It’s the day before Election Day and therefore a fitting time to tell you about The Unfolding by A.M. Homes. Like our current political hellscape it’s darkly unnerving. It’s a political novel but it’s also a testament to the power women have, the power we give away, and the power we can make our own.
The novel begins in 2008 on election night. Remember how elated people were? The joyous celebrations of a racial milestone in American politics? Well, the other side was equally emotional, devastated and depressed. The Unfolding focuses on The Big Guy and his deeply dysfunctional family.
The Big Guy is a political animal, a mover and a shaker. He has a faithful wife and a 16-year-old daughter and when John McCain loses he’s lost as well. Now what?
The Big Guy knows he needs to Do Something about What Happened and he sets about it with his usual methods and dedication. He’s a pen and paper guy, specifically using Flair Felt Tips, four colors, each used for a different purpose: blue for new ideas, red for corrections, green for money, black for notes and signatures. I love tidbits like this, seemingly unnecessary but as revealing as a photograph. The Big Guy comes into view as he works with his felt tips. He makes his notes, culls ideas and assembles his team, an interesting assortment of Patriots.
Homes writes in a way that’s almost addictive, you want more; you flip back to re-read something and then hurry back to where you left off. Despite the fact that it’s been years and years since I’ve anything by Homes, I always include her on my list of favorite authors. Her stories have a dark edge, or maybe her characters and creations have their dark sides exposed. It’s normal life suddenly turned upside down.
The Big Guy’s wife, Charlotte, is what you imagine a fictional political operative’s wife to be: bony, frail, shrewd, coiffed, impeccable, drunk. Shortly after the election she is sent to rehab and there she has the beginnings of an awakening. Her character speaks for American women. I’m not sure how Homes does it, because I’m not like Charlotte and don’t live like her (or drink like her) or have her money or prestige, but I get her. Oh, the humor of a shrewd, observant drinker.
In one scene The Big Guy attempts to reassure his wife that she can have ‘whatever you want, whatever you need’. “Not possible,” she says. “I’d need a time machine. What I need is a new life.”
Their daughter is experiencing her own awakening of sorts and her scenes are the most surreal to me. Here’s Meghan swimming in a hotel pool with a stranger, then she’s on horseback in the woods at her boarding school, then she’s navigating a Washington DC political Thanksgiving. She’s a smart and intuitive 16 year old but her bubble of an upbringing has stunted her up to this point. As her family unfolds post-election she begins to see things more clearly.
As I read The Unfolding I kept thinking, astonished, is Homes psychic? Seriously. Other writers have seen what’s coming, where America is heading, but no one has delivered it quite like this. The novel is eerie at times, very ‘ripped from the headlines.’
The Big Guy assembles his team of White men on a mission to save their Way of Life and get back to the real America (vs. this new world that they don’t understand). They plan and execute the plan. They take oaths. They’re willing to lie, to incite violence. They’re patient, they play the long game. Theirs is an 18-year plan with an eye toward victory during the symbolic semiquincentennial, America’s 250 year anniversary.
Think about that for a second. The next President of the United States will get the honor of presiding over all the 250th celebrations. Who will it be? What will we be celebrating?
The men shape the vision and the message. Truth or made-up crap, it doesn’t matter. Homes explains through one of these men: ‘Misinformation is bad intelligence shared without harm. Disinformation is bad intelligence shared with the intention to harm.’ They know the difference and have no qualms with bad intelligence or intents to harm. It’s life or death to them.
In one chilling scene, the judge makes sure he has it right: “…what you’re outlining is a coup of sorts that will sweep across this country largely unnoticed until it is too late…”
Interspersed with the meetings between the Big Guy and his team are little revealing scenes featuring Charlotte and Meghan. The Big Guy’s devoted to them in his way, but he gets lesson after lesson on how he’s failed as a father and as a husband. His girls bombard him with honesty and he has no choice but to take it.
If you’re thinking this sounds like an emotional family drama, some of it is – but not how you think. Homes is in charge so that edge is there, along with a low level of sarcasm that softens the drama in a strange way.
The story unfolds to a stunning and subtle ending. The saying ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ doesn’t apply here, because this fiction is too close to the truth. In the end, though, it is a novel, a fiction, and one of the best books I read this year. Please do your civic duty first – vote – then reward yourself with this extraordinary book.