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Hot Topic Reporting season
Book Review
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A company of fools

New novel by AM Homes is about making America great again.

NBR columnist Nevil Gibson speaks with Fiona Rotherham.

Nevil Gibson Sun, 25 Sep 2022

When monarchs died in past centuries, they usually left a legacy of architectural monuments and great works of culture. Modern royalty is more populist, with no such gestures.

A Victoria University academic noted the lack of poetry, while a columnist in The Spectator defended Queen Elizabeth II’s lack of interest in art, saying she kept close tabs on the Royal Collection but scarcely changed those on display in various residences.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby accurately summed her life’s achievement by saying: “People of loving service are rare in any walk of life. Leaders of loving service are still rarer. But in all cases, those who serve will be loved and remembered when those who cling to power and privileges are long forgotten.”

Others would argue that ‘service’ is not as tangible as culture, which leaves behind items that are “loved and remembered” long after their creators are gone.

Which brings me to one critic, who wondered “after reading and listening to the rapturous eulogies and obituaries” why no-one had anything critical to say. He was an American, Joseph Epstein, who noted that during her 70 years on the throne, England (he could have meant Britain) had slipped from being “an immensely admirable country to being a rather uninteresting one”.

Lacking tact

Epstein, it must be said, is not a man of tact. He received a strong swerve when he used the word ‘kiddo’ in reference to First Lady Jill Biden’s penchant for calling herself Dr after receiving a PhD in education.

President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden.

He would not be alone in thinking those with advanced degrees in just about every subject except medicine should lay off the Dr honorific. Epstein’s latest foray into public disputation, also published in the Wall Street Journal, would also ring a bell for many whose intellectual life began in the early years of Elizabeth II’s reign.

He was an Anglophile who appreciated the quality of English intellectual life through the pages of Encounter, New Statesman, The Spectator, Times Literary Supplement, and the BBC-published Listener. These were all available in New Zealand, too, and were the yardstick by which literature, the arts, and much else were measured, even if they arrived after two months at sea.

Epstein rattled off the many names that are still revered today. Historians and philosophers AJP Taylor, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Michael Oakeshott, and Isaiah Berlin; critics and journalists Malcolm Muggeridge, Kenneth Tynan, and Herbert Read; poets and novelists Cyril Connolly, Kingsley Amis, and Philip Larkin. Though George Orwell had died in 1950, his influence continued, while TS Eliot and Evelyn Waugh were still around in the early 1960s.

Hollywood’s aristocrats

Epstein also recalled the influence of English actors in Hollywood, giving them an elegance and aristocratic lilt that were “utterly enviable” to a Midwestern American Jew.

“Evident in its politicians, writers, actors, and guardian of empire, a strong aristocratic strain ran through English culture, and it was this strain that bred so many Anglophiles worldwide,” he wrote.

But that changed in the 1960s, as English culture swung from aristocratic to populist. Epstein detected nostalgia for those earlier days in the blanket media coverage of the past two weeks.

“Quite possibly the monarchy itself continues to exist because of that same longing,” he concluded.

While absorbing Epstein’s thoughts, and recognising the influences on my own experience, I was reading the latest novel by AM Homes, whose short stories and novels in the 1990s struck me as worthy successors to the English writers Epstein admires.

AM Homes. Photo: David Shankbone via Wikipedia.

Certainly, the British critics think so, awarding her the Women’s Prize for Fiction (originally the Orange Prize) for May We Be Forgiven (2012).

Acquired taste

They are also an acquired taste and not for the faint hearted in describing characters and incidents that are not discussed in polite company. However, they also make excellent television, if you are into true crime rather than murder mysteries.

The Unfolding, her seventh novel and the first since May We Be Forgiven, contains some familiar elements, such a young woman being schooled at an exclusive Washington DC college and a political writer steeped in Republican politics. A key character in May We Be Forgiven is an historian obsessed with Nixon.

The Unfolding opens on election night in 2008, with Barack Obama’s message of hope easily defeating the war hero John McCain and his hapless running mate Sarah Palin.

McCain’s billionaire backers, at a function in Phoenix, Arizona, are shocked at the direction the voters had taken. The impact on one, identified only as the Big Guy, decides to change his own direction by turning his focus from making money to what he calls “a patriot’s plan to preserve and protect” democracy.

He spells out his definition of American values: “We are conservatives. We believe in free markets, individual liberty, the freedom to do what the hell you want. We come together with wisdom and experience and the awareness that democracy was not created in a heartbeat. Democracy is fragile, more fragile than any of us are comfortable admitting.”

Rich mates

Throughout the story, Big Guy continues with recruiting his rich mates for a secret society dedicated to frustrating the new administration’s plans before Inauguration Day.

They model themselves on the so-called Eisenhower Ten, a team of citizens chosen by the president to keep things going in the event of a national emergency. They concoct some crazy schemes, without specifying their objectives, but leave little doubt in the minds of readers about their intentions and the possible outcome.

Meanwhile, the Big Guy admits his alcoholic wife to the Betty Ford Clinic to dry her out. Their teenage daughter, the one studying in Washington, faces some harsh realities, starting with a Thanksgiving dinner she attends with a friend of her father’s and other high-ranking political operatives.

Homes weaves in her own experience as an adoptee, the subject of her memoir The Mistress’s Daughter (2007), to reveal how the family’s trauma can have wider effects in the political arena.

These incidents are told in diary form as conversational dialogues, reflecting Homes’ work in television dramas. The content foreshadows events of the past two presidential elections but without the preachiness that has marked the non-fiction accounts of the bizarre Trump years.

Political satire has an honourable place in the history of American literature, which often reflects the dynastic features of an English monarchy. While Homes cannot be described as ‘woke', and her shock tactics repel any feelings of empathy, her skewering style is an antidote to the platitudes of those who claim to serve while hiding less than honourable intentions.

The Unfolding, by AM Homes (Granta).

Nevil Gibson is a former editor at large for NBR. He has contributed film and book reviews to various publications.

This is supplied content and not paid for by NBR.

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A company of fools
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