"Music for Torching"

Is A.M. Homes the master of shock or the mistress of schlock?

Published May 5, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

A.M. Homes' fourth novel, "Music for Torching," would make a better movie than it does a book. Its principal characters, Paul and Elaine, are an upper-middle-class couple living lives of ennui. They've been together awhile, and the familiar patterns they're stuck in have begun to drive them crazy. In the movie, Tim Robbins might play Paul. As the handsome, womanizing businessman with homosexual tendencies, Robbins could bring some life, and maybe some charm, to a character that Homes has made almost entirely unsympathetic.

Michelle Pfeiffer could play Elaine. Pfeiffer can imply character development with a simple arch of her eyebrow, which would help, since the Elaine that Homes has written seems to feel the same way whether she is facing the smallest daily irritation or a major life crisis -- misunderstood and disappointed. Homes can write a beautiful description: "Elaine is awake ... She lies in the bed, feeling the strange absence of her morning panic -- a panic she didn't know was panic until now. Usually Elaine wakes with the full force of a high-voltage electrical shock." But who's likely to care? Paul and Elaine are dull and unlikable -- to themselves, to each other and to the reader.

Homes peppers "Music for Torching" with "surprising" and "unlikely" plot developments designed to be intriguing; instead, they feel cheap and manipulative, like snippets of Joyce Carol Oates at her worst. A good camera angle or a smart soundtrack could add depth and emotion where Homes has left them out, as when Paul follows a mistress into the seedy part of town and gets his pubic area tattooed, or when Elaine has an affair with a Martha Stewart-ish neighbor. The trouble isn't in the description of these events. Here Homes reveals her true abilities, as when she describes Elaine's first lesbian kiss. "The kiss, unbearably fragile, a spike of sensation, shoulders the frame. Everything Elaine thinks about who she is, what she is, is irrelevant. There are no words, only sensation, smooth sensation. Tender, like the lick of a kitten." But Homes is hiding behind her excellent prose. She's created a series of beautiful, complexly simple descriptions instead of a compelling novel with round, developed characters.

In her earlier work, Homes proved herself a painfully honest writer with a sharp talent for description and an amazing one for making horrible characters and situations real. In "Music for Torching," she gives only glimpses of those abilities. She has provided too little weight to her plot and to character development and has relied too heavily on shocking plot twists and sparse, well-written prose. What's left is more shell than substance, more shine than guts.

By Courtney Hudak

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