Re-Reading AM Homes: Music For Torching

Re-Reading AM Homes: Music For Torching

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I

Why Are We So Bored?

I dated a guy who once told me that only boring people get bored. Never become bored, he said, there’s too much to do – read, write, watch, explore. Only boring people become bored. In AM Homes’ Music For Torching her main characters, Elaine and Paul Weiss, are bored and stuck and don’t know what to do with themselves. They are reading and smoking and fucking and burning down houses. But stuck. Boredom is not about boring people, the most interesting people get bored. It’s not how you avoid it, it’s what you do with it.

Paul and Elaine decide to burn down their house. That was Homes’ ending to the original short story, Music For Torching, published in The New Yorker in 1995. Then she got thinking about the Weiss’ and their burnt down house and thought – what after? Now we have the novel. I tried to read it when I was seventeen, on the hunt for something that could compare and intrigue me as much as Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road had. I found it hard. Back then I wasn’t so sure of present tense novels. Now, I adore them – a bit more so than I do past tense – and it has become something of a phenomenon in current literary writing. I came back to the book years later, read it and enjoyed but didn’t love it as much as The End of Alice. Upon re-reading for this column, I adored it. I loved Paul and Elaine and loved to hate them.

After burning the house – and failing – Paul and Elaine attempt to rebuild. Elaine is a housewife – I can now see the echoes of Yates’ novel within Homes’ – and is juggling caring for her children, conducting an affair, finding out who or what she is and keeping her marriage afloat. Paul works in New York City and has his own sets of woes – his own affair, a new twisted one to boot, a Palm Kisser and a mysterious man that talks to him each morning.

Paul and Elaine get themselves into murkier waters throughout the rollercoaster of a novel that is Music For Torching. Where Homes could step into melodrama she holds it with her writing, her humour and her tact to comment on everyday notions in a way that is truer than a lot of other writing. She carves out the clichés and presents us with normal people doing odd things as normal people do.

II

Stepford Housewives Incarnate

‘She reaches her hand under Elaine’s ass to get a better grip. Crumbs. There are crumbs stuck to Elaine’s ass. Horrified, Pat twists around and begins licking them off, sucking the crumbs from Elaine, from the floor, and swallowing them like a human vacuum cleaner. “I sweep,” she says, wiping dust off her mouth. “I sweep everyday. I’m sweeping all the time.”’

On the back of my copy of Music for Torching the scene in which Pat and Elaine have sex, in which Pat finds crumbs on Elaine’s ass, is described as ‘a hilarious encounter’. I find the scene in question incredibly sad. Pat is the Stepford Housewife we all know and love – the robotic wonder by day, broken, agitated woman by night. But she’s more than that. There’s something so interesting about Pat, she doesn’t yearn like Elaine, she seems to have put a lid on the wanting. Rarely does she have a moment – perhaps a better word for it would be a lucid moment – in which she recognises who she is and that her view of perfection is flawed.

But she needs to be perfect when I think Elaine is somewhat comfortable in her own disjointed perfection. Pat sweeps and she has messed up. Something that was supposed to be sweet and tender, two lonely women helping each other out, has just reminded her of how flawed, un-perfect and ordinary she is. They have sex on the floor and Elaine runs away after. She smells of Pat and sex and tongues. She is not perfect. She is messy and damaged and confused. The housewife itself is more about being a mother in Homes’ book. They are the mothers, not the housewives. They are subject to children, they have to protect, they cannot shake the love that their bodies have designed. Nor can they shake the weighted pressure of perfection.

The suburbs is a character. It is a manifestation of an idea, the American Dream. It underlines the American Suburbs, a place away from the city, away from everything, a peaceful more dream-like life. The intelligent people get bored and they need something more but can’t utter those words because to flee and settle and admit unhappiness is a surrender. To show the tears, the troubled marriages, the fractured relationships with children, to expose all of that is a death sentence. Elaine adopts Pat’s cover, her housewife mask, her ability to hold it all together until the moment is right.

‘Elaine cries. She wails, primal pour, the pain of a lifetime, every disappointment, every failure, every missed opportunity is mourned. She cries, and then abruptly she stops – it’s enough, it’s all she will allow. She looks at the clock; it’s almost three. Elaine peels the sheets off the bed, dresses, goes downstairs, throws the sheets into the washing machine, pours the detergent in, and sets the machine on normal.’

When I read this again I thought about one of my favourite parts of Yates’ Revolutionary Road in which Mrs. Givings cries alone. When she’s done, she fixes herself up and goes to the living room like nothing has happened. How many more people weep in the toilets and come back looking fresh?

III

‘Bolted, chained and I threw the sofa in front just in case’

Things need to be covered up. Elaine and Paul are paranoid. In the second chapter, Weiss’ drive back to the home they’ve attempted to burn:

‘…they have set the world on fire. He looks at the sky expecting to see it filled with the flames of subdivision. Turning a corner, swerving to avoid a car, he is sure that every house will be burning, every tree consumed, the neighbours will be streaming out into the melting, molten streets, their arms thrown into the air beseeching the houses to smite themselves, to simply put themselves out. He drives towards his imagined inferno, asking himself, Why? Why? What is wrong with us? Why are we so unhappy? Why?’

Elaine and Paul become submerged in paranoia caused by problems they actively put themselves in. Paul and Elaine choose lovers that are close to their spouses. They burn down their house, worry people will find out. They sneakily smoke a joint as their children are upstairs and Elaine eats the remaining bud as she feels she has something to hide. Their paranoia makes them blind. Paul doesn’t know his children. After getting a tattoo and feeling incredibly ill he’s perplexed as to why his son Daniel is at the park he has staggered across. Daniel does this all the time. He tells his father this all the time.

