A. M. Homes’s “This Book Will Save Your Life” is a devastating critique of living in the USA disguised as a morality story. It could easily be (and apparently is –see the reviews linked below) misconstrued as the story of an L.A. day trader who sees the light (but not too clearly). He begins by experiencing a mysterious episode of physical pain in his highly insular LA canyon lavish suburb home. He wonders if this is IT. But we know it’s probably not it because when the novel begins he is staring out his window and realizing that he has been living in a “vacuum of silence–life canceled.” The pain and ER trip come later.
The rest of the novel is a romp from improbable situation to situation. Richard (that’s his name) begins to notice that he is actually in the world. He talks to a woman crying in the produce section of the grocery store (she becomes a feminine counterpart to his awakening journey, but they don’t have sex). He mistakes the eccentric neighbor Nic on his shoreline rented-cottage in Malibu for a homeless person and gives him his jacket. Much later in the story he notices the SOS morse code flashing of the rear lights of another car. Could it be? He decides to intervene and eventually is on the evening news as the man (the Hero, the Good Samaritan) who rescued the naked woman from the trunk of a murderer/rapist (It was she doing the morse code. Thank goodness Richard noticed).
This stuff goes on and on. He reaches out to people, but actually it’s a bit late in his alloted time on earth. He is looking death in the face and watching the final re-run of a movie of his life misspent. He manages to connect a bit with his estranged son. He does some good. He seems to be listening to those he notices and weirdly reaches out to for the first time in his life.
Those include the writer Nic who lives next door and whose unpublished novel he eventually rescues from drowning (see later in this blog). Nic sums up one of the book’s ideas that hit me:
We’re all good when we want to be, otherwise we’re fucking animals. This is no VIP rooom in reality, and there is no reality in this city. You can’t Google the answers. People talk about being on the ride of your life–THIS IS YOUR LIFE… Whatever it is you need to know, you already know.
Homes has a finely tuned ear to the culture of LA and the good old USA. She even sees it situated in a context of history. In the interview linked above she says,
“I read culture, how we live, what we do, and perhaps think ahead to where we are going. I am also deeply aware of where we have been and the importance of keeping that in mind when thinking about human behavior. More and more I am interested in history, in writing which weaves history and fiction together.?
Nic once again explicitly gives some of this authorial point of view in the novel when he remarks:
“We live in a time when no one wants to remember. We pretend we are where it starts. Look at the way we live–we build houses on cliffs, on fault lines, in the path of things, and when something happens, we don’t learn history, we build it again, right on the same spot, bigger, better… Fallout accumulates. What we’ve got now is a blend of fact and fiction that we’re agreeing to call reality.”
By the end of the novel Richard is not far from where he began. His Malibu home has just been assaulted with a huge wave of water. Instead of looking out of his cliff house window, he is floating on a table with a cell phone wrapped in a condom (don’t ask) and Nic’s unpublished novel safely ensconced in a plastic bag. He is still floating, disconnected, protected by plastic and styrofoam (the table) and almost alone. But he is accompanied by a dog he befriended along the way. This is the only real relationship that seems to be in his now Good-Samaritan-type life.
Unlike the several reviews I read, (Walter Kirn’s 2006 NYT review, John Self on his blog Asylum’s review, and even the Penguin Reading Guide which includes a short interview with the author) I found the title and the book more satirical than redemptive. Richard is in a slightly better spot at the end of he book. Floating on the table he reaffirms his connection to his son who has left California without saying goodbye. The son calls him on the cell phone in the condom for a quick apology. In the course of the story Richard has actually helped many people. He has had sex again after years of abstinence. But the relationship did not turn out to be much deeper than friendship and sex. Once again the woman he makes love to is someone he has helped. She is missing a breast due to a bout with cancer. Their relationship draws her back into her sexuality but not deep relationship with Richard. Just as well, because it’s clear that at the end of the book, Richard has only so much capacity for human intimacy and connection. He goes from staring out his window, a frozen person. To floating alone with a dog. The main difference to me is that he has managed to actually have a relationship with the dog. This is more than many achieve.