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December 1997

The End of Alice by A.M. Homes

Scribner US 1996; Anchor UK 1997

This third novel by US author A. M. Homes was destined to provoke controversy. As with American Psycho, the last "literary" novel of graphically deviant nature to shock America, The End of Alice met with similarly mixed reviews, from high praise (NYTBR) to "revolting trash" (NYT) and after all the hullabaloo went on to find its own readership without inciting the frenzy of a nation—until, that is, its recent release in the UK where it was condemned by the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) who called for a ban, rejected by the bookselling chain W.H. Smith, and met with the most emotional and dubious criticism from those who should certainly know better. "The NSPCC Was Right" ran The Daily Telegraph's review; "That Homes should choose to try to see the world through Chappy's eyes was in itself enough for there to be a call to ban this book," wrote The Times, and so it went. Margot Livesey in the TLS and Elizabeth Young in The Independent emerged as the only intelligent voices among the lot. To say that it struck a cord in England is putting it mildly. Still, amidst the furor over Ms Homes' gross "lack of judgment," even the harshest critics were fast to point out that, yes, A.M. Homes can write, even though that in itself was turned against her as Robert McCrum of The Observer wrote that "[Alice] was yet another one of the fruits of the American Writing Schools . . . characterized by a certain dismal literary competence." In the end it was the total lack of any moral center which left it "hollow" for some and downright threatening to others. Which leaves me puzzled and very concerned.

The End of Alice is the narrative of 53-year-old Chappy, a prisoner of 23 years in the West Block of Sing Sing, the block reserved for those guilty of heinous crimes of sexual perversity. He begins by warning the reader that one might "find my disguise the silly childish senility of the long confined." We know the narrator cannot be trusted to deliver the facts and chronology of his "autobiography." But as his sordid tale unfolds, certain pieces fit together and a pattern emerges as we—readers, homeviewers—are put in the position of watching the imaginary "What's My Line" panel of three mentioned at the beginning, eagerly trying to guess the contestant's profession. At the novel's end a very different panel of three emerges and relentlessly grills the prisoner in an attempt to get him to grasp the reality of his crime ("I refuse to see what they want me to see. I will only see what I want to see, my desire, my vision") as they struggle to gain some insight into the psychological make-up of a pedophile, who has sexually tortured and murdered (among others) 12-year-old Alice Somerfield; and for such acts has attracted not only the prison psychologists, but (through copious mail) psychiatrists, criminologists, curiosity seekers, fellow pedophiles, perverts of all persuasion, film makers, and novelists. The whole gamut. And the reader?

Oh, yes. Homes has just this in mind as the reader burns through this page-turner, drawn to the lurid detail like on-lookers at a gruesome car crash. But the calculated manipulation of reader titillation is all a set-up for a slap in the face, coming three-fourths of the way through (if one has not felt it already) when the narrator, referring to a previous, particularly graphic scene in which he fiercely and cruelly rapes a fellow inmate in front of other inmates, turns to "Herr Reader" and sneers: "I probably wouldn't have even mentioned the scene with Clayton except that I knew you were waiting for it, wanting it, had been wanting it all along. I aim to please." And shortly afterwards: "I am fully aware of what you've been doing while you've been reading this—these are my pages you're staining with your spunky splash. Your arousal, the woody in your woods, tickle in your twitty-twat, the fact that as you've read my mental monologue you fished out the familiar friend, rubbed it raw, stroked yourself, hello, pussy, sweet kitty cat—let the tiny tongue between your legs lick your fingers, giving them a sticky bath—and despite the depths to which it disturbed, you were released."

The manner in which the narrator directly addresses "Herr Reader, realizing that it's not the usual thing, knowing I'm not supposed to disassemble the invisible scrim that separates us" would be a clumsy authorial intrusion were it not for the fact that there is a strong element of truth in the accusation and that part of the narrator's "senility" is the confusion of all the characters (including the reader, for the "you" is often ambiguous) that filters through his disturbingly articulate and painfully detailed "mental monologue." Like his predecessor Humbert Humbert—another incarcerated, self-professed pedophile—Chappy is no fool; unlike Humbert Humbert, he has no conscience.

