If you bought or borrowed a Joyce Carol Oates novel in the late 90s/early 00s, it would have come with a quote from one of several journalists proclaiming that she, rather than one of the men regularly touted, was actually the Great American novelist. Well, in the 2010s, it seems there’s a new contender.
May We Be Forgiven covers a year in the life of Harry Silver and his family. We meet them – Harry’s wife Claire, his brother George, sister-in-law Jane and their children Nathaniel and Ashley – at Thanksgiving. Harry hates TV executive George and his children:
They were absent children, absent of personality, absent of presence, and, except for the holidays, largely absent from the house.
They live in a house with ‘a television in every room’ and Harry declares that his brother ‘can’t bear to be alone, not even in the bathroom’.
By the end of dinner, a chain of events has been set in motion. The first:
My [Harry’s] fingers were deep in the bird, the hollow body still warm, the best bits of stuffing packed in. I dug with my fingers and brought stuffing to my lips. She [Jane] looked at me – my mouth moist, greasy, my fingers curled into what would have been the turkey’s g-spot if they had such things – lifted her hands out of the water and came towards me, to plant one on me. Not friendly. The kiss was serious, wet, and full of desire. It was terrifying and unexpected. She did it, then snapped off her gloves and walked out of the room. I was holding the counter, gripping it with greasy fingers. Hard.
From then on, Harry can’t stop thinking about ‘George fucking Jane’.
The second happens ‘towards the end of February’. Harry receives a phone call from Jane, asking him to go and pick George up from the police station:
“He ran a red light, plowed into a minivan, husband was killed on impact, the wife was alive at the scene – in the back seat, next to the surviving boy. Rescue crew used the Jaws of Life to free the wife, upon release she expired.”
George is allowed to go home while the cause of the accident is investigated but it soon becomes obvious that he’s not well and he’s hospitalised. Harry’s wife encourages Harry to stay with Clare ‘in case things deteriorate further’ and from then on in it’s a roller coaster of events. Events that Harry has to deal with while continuing his day job as a Nixon scholar.
Holmes has plenty to say about life in America (and, by extension, the West) today – the pace, the technology, the overt sexuality, the lack of thought and care that defines our relationships – and she does it well, letting the themes and ideas come through the story. That is until the final fifth of the book.
Towards the end of the novel, George’s son Nathaniel decides that he wants his Bar Mitzvah to take place in Nateville, a town in South Africa that he visited with his school. It’s been named after him due to the amount of money Nate’s donated via a middleman scheme he’s been running at school using his dad’s credit card. During the visit the difference between them and us and the issues that capitalism has caused are writ large. They’re then followed by Harry eulogising about how that year’s changed him and how he’s a much better person for it. It’s unnecessary, we got it.
However, it would be churlish to say that this ruins a great piece of writing. It doesn’t. It’s a small part of a large book that is, on the whole, fast paced and well written. If it’s not quite the Great American novel, it’s not far off it.