The End of Alice
I only recently stumbled upon this excellent novel, but better late than never. I wasn’t familiar with the content, but recognized A.M. Homes from writing the introduction to my copy of Evan S. Connell’s The Diary of a Rapist.
Anyone qualified for that task knows a thing or two about transgressive literature, and Homes does not disappoint. With The End of Alice, she has written a classic that demands space between Connell’s infamous novel and Lolita.
Like Lolita, we have a tale of pedophilia recounted by a perpetrator (Chappy) who reflects on his crimes from within the criminal justice system. Like Diary, the transgressions are symbolic of American culture and its sins of genocide, racism and slavery. In Connell’s novel, the narrator is a fragile white male, fearful of the changing landscape of 1960s America — and whose crime ostensibly takes place on July 4. In Alice, when the narrator meets the titular 12-year-old girl, she is dressed up as an American Indian.
Each of these novels is told by an unreliable narrator, through court testimony, diary or — in The End of Alice — prison letters. Presenting the POV of the “monster” is what makes them so controversial, but more importantly, so effective. The reader is left on their own to discern what is reality and what is fantasy — and it is a very uncomfortable place to occupy given the subject matter.
The End of Alice adds an interesting wrinkle to the narrative. Alice is off-screen for most of the novel. The main plotline is the correspondence between Chappy and an unnamed 19-year-old female admirer. Through their letters, she reveals that she wants to seduce a 12-year-old boy, and Chappy becomes something like a mentor, giving notes and encouraging her conquest.
Meanwhile, Chappy has a parole hearing coming up. Despite serving a life sentence, he is confident he will be released and even likens the hearing to an appearance on What’s My Line? (an old game show, for younger readers).
When he sits before the parole board, however, his illusions crumble. Throughout the book Chappy has described Alice as the aggressor. While he attempted to quell his desires, she pursued him, sneaking into his cabin at night.
His case file tells a different tale that is disgusting and horrifying, and the fact that he thought the parole hearing was anything more than a formality shows the extent of his mental delusions.
Having these moments of outside clarity helps increase the punch of the unreliable narrator. I liken it to the most powerful moments of Lolita, when Humbert Humbert wonders why Dolores cries herself to sleep at night.
My criticism of this novel is that it is a bit overwritten in places. Chappy’s prose rambles with alliteration and lyrical repetition to the point of distraction. It felt more like the author performing the word play than the character. At times, it reminded me of the readings in my MFA program.
But amid the excessive prose are sentences as sharp as razors. The playful language becomes the set up — to lull the reader before delivering the gut punch. And as Humbert Humbert himself said, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”
This was an incredible book and is required reading for any student of transgressive media.