What we learn in part from the mental monologue is this: presumably, in the course of Chappy's vast correspondence (14,565 letters) a certain letter from a 19-year-old college girl stands out from the rest ("I don't get much mail from girls") and triggers his latent memory. Through this budding correspondence Chappy is freshly reminded of scenes with his dearly beloved Alice—a Lolita-like, butterfly-collecting nymphet—and later thoughts turn toward his mother and his early childhood. He is aware that he must be careful not to confuse the college girl with Alice, but this inevitably happens to some extent. He is attracted to the college girl "despite her age," because she shares his pedophilic obsession. She cannot express herself, her "weirdness," to anyone but him, and as she plans her first seduction, the narrator derives a vicarious thrill.

The girl, home for summer vacation, writes of the vacuity of her life, her pill-popping parents, who "don't have a clue," and the general malaise she suffers. She finally seduces a 12-year-old boy (brilliantly portrayed), whose parents also don't have a clue though clues are everywhere. Part of the pre-seduction antics involves tying him up. Trigger, trigger. We learn more of Alice, a feisty little girl who first sees our narrator naked after a swim in a lake. Alice is playing the role of Indian warrior and clumsily ties the naked narrator to a tree where she leaves him when her mother calls, a scene that loops throughout the novel. But fantasy quickly enters in; we only get snippets of the college girl's letters (in italics). It is the narrator who speaks of reading the diary she sent, who interprets the correspondence, because "I remain convinced that my interpretation . . .is a more accurate reflection of her state of mind." So does she really eat the boy's scabs? Does she really slip into the boy's bedroom only to find the father instead masturbating between his son's Batman sheets and asking her to "help," which she does?

Once the Alice loop begins to unwind, fantasy again intervenes as she is remembered as the all-too-willing, pedophile-dream child-bride. The narrator himself identifies with the characters until the parallel story lines closely merge and it is clear he is losing control as memory seeps in. In one of the most chilling scenes the narrator vividly relates a time as a young child that he spent with his mother, recently released from an insane asylum, in which she coaxes him into a huge bathtub with her and asks that he suckle her breast and perform other unnatural acts. Shortly afterwards the mother commits suicide and he is convinced he is the murderer. If ever the narrator is totally reliable it is most likely in these mother-son flashbacks that come and go throughout.

The theme of time is carefully interwoven: past time, real time, fantasy time, dream time. "I am lost in time," the narrator says. And another loop: "What time is it?" he asks the guard every morning. As the novel nears its conclusion, Chappy is brought twice before the committee of three, who present him with glossy police photos of Alice. "I am dying for release," Chappy tells us, and release of sorts comes for Chappy in the powerful denouement. But the reader is far from released. The disturbing gibes at "Herr Reader" linger and there is much to ponder beyond the sensationalism.

This is a novel that is destined to draw a readership of two audiences: those who enjoy a lurid thriller, seek nothing more (and don't feel the slap in the face) and those who are open to a lurid thriller, or any other bold, original writing, superbly crafted (thank you American Writing Schools), that rings true from beginning to end, that adds real insight into its characters and their worlds, that crawls under the skin, disturbs, digs at the reader's own psyche, and pushes him into a new position in the author-reader relationship. Not one scene contributes to gratuitous violence or shock; only revelation, shocking though it may be. And therein lies its moral center. I would hardly worry about either audience's vulnerability to Chappy's influence. As Ms Homes says, "Pedophiles already have fantasies—I don't have to give them any." Read it or leave it—we're talking a matter of taste here—but look hard at those who cry that it threatens a nation's morality. That is chilling.

Review by Jill Adams

____________________1997 The Barcelona Review

See also: Interview with A.M. Homes and the short story A Real Doll

The End of Alice by A.M. Homes, Scribner US 1996; Anchor, UK 1997. Online book ordering: Amazon and Internet Bookshop