‘The Unfolding’ of an Unraveling America
DAME talks with author A.M. Homes about her new prophetic novel and the white male existential crisis.
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It takes nerves of steel to write a novel that so vividly and accurately depicts the harrowing political landscape of the past decade and a half. But A.M. Homes, the prolific, award-winning author of 13 books, has never been known to be squeamish. This is a writer whose last novel, the Women’s Prize award–winning May We Be Forgiven (2012), opens with a fatal car accident and a ghastly murder by a jealous, rage-filled TV executive who has just escaped a psych ward.
That’s hardly her darkest work of fiction. Most famously, Homes has imagined the disturbing lives of a pedophile/murderer in The End of Alice (1996), a suburban couple who intentionally burned down their house, in Music for Torching (1999), and now, in her new novel, The Unfolding (Viking Books, September 2022), an angry white male GOP operative planning a coup. With literary talents that have been compared to such writers as John Cheever and Don DeLillo, Homes is provocative without being gimmicky. And that’s in large part because she approaches her complex, sometimes detestable characters with genuine curiosity and compassion, rendering their private selves as fully as their public selves, challenging us not to like them but to at least understand who they are (after all, who said protagonists have to be likable?), while finding mordant humor and satire amid the absurd.
As you might guess, The Unfolding, her first novel in ten years, presents Homes with, arguably, one of her biggest tests, because much of what she was inventing on the page became realized before our eyes. This prophetic novel, which she completed well before January 6, 2021, opens on Election Night 2008, a joyous occasion for many of us, with Barack Obama making history as the first Black man to win the U.S. presidency. Homes, however, writes from the perspective of a man she calls The Big Guy, a GOP operative working for John McCain, who takes the Arizona senator’s loss hard. So hard, the man comes undone by the idea of a Black president. By the morning after the Election, The Big Guy is already planning something, he just doesn’t quite know what yet—but he busily assembles a team of like-minded white men, inspired by the Eisenhower Ten, the president’s secret cohort of fixers he could call on in an emergency. The Big Guy’s so-called emergency is to reclaim his idea of the American Dream—really, it’s an existential crisis over white men losing power. The Unfolding examines the racism that was, not so much exposed by Obama’s victory—of course there is nothing new about racism in this country—but unleashed in the ugliest possible way, only growing more violent as Republicans felt more threatened.
But The Unfolding isn’t solely focused on a horrifying disruption in the political sphere—it’s also personal, a kind of domestic novel, Homesian style: We watch as The Big Guy grapples with a family unraveling as his wife, Charlotte, tries to drink away her rage over a life unlived, and his whipsmart 18-year-old daughter, Meghan, who realizes, “Everything I thought I knew is now a fake.”
Homes and I spoke earlier this month about, among other things, writing a political novel in an increasingly violent climate, where literature and the First Amendment are under attack, and the challenge of reality quickly outrunning satire, as the saying goes. Homes is a friend, so what ensues is more conversational than Q&A (condensed for space).
DAME: You’ve spent about ten years on this novel, which opens in 2008, the night Barack Obama was elected president. So you must have started it around the time of Obama’s reelection, no?
A.M. Homes: You know, I don’t know exactly when I started. It first started from a short story I wrote called “A Prize for Every Player” [from the short story collection, Days of Awe] which is about a family that goes to do the weekly shopping in a big-box store, and they’re having this contest—by the end of it, the father is nominated by the shoppers in the store to run for president because everyone else has lost touch with who they are. So those kinds of ideas had been with me for a long time. As Obama was campaigning, it was the first time that people were using social media [to promote an election campaign]. And then also the influx of dark money, which has now become like an open tap. And the other piece of it that just became louder and louder over that ten-year period was the sense that information, ideas, propaganda also flow through social media and other systems without any kind of attribution or sense of where they came from, and who was behind them. I was fascinated by all the Cambridge Analytica stuff, and the ways in which algorithms deliver things to us and keep us from seeing what we don’t, theoretically, want to see.
DAME: We’ve been living through some horrifically bizarre times. Ten years ago, if a fiction writer included the details of what we’ve experienced in their work—things like QAnon swarming the Capitol, Trump refusing to accept defeat to such a destructive degree, even Trump’s rallies where he rambles on about windmill cancer or the water pressure of his shower and toilet—any critic or editor would flag them as being just too outlandish and, frankly, dumb. And yet, here we are. What was it like for you to be writing The Unfolding as it was unfolding? Did it change the scope or the tone?
AMH: That’s a good question. In some ways, it was slightly paralyzing, because I feel like I’ve been rubbernecking America, like, Oh my God, who was hurt in that accident? What is happening here? And so just the act of rubbernecking, literally turning your head and looking slows things down. I had thought when I started, that these guys, whom the Big Guy calls the Forever Men, were meant to echo the Eisenhower Ten, these men Eisenhower [secretly] appointed [in case of emergency, claimed President Eisenhower]—a person from banking, a person from labor, a person from all these different areas. And then as all this stuff started happening, I was like, Oh, my God, I have to push these people out even further. There’s a scene, for example, where these private military contractors make a visit to the Big Guy’s ranch in the middle of the night, and I was thinking a lot about people like Eric Prince and Blackwater. I wanted to, in some ways, divide the tones because I wanted the Forever Men to seem a little bit Dr. Strangelove-y and kind of William Burroughs-esque, and slightly surrealistic. And I wanted that tone also to be the split between the Big Guy’s private self and his family self. I’m always writing between the spaces, between our public selves and our private selves. Even within a family, we have a more private self that you don’t see.
