A. M. Homes’ Music for Torching is a hard sell: A suburban couple in spitting distance of forty find themselves each in the middle of a midlife crisis. What can possibly be told anew in a frame like that? This is a novel that walks a tightrope of the familiar, and I think it would be too easy to dismiss it on that merit alone. What Homes has in mind may seem well-worn, but her touch is so exacting, so deft, that it’s clear she knows this just as well as we do. It’s in her execution that something truly original coalesces.
I would classify Homes as a realist, and her work certainly follows the tradition of realism in the best sense of the term…. but here she rejects the lead-heavy suburban ennui of the Cheever/Yates variety in favor of levity and a sort of madcap glee, and she starts the plates spinning from page one. Paul and Elaine, resigned to Westchester County with two young kids and a host of ticky-tacky neighbors, bicker and fight as they clean up the kitchen: she pulls a butcher knife, he wants to fuck her against the sink, and soon the only thing they can agree on is kicking over the charcoal grill and setting the side of their house ablaze. For a book like this to succeed, Homes has to keep the action constantly ramping up, raising the bet at every go around, and never letting off the gas…. and the fact that she pulls it off is the book’s greatest reward.
Homes’ work is often rallied about in the same court as that of Bret Easton Ellis (a writer, who despite his pop sensibility, I admire greatly), and I think it’s an apt comparison. Both Homes and Ellis are sensationalists, but an important distinction between them must be made: Homes writes about the sensational without ever sounding sensational. She doesn’t rely on manic energy or jarring shock value; her touch is gentle, insidious almost, and it’s just this that breaks the mold of what would be another otherwise unspectacular parable about suburban blight. Every dirty little detail is told as if it could happen to you, could happen everyday, could be happening to your friends and neighbors right now. It would be difficult to describe this novel without making it sound cartoonish or garishly over-the-top, but the prose is so matter-of-fact that it reads like second nature: Paul takes to wearing nightgowns to bed, twelve-year-old Daniel takes to pornography of elephantine women, Elaine takes up an accidental affair with her female neighbor. Of course.
But how does Homes sell it when Paul tattoos a vine of ivy on his crotch during his lunch break? How does she sell Elaine hammering ‘fuck this’ in nails to the side of a school? How does she sell the high-performance homemaker down the street donning a champagne-colored strap-on named ‘Buster’? Music for Torching is a marvel, a gold-star exercise in camouflaged envelope-pushing, and a rock-‘em sock-‘em read from cover to cover.