A.M. Homes is one of the most daring and lacerating writers of her generation. Over the past three decades, she has written a series of books that expose, interrogate, and revel in the lies, fantasies, and yearnings of modern American life. Her work is dexterous, grim, and often very funny, animated by a keen sense of the grotesque and an acute awareness of the desperate desire people have for something more than the world is offering.
It seems only fitting, then, that Homes, in her new novel, The Unfolding, has turned her attention to the world of politics, which these days is often the site of grotesque, grim, and desperate conflict. Homes makes the interesting choice to set The Unfolding in the final months of 2008, after Barack Obama was elected president. The book centers on the family of a rich, white Republican—referred to only as the Big Guy—who experiences Obama’s victory as a traumatic event, a signal that the country is slipping out of the control of the people who are meant to run it. So he sets about organizing a cabal of men (dubbed the Forever Men) who share his world view and whose aim is to set in motion a plot to take the country back by sowing economic and political chaos, leveraging social media, and unleashing the darker aspects of the American psyche.
The Unfolding is also a domestic novel, the story of the Big Guy’s daughter, Megan, and his wife, Charlotte, who are both—in different ways—stuck in lives defined by him, and who, over the course of the book, loosen his grip on them and begin to imagine different ways of being. In Homes’s artful weaving of the political and the personal, each strand informs and illuminates the other, reminding us that these realms are never truly separate.
The Unfolding does not offer a clean resolution—it ends soon after Obama’s inauguration, with the Forever Men’s plot still in progress. But the book is inevitably haunted by the almost unimaginable tumult of what actually happened in the years that followed. Homes and I spoke over Zoom at the end of summer about her new novel, American politics, and the challenge of writing satire in a world where reality seems to constantly outpace fiction.
James Surowiecki You’ve written fiction on a wide range of subjects. But The Unfolding is your first truly political novel. What prompted you to write it?
A.M. Homes Quite a few years ago, well before Trump—he was on the political landscape, but not on the presidential landscape—I said to my editors, “I feel like there’s something happening.” It seemed to me that the political establishment on all sides, not just the Republican side, was losing contact with the American people, and that this disconnect had been building for a long time. At the same time, dark money, private money was flowing into elections at a much higher rate, starting in 2008. So, that made for a very complicated brew.
At the same time, you saw the rise of these rogue Republicans who seemed to have no concept of, or interest in, the norms of the system that everyone had just kind of taken for granted. When I told my editors that I sensed things were starting to build in this country and there were a lot of weird new organizations worth writing about, they said, “But it sounds like science fiction.” I said, “I don’t think it is.” Honestly, they seemed very not interested. Then, right after Trump won, they were like, “Where is the novel?”
The funny thing, of course, is that so much of what’s happened has turned out to far exceed what I could have imagined. I didn’t see QAnon on the horizon. I am a catastrophic thinker, but it’s all gone so much further in reality than I ever thought.
JS One of the striking things about the book is that
it’s obviously haunted by Trump, and everything that has happened to
America since 2016. But it’s set in 2008, in the months immediately
after Obama’s election, and reminds us that a lot of conservatives
experienced his victory as an earthshaking, traumatic event.
AMH Yes. The other day, somebody asked me, “Why did
you use the 2008 election? Why didn’t you just make up an election?” And
my answer was, “Well, because that election really is pivotal.” Obama’s
election put very different aspects of American society and culture
into a kind of panic. It amplified the fears of working-class white
people who felt they were being displaced, not just by black people, but
by immigrants, and the disappearance of jobs that they had
traditionally been able to rely on. And it made the white founding
fathers—for lack of a better term—feel like their control was slipping,
and that they needed to reclaim it. So the book is kind of about the
last stand of the white man. But I didn’t think that would be a good
JS In the book, that’s what the Forever Men—a group
of guys who are driven by Obama’s election to construct a scheme to try
to take back the country—are trying to do: reclaim control. And they
are, for the most part (though not entirely), old-school right-wing
Republicans. You can easily imagine Dick Cheney being part of the group.
But one of the underlying ironies of the book is that even as these
guys are trying to get back on top, we know they’re unleashing forces
that they can’t really control.
AMH The guys in the book, in 2008, literally are
saying, “We’ve lost control of the Republican Party.” And they have,
they fully have. They are not in control of the party. And that’s even
more true today, in the world after the book. I don’t think that the
old-school Republicans saw the wildness of right-wing politics today
coming. I don’t think they saw the full crazies coming, and I don’t think it necessarily makes them terribly comfortable. But they do share a
common goal with those people, which is power at all costs. Mitch
McConnell is the ultimate example of this.
JS How did the fact that American politics has
become so extreme shape the way you wrote the book? The two words that
you are probably most associated with as a novelist are “black comedy.”
This work obviously has a satirical bent, but it didn’t feel all that
satirical to me. Maybe a decade ago, it would have felt more that way.
Today, the book felt oddly real. Do you think of it as satire?
