A.M. Homes knows how to hold an audience.
Promoting The Unfolding, her first novel in a decade, she sets out her stall with self-assurance, captivating the audience at the Manchester Literature Festival with all the fast-talking comedic charm of a character scripted by Amy Sherman-Palladino. Thinking on her feet, wearing her research lightly and with a degree in US political history, she plucks phrases as quotable as “rubber-necking at the accident of democracy” from the air. In this, she is abetted seamlessly by journalist and broadcaster Razia Iqbal, a self-declared admirer of Homes and part of the panel which awarded her the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction for her previous book of loss and redemption among the moneyed, May We Be Forgiven.
Whereas that novel was haunted by the ghosts of more distant times through the counterfactual conceit of the lost literary canon of Richard Milhous Nixon, The Unfolding’s premonitory potency hits much closer to home by drawing upon more recent events, specifically the wheels that Homes imagines being set in motion by the election of Barack Obama to the US presidency in 2008.
Ominously, its first line of dialogue, “It can’t happen here”, tolls with the doomy resonance of Sinclair Lewis‘s work of the same name, an augury of a demagogue rising to power in America, published just two years after Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany. Compressed into the weeks between Obama’s election victory and his inauguration, it details the efforts of a wealthy white cabal, going under noms de guerre with the exclamatory grandiosity of a Jack Kirby comic book, the ‘Big Guy’ and the ‘Forever Men’, to – as they see it – put things right.
Likeability, then, is not a characteristic that Homes deems essential for her protagonists. At the Martin Harris Centre, she underscores this rhetorically: “When I read Crime And Punishment, do I think, ‘I wanna hang out with them’?”. This ability to empathise with those whose sympathies she does not share was, perhaps, informed in part by what she describes as the “strangeness” of being raised by socialists in Washington, where, as the result of the ebb and flow of the political tides, “we got new classmates every four years”. She recalls, for instance, though being Jewish herself, being dispatched to a Christian summer camp and “when Nixon resigned they were sobbing”, as well as being barred from entry to the local delicatessens when there were more prominent customers to serve, the gun-toting security guards tersely informing her that “the president is getting a sandwich”.
If the presidential security detail sounds formidable, her experience of the Capitol police force is less so. Homes recalls her real fears of greater loss of life during the unprecedented January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol Building by a mob of the frightened and angry, goaded into action by the words of a defeated Trump, wounded and unwilling to concede defeat, describing their capabilities as “rinky-dink”. Witnessing an attempted coup play out in what she calls “the swirling tornado” of the 24-hour news cycle and thinking of the slow-burn sedition at the heart of her novel must have been a chilling experience.
Even so, the novel keeps faith with its characters so that the wide screen ‘unfolding’ of a self-justifying treason envelops the small screen drama of the ‘unfolding’ of the Big Guy’s family, as his daughter and wife question the roles they have been cast in while the unravelling events around them cast into relief the paradoxically bigger picture of their own lives.
It’s hard to think of a more engaging salesperson for the book than Homes herself. But concluding the proceedings, Iqbal makes a further pitch, describing The Unfolding as “the kind of book you would press into the hand of a friend”. Certainly, in the wake of the UK’s golden-haired entitled son’s almost successful attempt to prorogue parliament, it’s the most wishful of thinking to believe that it couldn’t happen here.
A.M. Homes was at the Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama. For more information about other events at the Manchester Literature Festival, click here.