Saturday, June 15, 2013

Reading group: The End of Alice by A M Homes

I bought this book in the late nineties when it was first in paperback, but had somehow never got around to opening it, and when, due to the absence of others from the group, I was unexpectedly required to make a suggestion for the next meeting, I grabbed it off the shelf, aware not only that A M Homes was at the time shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction, but that like Emily Prager's Roger Fishbite (published around the same time and which we have previously discussed), this book was something of an answer to Nabokov's Lolita (which we have also discussed) and might make an interesting comparison.

The difference turned out to be stark. Unlike Emily Prager who seeks in Roger Fishbite to redress the balance by taking the viewpoint of the 'nymphet', Homes follows Nabokov in taking the viewpoint of the incarcerated male murderer-paedophile. Here, however, he has murdered not his rival for the young girl's attention (as in Nabokov) but the young girl herself (and possibly others), and this novel graphically exposes the mentality and fantasies of the paedophile as horrific and entirely lacking in moral centre, in a way that provokes revulsion in the reader (which led to attempts, some successful, to ban it) and makes the book a very unpleasant read.

As a result, I felt the need to begin my introduction with an apology: truly, if I had known the book's tenor beforehand I wouldn't have imposed it quite so unthinkingly on the group, but as I said to them I do think the book's unpleasantness, and its effect of horror in the reader - real horror, rather than the delicious chill of so-called 'horror' fiction - are entirely deliberate and strongly politically motivated. On finishing the book I felt that by comparison Lolita, with its fine writing and its redeeming or at least excusing insistence on the romantic yearning of Humbert Humbert for lost youth, wrongly ennobled the paedophilic impulse, and that this was the moral point that Homes was consciously making. There is nothing here of Humbert's occasional timidity and crippling shame: here there is simply a warped mind assured of its own rightness: indeed, narrator Chappy calls his preoccupation an 'art', an art in which he is instructing a correspondent, an unnamed nineteen-year-old girl apparently intent on seducing a twelve-year-old boy. The sexual attraction to childish bodies and the revulsion towards maturing physicality is seen here conversely and more starkly as a matter of power - Chappy simply wants power, and a violent power, over the unformed female body - and, via some moments recalling Hannibal Lecter, as a matter of cannibalistic greed. For much of the book, Chappy peddles the line that children are complicit in paedophilia (and thus bear some of the responsibility) -'I have long suspected that youth knows more than the sugar-glazed gap between mind and body it allows to articulate' - but finally admits that this is a dishonesty:
Although undoubtedly I've not said it before, I do firmly believe it is up to an adult to ignore the attempted flirtations of the young... it doesn't necessarily mean that she really wants it or even knows what it is. She is in fact compelled by the culture.
But the point is, he won't respect this, he doesn't care, he still goes ahead and seduces the child, and his moral corruption is entire.

Everyone in the group agreed with me that, contrary to the claims of its detractors, the book did thus have a deeply moral core, but felt that the fact that it was so very unpleasant was problematic. As Ann said, the true test of a book is whether you can actually read it, and she had been so drearily revolted that she gave up halfway through; Doug and John both said that if they hadn't been reading it for the group they would definitely have given up too, and I suspected that maybe I would have been the same. In fact, Ann said, Lolita is horrifying and yet because it's so beautifully written (and avoids the graphic) it carries you right on into the horrifying situation it depicts, and Doug strongly agreed. (Jenny said that it made her wonder about the mentality of writers who can sit down with such horrible material and then get up and do normal things like make cups of tea and go about their daily lives and then get up next morning and start typing away again....!)

A somewhat critical attitude to the book and its author now emerged. Someone said that the pompous style was awful. I pointed out that it was the voice of the narrator, the paedophile Chappy, not that of the author. Homes writes elsewhere with very different voices, and Chappy's narration contrasts strongly with the teen-speak of his correspondent's letters; in fact, at the start of the novel he reports that his correspondent comments on his 'peculiar' style - '...did you go to school in England?'  - which identifies it as an aspect of his institutionalised decadence. I said I thought it was intended as a direct parody of Humbert Humbert's high literary style (there's an implied linking, I think, between such establishment-approved literary control and the establishment-excused desire for paedophilic sexual control). However, being such admirers of the narrative stye of Lolita, the others in the group weren't impressed by the stratagem, and Mark said that in any case he had read an interview with Homes in which she expressed surprise that people had seen so many parallels with Lolita in the book. I in turn expressed surprise at that, since there are several (to me) clear Nabokov references, such as a tennis game as seduction (as in Lolita) and the motif of dried butterflies.

There is a horrifying prison rape scene which someone now said they found gratuitous. I said, But doesn't the narrator (Chappy) comment precisely on its gratuitous nature: '...I wouldn't have even mentioned [it] except that I knew you were waiting for it, wanting it, had been wanting it all along.' He then goes on to tackle the reader further, suggesting that however disturbing she or he has found the whole narration, he/she has been sexually titillated by it. In this way the book goes one step further and implicates the reader (and thus the whole of society) in the moral degeneracy of paedophilia. People cried that the book was just too successfully horrifying to be titillating, though, with which I had to agree.

