year-old writer in New York City. Nothing could interest me less.
GC Maybe you’re a go-between, between the old man and the young woman.
AMH Definitely. But I’m not so interested in what I think. I’m interested in what the characters think. I already know what I think. I don’t want to waste my time.
GC When we read the book do we find out anything about you at all?
AMH I don’t know.
GC Let me ask it another way. Did you find out anything about yourself through writing this book?
AMH Yeah. I found that my imagination could go in places where I didn’t know it could go. I found that I could frighten myself. I found that I could speak other languages. That’s the part that’s exciting, to realize that we have the capacity for kinds of understanding or experience that we didn’t know we had. I find this book terrifying. I’m thinking about what it means to be the author of such a thing. Matisse talked about the moral responsibility of the artist creating something where there was nothing before. And I look at this and wonder what that means. I feel my responsibility is to my character. I am not my character, but my responsibility is to render him as completely, as honestly as I can. But I’m the one who has to be interviewed, and answer for this character, and it’s so many damn roles.
GC You’re the go-between. That goes back to my question, do you resent this figure, this person?
AMH I wish that he would just come on the book tour and talk to people himself. But I wouldn’t want to travel with him. I don’t think he would do well on a book tour. He would get mad at people. He’s also very shy.
GC In many ways he’s a deeply sympathetic character.
AMH He’d rather stay home and watch television, than go on a book tour.
GC Sounds like you’re talking about yourself.
AMH No, because my goal for this book, in response to In A Country of Mothers—where I felt like I didn’t quite do what I wanted to do—was to be brave and fearless. To not let my own fear, or discomfort about what rises up from the ether, or the imagination, interfere with the writing of it. And I feel I’ve done that. I’m very proud of that part of it.
GC It goes right back to one of my original observations, you’re a writer who must put yourself in an uncomfortable place.
AMH I was raised that way, actually.
GC I respond to artists who try to express the inexpressible and go into a terrain that is dangerous and unnerving.
AMH So you’re going to come on the book tour, right?
GC I think it’s appropriate to our discussion that we have just seen Cocksucker Blues by Robert Frank at the Whitney, and now we’re in a cab in the middle of the porno district in Times Square, and about to pass “Show World” which is the preeminent palace of pornography … We talked about your work’s relationship to pornography and its connection to photography. I felt at times, as a reader, that I was in this voyeuristic relationship to the subject, as if I was reading something I wasn’t supposed to read.
AMH I’ve often written about people being seen or being caught at something. A lot of people don’t want to see, don’t want to know. I want to know everything. I’m speaking on an emotional and psychological level.
GC Maybe it’s a kind of voyeurism into someone else’s psyche. In the related project, Appendix A: an elaboration on the novel The End of Alice, you construct a fractured portrait of your protagonist through this testimonial display of evidential photographs, family snapshots, institutional records, paintings, a short story, and Johnson’s essay.
AMH Appendix A is like a set of file folders, I keep calling it epistemological evidence. There’s a section from Alice that I cut—a short story that became “his” confession. And then there are pieces of evidence, trinkets that pertain to Alice that “he” collected, along with “his” photography album, snapshots that I collected during the course of researching the novel. There are “institutional records” and the Robert Johnson essay about sex crimes. And there are “his” paintings. I’ve always painted, but these are quite different from my own work, they’re fetish figures. On some level the paintings were a way of my resolving the character, the frustration, the anger, the sadness that was left at the end of the novel. The Appendix is an illustration of the process of imagination. And it blurs fiction, fact and art. I stole these police report forms and filled them out as though they were real.
GC I’d like to get back to the question of attraction/repulsion that arises throughout the book. Aren’t you, through exploring his weird obsessions—his own deepest, darkest desires—being drawn to what repulses you?
AMH I’m drawn toward investigating something that’s other, that’s unfamiliar or unknown. While we were watching the Rolling Stones movie I was reminded that I wanted to use the Stones’s “Sympathy for the Devil” for an epigraph of the book. “Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name, but what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game… . Just as every cop is a criminal, and all the sinners saints … ” It’s not Mick Jagger, it’s not this guy or me, it’s the culture, it’s something larger.
GC The book is going to be controversial, because it’s explicit; it treads the line between pornography and literature, if you can make that distinction. And yet, I find it, finally, an extraordinarily romantic book, which might be an unexpected comment.
AMH It’s also the comment I would most want to hear. There are literary precedents for this book from Kafka and Nabokov, to Genet and Cheever and even Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. And it is a love story. A horrible love story.
GC Does this figure finally remain a mystery to you?
AMH Yes and no.
GC He remains an enigma, to some extent.
AMH In part, by his own desire. He doesn’t want to be known. It’s a real push/pull thing—in the beginning of his “confession” in the Appendix he says, “Wonder: Why I draw you so close and pretend to trust.”
Gregory Crewdson is an artist who lives and works in Brooklyn. He is represented by Luhring Augustine gallery, where he just had a one-person exhibition. He has had recent solo exhibitions in Los Angeles, London, Stockholm, and Paris, and is currently preparing for a show in Japan this April. Gregory is a Professor in the Graduate Photography Department at Yale University.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.