Elaine and Paul are not supposed to know what is going to happen. It’s what makes the final part of the book that bit more horrifying. They couldn’t do anything to stop it but their delusions and paranoias cause them to become self-absorbed. When re-reading I didn’t find myself angry – not all the time – but understanding and simultaneously wanting to shout at Elaine and Paul, “this is allowed but look up. Look what is going to happen.”

‘Every day Elaine thinks about disappearing. She will leave and take nothing with her – “You have yourself” is what people say, and that’s what stops her. She fears she is nothing. Nonexistant.”

IV

Two Weeks Before Columbine

Music For Torching is full of foreshadowing. ‘A face is pressed to the glass. Sammy waves. They don’t see him until it is too late. They wave after the bus.’ Sammy disappearing, Sammy no longer there. Homes doesn’t so much hint as show us the things we all avoid:

‘Nate arrives, still in his hunting gear. “You’re dead,” he says to Sammy.”
“Play’s over,” Sammy says. “I’m living now.”
“You’re a strong hunter,” Elaine says to Nate.
“Natural-born killer,” Nate’s mother says. “He gets it from Gerald.”’

When I first came to the end of Music For Torching I thought the ending was too dramatic. It came out of nowhere. It didn’t make any sense. It took me a few months of pondering to realise what Homes had done. When re-reading the book for the third time, knowing it was coming, I was devastated.

‘His knees go out from under, his head snaps back, like he’s dodging, but it’s the bullet hitting his head, pushing through skin, scalp, skull, taking out bone, hair, brain – Sammy.’

Homes’ novel came with controversy – most of her work has. It was published two weeks before Columbine but other school shootings had occurred. America and guns, the second amendment adding to the fractured dream. One reviewer called the ending ‘cruel’ and ‘cynical’. An anger perhaps at what Homes was highlighting? I see it and can understand it but the novel would not be what it is without it. It is sad that the innocent is the one who dies, that tender, kind, sweet Sammy is killed by his friend when all he wants to do is go home. It is horrific that Elaine and Paul are standing outside the school, waiting. It is true and sharp and ugly that a circus is formed around the Weiss’ and the school and Paul’s lover, Mrs Apple who is trying to convince her son to put the gun away and come home.

Sammy gets shot and the only one brave enough to do something is Daniel who runs in and grabs his brother. The helicopter comes, Elaine, Paul and Sammy are away. But this time reading it is all so clear. Sammy dies. It’s over as Elaine says. The final, sudden lines as they pull up into the blue blur, as they disappear.

Homes also gives us the Montgomerys. The family with their own tragedy. Catherine Montgomery, the mother. Her son attacked a woman. She died. The silence Catherine Montgomery causes is the most horrible part to Elaine. The pity. The looks. It is a fear in all of us. It is a shadow of what Elaine’s life would be after the book. When she is standing outside the school in the final pages she looks around: ‘at the front of the crowd, Elaine sees Joan with Catherine Montgomery – their expressions frighten Elaine.’ If Homes were to return, retreat again to these characters, I imagine Elaine to be the woman who causes the silences at the party. I imagine that being the next part of her story, still asking – who am I?

Five favourite quotes:

‘She thinks of Paul, of Pat, Bud Johnson, the cop. Everyone is fucking her, everyone is getting what they want except Elaine – Elaine wants relief, and Elaine wants attention. She wants someone to respond to her, not because they get something out of it, not because it fills some pathetic need of their own, not because they want something back, but just because…’

‘She sees Paul chasing her, not knowing why she is running, why he is chasing her, except it is instinct to catch her, to drag her back.’

‘At their house things don’t go like this; nothing is easy; it’s every man for himself, each hoarding what little he has, each wanting his own, each wanting some thing different. They speak in the defensive. They wait for disappointment. They constantly accumulate proof of having been let down, misunderstood, unappreciated. They are a tense and bitter lot, and haven’t even noticed it until now. Compare and contrast; the differences are so revealing.’

‘Paul doesn’t say that when he went into the house and Elaine wasn’t there, he was worried that she’d left for good. He doesn’t say that he doesn’t know what they would do without her. Paul doesn’t tell Elaine that he’s aware that almost anyone else would think it’s a perfectly lovely Saturday but that he’s scared, absolutely petrified, and he doesn’t know why. Instead he says, “Phone rang a little while ago and I didn’t get it.”’

‘“Everything. I want everything, all the best, and you should want it, too.”’

Thomas Stewart

Thomas Stewart

Thomas Stewart is a Columnist for Litro NY and has had his fiction, poetry and essays published at The Stockholm Review, The Cadaverine, Storgy, Vada Magazine, Anomaly, Agenda Broadsheet, among others. His debut poetry pamphlet, 'Creation' is forthcoming from Red Squirrel Press. He has an MA in Writing from the University of Warwick and a BA in English from the University of South Wales. He enjoys folk music, horror films, suburban fiction, watches, cooking, patterned jumpers and beat poetry. He is afraid of the dark.

Thomas Stewart is a Columnist for Litro NY and has had his fiction, poetry and essays published at The Stockholm Review, The Cadaverine, Storgy, Vada Magazine, Anomaly, Agenda Broadsheet, among others. His debut poetry pamphlet, 'Creation' is forthcoming from Red Squirrel Press. He has an MA in Writing from the University of Warwick and a BA in English from the University of South Wales. He enjoys folk music, horror films, suburban fiction, watches, cooking, patterned jumpers and beat poetry. He is afraid of the dark.

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