I said that one aspect of the book I hadn't got to grips with was the nineteen-year-old female correspondent's seduction of the twelve-year-old boy. It didn't for me have the ring of truth that (horrifically) Chappy's paedophilic activities had, and I wondered if this was because we are not actually meant to take it on trust. As we have seen above, Chappy is an unreliable narrator, happy to spin himself false justifications. He rarely quotes directly from her letters, filling in the story of her seduction in his own far more literary style and eventually justifying it thus:
Pretentious though it may be, I remain convinced that my interpretation, my translation, is a more accurate reflection of her state of mind, far exceeding that which she is able to argue independently.
When he does finally quote her at length it becomes clear that her motives for writing to him - which he has represented as simply those of a shared obsession - are quite different: it is him, Chappy, she is obsessed with, because of the fear that dominated her childhood and that of all the girls in her neighbourhood after his murder of the girl-child Alice (and by extension that of all girls because of all the girl-child murders), and her sexual dalliance with the twelve-year-old has been adolescent experimentation rather than the sinister adult-child power game that Chappy has portrayed. An earlier clue perhaps is the fact that Chappy presents three different (alternative) sexual scenarios when relating the girl's first arrival at the boy's house. In other words, he has been injecting his own paedophilic fantasies into her situation, using her as titillation, and, rather than confronting the damage he has done to her life (and to that of all girls), he has  desecrated her further.

Doug said though that he just couldn't understand why he should be attracted to her in this way, and want to correspond with her, since she was far too old for the narrator's paedophilic inclination. Doug wasn't convinced by the suggestion that she was the 'best' the incarcerated Chappy could get, and was anyway primarily a vehicle for a renewal of his fantasies and a parallel revisiting of the seduction and murder of Alice which (horrifically) he doesn't regret.

Mark now referred back to the horrifyingly graphic nature of the book. He pointed to the filmmaker Michael Haneke's concern with the desensitisation to violence in our culture, and his attempts to counter this by making films that bring back the true horror of violence. He said he thought that this book's project was the same with regard to paedophilia. Jenny agreed. What this book is about, she said, is that paedophilia is everywhere in our culture, and that actually it's really horrible - a summing-up with which I thoroughly agreed.

Someone asked, 'But is it really everywhere, this kind of really horrible thing?' Sometimes, while discussing this issue in the group (so many novels seem to touch on it), we women have laughed about the harmless flashers we encountered in our childhood. But this book reminded me of a darker side that it is sometimes more comfortable to forget: of the neighbouring child of my own age, five, who was abducted and then abandoned at the side of the road, after which she was quite mute; of my ten-year-old childhood friend who was raped and murdered (which tainted the whole of the rest of my childhood with grief and dismay and fear and lost innocence); of the time that my twelve-year-old sister was dragged into a lonely public toilet and only escaped by stabbing her assailant with her umbrella. Most of all, the horrors of this book, and Chappy's warped mentality, ring so true for me because they are the horrors which, aged six, eight, eleven, I sensed in the expressions of those men - and yes, it kept happening - who sidled up to me with clear intent on the prom and outside the school gates and in the lanes, sending me running pell-mell...

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here


Creaky door writer said...

I really enjoy your accounts of your book group. Choosing this book inadvertently has led you into a fascinating debate. It is a tantalising idea that authors can implicate the reader in the depravity they are describing - and it isn't new! I will never forget reading Richardson's 'Clarissa' at university and finding myself so caught up in the drive of the narrative, which sets up but endlessly delays Clarissa's rape, that a mean, impatient part of me wished the evil seducer would hurry up and get it over with. I wonder if Richardson knew what he was doing there? Keep posting!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thanks for reading, Sophie. Yes, Clarissa is a very interesting case - I had the same reaction as far as I can remember, though I did find the book rather tedious, which may have been why!

Anonymous said...

I JUST finished the book and was so struck by the ending I had to jump on google and search for answers. Your reaction is the first I've read and I find it very interesting mostly because we come from very different backgrounds. I am 19, female, and perhaps fucked in the head. I was loving the graphic moments the same way I love the blood and gore of some horror flicks. So, I think it's funny you guys couldn't handle reading a few words considering the horrible reality the world ACTUALLY is. I loved this book because not only was it disgusting, perverted and horrifying, but because it KNEW I was complicit in its enjoyment of the matter. And yet, I do believe not only the reader but also Chappy knows that it is wrong. Yes he is a monster but he KNOWS he is a monster and it seems you guys didn't touch on this. Why else would he try to quit his addiction? Why else would he be unable to look at the photographs? This story was effective to me because it was exciting and tittilating as much as it was grotesque and dirty. Lolita is a greater work of art mainly because of its prose but it softens the blow of the sickness of pedos. Just my two cents.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thanks for your interesting comment. We did note that that Chappy accuses the reader of being titillated, but unlike you, as you say, we felt that he hadn't succeeded in titillating us, and that for us the book didn't int fact succeed on this level, if that was the author's intention. I did point out to the group that Chappy knows he is wrong, but, unlike you, we felt that that didn't actually deter him. Very interesting to read a different take, and thanks for taking the time.

Elizabeth K said...

You write so well, and your reading group sounds really smart! You make an excellent point about the college girl’s adolescent confusion being different from the narrator’s murderous obsession, but represented by him as being similar. One of the most disturbing aspects of this novel was the difficulty of distinguishing between reality and the narrator’s fantasies.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thank you for your thoughts and reaction, Elizabeth

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised they didn't find his interest in the pen pal plausible, considering that they're Lolita fans. HH got an older companion towards the end of the book while he was looking for Dolly, and he explains his rationale clearly. I saw it as another parallel and thought you were completely right in your interpretation.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, it's another parallel. Thank you for pointing it out.

Unknown said...

Sorry to find this so late after the posting! I just somehow managed to finish this book and was so horrified something like this was published. But I can see the dephs and parallels you have made here. I can't see a new book like this being published in this day and age (good!)