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BOOKS: SEX, LIES AND PSYCHOPATHS

4 minute read
Ginia Bellafante

LAST WINTER DANCE CRITIC Arlene Croce wrote a controversial essay for the New Yorker in which she discussed choreographer Bill T. Jones’ production Still/Here without having seen it. She justified her unorthodox move by claiming she didn’t have to sit through the piece, a treatise on aids and other terminal illnesses, to know what she was going to get–a lot of easy emotionalism. Certain kinds of art, literature and film, Croce argued, are too manipulative to be judged objectively, too predictable, essentially, to be bothered with.

Confronted with the task of reviewing The End of Alice (Scribner; 270 pages; $22), the third novel by A.M. Homes, a critic certainly feels the impulse to pull a Croce. Why actually wade through the book when we know from the publicity what we’re in for: a story that demands to disturb and repulse, a portrait of a sick mind filled with sexual imagery repellent enough to make Robert Mapplethorpe photos look like Tommy Hilfiger ads by comparison.

The End of Alice revolves around the gruesome psychoses of an unnamed murderer and pedophile whom we meet during his 23rd year in prison. He is one of those genius wackos who make easy references to Flemish painters and Eastern boarding schools–the kind of felon who exists maddeningly often in pop culture and rarely ever in real life, where major crimes are not generally committed by people who sound as though they’ve been reading Roland Barthes between mutilations.

For all its trite grotesqueness, though, Alice cannot be tossed off as another American Psycho, the famously godawful Bret Easton Ellis novel to which it has been likened. Ellis’ treatment of sadism has a dopey campiness that Homes is incapable of. She takes her crazed protagonist very seriously, describing his every abhorrent desire in mind-boggling detail that amounts to a twisted, writerly artfulness all its own. And as in her last book, In a Country of Mothers, the story of a psychoanalyst’s debilitating obsession with a young patient, Homes shows a knack for intertwining two characters’ pathologies. In Alice she has created a compelling ally for the pedophile, a 19-year old girl with a lust for prepubescent boys who sends him letters in prison recounting her seductions. The girl wants a mentor. Homes unsettles best when she limns this tennis-playing coed’s unusual urges.

The problem with Alice is not so much its barrage of appalling imagery as the author’s insistence on using the imagery to make naive, amorphous political statements. Homes says she was inspired to write Alice after Jesse Helms’ attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts. “I was responding passionately to a repressive moment,” she says. “Writing is an act of aggression, and I wanted to take on sexuality.” Unfortunately, she takes it on too obviously. At certain points in the book, her pedophile narrator addresses the reader directly to explain that the book is not meant to shock but to show that he is really no different from us. “I am no better or worse,” he insists. “A social construct supported by judge, jury and tattletales has put me away because I threaten them.” In other words, don’t judge another man’s form of sexual expression, dear reader, because you never know when you’ll want to rape and kill a 10-year-old.

If such hackneyed psycho-speak doesn’t diminish the literary merit of Alice, Homes’ Appendix A (Artspace; 68 pages; $14) just might. It is the kind of gimmicky backstory that better serves books like The Bridges of Madison County. We get an extended account of the abuse Alice’s villain suffered at the hands of his mother, not to mention police reports of his crimes and the medical history of one of his victims. It will make you want to write an aggressive diatribe too–about publishers’ attempts to create hype.

–By Ginia Bellafante

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