DAME: As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think about the white supremacists’ chant at that Charlottesville rally at the University of Virginia back in 2017, of “You will not replace us.” I remember thinking at the time how pathetic it was, like, are you really saying this out loud? But this is the white cis-male existential fear that propels the Big Guy, a GOP operative, to action immediately following Election Night 2008—he and his cohort are terrified and enraged that a Black man is at the helm. They hate that they live in an increasingly multiracial society, that they sense that they’re losing relevancy and power.
AMH: When Obama won for the first time, there was incredible joy and liberation in the streets that night—it was huge. But beneath the surface world of this book is an exploration of the incredible sexism and racism that has always been there, and that became unleashed since Obama was elected. It really is about these men’s incredible fear of losing power. And even all the more among white men who are not in power, losing whatever they thought they had left. I think that’s where it becomes most dangerous: Wealthy white men in power are not going to do the things themselves, but they are certainly going to goad other men into doing all kinds of things.
DAME: You remind us that we’ve been in this place before, following World War II—the Red Scare, the Lavender Scare.
DAME: That moment when the Big Guy tells Meghan, “You know some things: colonial history, geometry, European literature, and grammar. Women aren’t really supposed to know all that much.” And it’s a rude awakening for her. Meghan responds, “Did you really just say that?” She thought she was at boarding school to be groomed for a life of excellence, that her father had respected her and regarded her as an equal. In fact, this whole novel is filled with rude awakenings for her, for each member of this family. To be 18 and realize that everything you thought you knew is wrong.
AMH: Right? Which is huge. It’s that same lack of social progress. It’s upsetting, you know? We’re going backward. I ended the book where I did for many reasons, but when I started writing it, I thought, I’m gonna go all the way through into the future. And then, as Trump was elected, and things started happening, I was like, Wow, things are happening, that I was making up [in the novel] but they’re real now. That’s scary, right? When my catastrophic cultural thinking comes true in real time … I think a lot about what Meghan will become, and what will Meghan do. And the funny thing is, the dad thinks she’s with him, and that she’ll follow in his footsteps. He doesn’t see that that’s likely not what’s going to happen.
Another piece of the Meghan thing is, I remember when my kid was in third grade, and she said, “Mom, were there any women in history?” It was fascinating to me that she asked that question; she already perceived that she was being sold a bill of goods that was not accurate. I still think about that, about the way in which, you know, African-American history and women’s history are separated from history and only taught to those on a need-to-know basis, basically.
DAME: Yeah, we get 28 days for Black History Month, and 31 days for Women’s History Month. And now the GOP has been campaigning against what they believe is “critical race theory,” so they’re fighting against anything that depicts white people in a bad light. It all just feels unfathomable: book bans, librarians and teachers being attacked. In Missouri, a bill passed that threatens criminal penalties for distributing or making available books that Republicans deem “sexually explicit”—including offering the QR code to Brooklyn Public Library. “Sexually explicit,” of course, can mean anything, but usually relates to any and all gay, lesbian, and trans content these days.
AMH: I think we are at a very, very scary time, when being a librarian is a dangerous vocation, and where one can be threatened for their relationship to books. My first novel, Jack, came out in 1989—I wrote it in college. (Ed. note: The novel features a boy who learns his father is gay when his parents divorce.) At the time there were, like, two books about gay parents. Jack was on the American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults. And then it also became one of the 100 most banned books in the country. Even in recent years, it’s been banned. It’s on that list from Texas that came out this spring. And it was banned in, I want to say Washington State, because somebody said it promotes bestiality. And I was like, what? There’s a line in it where the kid, Jack, is telling his friend Max that his dad is gay And Max is like, so? And he goes, “No, he sleeps with his roommate, Bob.” And Max says, “Well, I sleep with my dog.” If that’s where you would take it, then you’re gross—but that’s not what I’m saying. I purposely made it be about the dad trying to reconcile, What does that mean [to be a gay parent]? Can you still have a parent and be a parent and be a gay person? So it was written that long ago, and it’s still controversial? Obviously I’ve written a lot of other things since then that are “more controversial.” I feel like I’m constantly trying to have these conversations that are meant to be conversations, they are not meant to be like, Oh, I love that book. Like when people go, Oh, I love The End of Alice, I’m like, That’s scary.
DAME: Were you scared to write The Unfolding in this environment?
AMH: I was less scared when I was writing it and more scared now. Because when I was writing it, it wasn’t true yet. I don’t know where we’re going right now. There are incredible divides and the way in which there now seems to just be this effort for each tribe to protect their own rather than to figure out how we can be together.
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