AMH It’s grounded satire. The family aspect of the
novel lives in the world of Edward Albee, Harold Pinter. It’s not what
we traditionally think of as satire, but it is a super-saturated
In terms of the Forever Men, I was trying to look at how people
behave differently when they’re inhabiting different groups. These guys,
when you take them out of the rest of their lives and put them
together, they’re bonkers, they’re nuts, and it’s a giant pissing
contest, and a repetitive pissing contest, which I often witness when I
see people jockeying for position in whatever field. So, with them, I
really tried to go a little bit Dr. Strangelove.
All the way through, I was trying to push things a little further, to
heighten the effect, to have it be at the edges of the bounds of the
plausible. But you’re right, it’s not as pushed out as it could be.
There’s nothing here that couldn’t be true. Actually, the weirder it
might seem, the more likely it’s based on something real.
JS If you’re trying to write something and push it to the edge, how do you push it further than QAnon?
AMH Exactly. How do I possibly push it further than
the fact that election deniers are running for office all over the
country? A while ago, when I did some early interviews, I was asked, “Are you worried that your book won’t be relevant anymore in September?”
And I said, “You know? Not really.” And then last week, somebody said, “Are you worried that your book is all coming true in front of our
eyes?” And I’m like, “Kind of.”
In all seriousness though, I think what’s happening is terrifying.
We’re seeing the extremes of political, moral, and social plausibility
constantly being pushed further out, in a country that we thought we
knew and we thought we built on certain ideas. Forget about the center
not holding; the center is just gooey everywhere. We’re coming
up on something that is very, very scary. And a big part of this is that
there is no shared sense of truth anymore. So, whether it’s Steve
Bannon or Tucker Carlson or any of these guys, there’s lots of people
now who are very talkative and will say all kinds of crazy things, and
lots of other people will treat those things as true and run with them.
And there are people who are making a lot of money thinking up those
crazy jokes, right? It’s like people writing jokes for a late night
show, but in a different department.
JS We’ve talked almost entirely about politics so
far. But the novel is not just a political novel. It weaves together the
domestic and the political. One throughline is the family story of
Megan, a young woman just beginning to become politically aware, and her
parents, the Big Guy (who organizes the Forever Men) and his wife,
Charlotte. The other is this broader national story about the Big Guy
and the Forever Men and their plan to remake America. How did you decide
to write a novel that worked on those two levels?
AMH I wanted to weave the large-scale social and
political story with the domestic one because in reality they’re always
woven together. And in thinking about the narrative, and the
juxtaposition of the scenes and the timing, I knew I wanted them to play
off each other, but not be dependent on each other.
Beyond that, I wanted Megan’s story to be about how she evolved in
relation to her family, but also in relation to her own coming to know
herself. At the beginning, she’s sort of an unformed blob who hasn’t
really thought that much about the world and her place in it. All of a
sudden, she comes to see she’s in a world where bad shit happens. You’re
thinking about who you want to be and all the things that are lost when
you come to consciousness, when you realize what world we live in.
There is a kind of loss of innocence, both political and personal. And
that was important to me, to have her be woven into the bigger story,
but also keep her separate.
To me, the other pivotal moment in the family part of the story is
when she and her dad, the Big Guy, are in DC together and he realizes
he’s an asshole. That’s a kind of coming to consciousness, too. After
all, it’s not like he thinks of himself, or is seen by the world, as a
bad guy. He thinks he’s generous. He’s benevolent. He does all these
good things for people. He’s kind to poor people. But he starts to
realize that he might be an asshole, which also means that he is
beginning to realize how oblivious he is, which is interesting.
But of course he’s still oblivious, in a way, because he’s convinced that Megan will fall in line with him politically. He’s realized he has this very cool daughter. He sees her coming into her own, and yet he’s still not seeing the fact that she might be quite different from him. Even though it’s not spelled out, the book is also about sexism, and the way Megan (and Charlotte) have their own separate arcs of realizing that they have to figure out for themselves who they are and what they want, independent of the Big Guy.
JS The book is wrestling with a host of different
themes, braiding multiple narrative threads, and shifting stylistic
registers. What were some of the challenges you faced in pulling that
AMH The opening of the book, where the Big Guy is in
a bar on election night, that didn’t exist for a long time. The book
opened instead with Megan and her parents in Wyoming going to vote. Then
I thought, “Uh-oh, people are going to think this is a book about a
young woman,” a coming-of-age book, and that’s not what this book is. So
I crafted a new opening scene, with what I thought was fun, cryptic
banter between these guys in a bar, in order to set the tone: Who are we
with? Where are we going? What's happening here? Because that opening
with Megan was not the right place to start.
I do wonder how the book will be received, because it straddles genre
and style. Going back to the question you asked about satire, in this
country our understanding of satire is that it’s not about real people
or real things. We don’t really know how to look at grounded or
emotional or political satire that could also be real. That gets
complicated for people; readers will say to me, “Is it supposed to be
funny?” And my answer is, “Well, some of the things that you think maybe
were supposed to be funny, probably aren’t supposed to be funny. And
some of the stuff that you laughed at, I don’t know.” Because it is
awful too, and painful. There's stuff in here that is funny/not funny.
I like to think that readers and reviewers are sophisticated, but I
can picture, depending on who reviews the book, that one story or the
other might get treated as more dominant. And that’s okay with me,
because I think you can review it from the family point of view, or the
political point of view, or you can try to talk about the weave. I don't
know. I just hope I survive.