Monday, January 12, 2015

Fumbling toward the truth: irre(l/r)evant questions

I just started the novel, May We Be Forgiven, by A.M. Homes, and am enjoying it immensely. I've read some short stories by Homes before and she has a funny, smart, spot-on voice that I love. She's especially good at rendering the humor and irony in otherwise dark and depressing situations.

I was trying to dissect what works so well about that humor, and I think at least one piece of it is that
her characters fumble their way through the world much the way someone would fumble through their own home in the middle of the night--they stub their toes a lot. They particularly stub their toes on truths that, like furniture, are obvious in the daylight but strange during midnight prowls about the house.

One way this gets conveyed is through dialogue and a lot of questions. Questions are great, both because they suggest disorientation and they demand answers. Oblique questions are even better--in this novel, the questions are often either slightly irrelevant or irreverant, so they often contain a lot of delicious subtext.

Here's one scene I enjoyed a lot. The setup is that Harry Silver (the novel's narrator/protagonist) has been sleeping with his brother George's wife while George was in the hospital (for psychiatric evaluation, it should be noted). After George escaped from the hospital and found Harry sleeping next to his wife, he proceeded to smash his wife's head in with a lamp. In this scene, George confronts the detective and cops who arrive on the scene:
[The detective] turns his attention back to us.
"It's Monday morning. I got out of bed to come here. My wife gives it to me every Monday morning, no questions asked, she likes me to start the week happy, so I'm not exactly feeling fondly towards you."
"What the fucking fuck are you fucking thinking, you fuck," George blurts.  
"Cuff him," the detective says. 
"I wasn't talking to you," George says, "I was talking to my brother." George looks at me. "And those are my pajamas," he says. "Now you've gone and done it." 
"I'm not going to be able to help you this time," I say. 
"Have I committed a crime?" George asks. 
"Hard to know, isn't it," one of the cops says, cuffing him. 
"Where are you taking him?" I ask. 
"Is there a particular place you'd like him to go?" 
"He was in the hospital. He must have walked out last night--notice the gown under his clothes?" 
"So he eloped?" 
I nod. 
"And how did he get home?" 
"I don't know." 
"I fucking walked, in the fucking dark. Pussy Licker."
--Pages 16-17 (Kindle edition). A.M. Homes. May We Be Forgiven. Viking: New York, NY; 2012.

The funniest of these is George's irreverant, obscenity-laden question, which, at first, seems meant for the detective (who, incidentally, has no issue with bemoaning his own carnal deprivations on a domestic violence call), but is actually directed toward Harry. The subtext is pretty clear throughout, even before George calls Harry a "Pussy Licker." George then calls out Harry for wearing his pajamas: "Now you've gone and done it" (a statement that is both supreme understatement and irony, given wearing someone else's PJs is hardly the worst crime of the night).These questions also keep the pendulum of guilt swinging back and forth between George and Harry--neither one of them is innocent, despite George being the only one cuffed. The fact that the questions go unaswered increases the tension and emotional disconnect, and adds a punchy, asymmetrical cadence to the dialogue.
Snapped from

The conversation grows even more surreal, with questions that are irrelevant in the sense that they  show George is literally not at all relating to the violence that has just perpetrated ("Have I committed a crime?", "Hard to know, isn't it?"), and questions that seem to reverse the order of authority ("Is there a particular place you'd like him to go?" from the detective to Harry). There's also a word misusage ("eloped" vs "escaped") that disorients, but also nicely brings us back around to themes of marriage, guilt, and secrecy. It all makes for a raucous chorus of people who are stubbing their toes up against the truth.

1 comment:

  1. "There's also a word misusage ("eloped" vs "escaped") that disorients, but also nicely brings us back around to themes of marriage, guilt, and secrecy".
    I'd been struck by the word myself; great job of pointing it out/explaining it.