The American Dream in Music For Torching
In A.M. Homes’ novel Music for Torching, married couple Paul and Elaine find their relationship to be as static and boring as the Westchester County suburb in which they live. Unsatisfied with their marriage and fearful of a lifeless future, they take out their frustration with suburbia through misguided sexual encounters, insulting verbal spats, and fits of jealousy directed towards their seemingly perfect friends and neighbors. Desperate for a change in their lives, Paul and Elaine purposely set fire to their house, but it does not burn down completely as they intended. Rather, their house sits dirty and damaged while they are forced to reconcile their actions. Having neither money nor resources to move away, their family continues to live in the soot-filled house while selling many of their clothes and possessions. Paul and Elaine spend a few nights at the home of their friends Pat and George Neilson, whose house is always pristine and everything is in perfect order. The idyllic nature of the Neilson’s house seems to exacerbate the problems between Paul and Elaine, as they frequently fight and see themselves as frauds and inferiors. Through these fraught turns of narrative, Homes dissects the concept of the white-picket-fence style of ideal American life while showcasing the shortcomings of traditional gender and familial roles within the home.
When we consider gender roles, one of the most well-known is the role of the mother as cook and housekeeper. Stereotypes would have you believe that a woman’s job is to have kids and take care of the house; cleaning, doing laundry, and cooking meals. Music for Torching’s Elaine exemplifies this lifestyle, as the book opens with her husband Paul chastising her for the amount of fat in their dinner. As the novel continues, Paul berates his wife who “stands at the sink, in an apron, in Playtex gloves, trying to protect herself” (Homes 1). Elaine embodies the trope of the helpless wife. She is a self-conscious mother who cannot satisfy her husband and attempts to “make everything good again” (Homes 1) by keeping a nice house, an endeavor at which she repeatedly fails. It becomes obvious throughout the story that Elaine was not born to be a stay-at-home mother. She is a bad cook, she dislikes cleaning, and she finds no satisfaction from existing at home. Because she is forced to fulfill this role that she has no desire to play, she comes to resent her house and everything that it represents. Driven by a need to escape and spurred by her inability to cook dinner, she encourages Paul when he pours lighter fluid on their house, and she herself kicks over the grill, marking the finality of her decision to leave all the problems of their life in the ashes.
When the house fails to actually burn down, however, Elaine is distraught. Homes states that “Elaine sits in the car, thinking she is back to scratch, zero, square one. She’s back to where she started, only now it is worse. Now she will have to take care of the house, tend it like a sick person. She imagines running away; where would she go? Into the woods to live like a wildwoman on berries and nuts? Into the city to sleep on a steam grate? She thinks of running. She undoes her seat belt. She is reaching to unlock the door when she sees Paul coming back. She sees Paul coming and pictures herself taking off down the street-the streetlights like searchlights, constantly catching her. She sees Paul chasing her, not knowing why she is running, why he is chasing, except that it is his instinct to catch her, to drag her back” (Homes 29). By burning down the house, Elaine was trying to escape from her role as the keeper of the home. But now that the house stands, wrecked, it is just another thing that she will have to take care of. She not only tends to the needs of her children, her husband, and her parents, but now she must do all of that while re-building the house that she so hates. Furthermore, the burnt house now reflects Elaine’s feelings about her marriage to Paul. She knows that he uses her for food and sex, she knows that he is having multiple affairs with other women, and she knows that he does not value her as a partner or a wife. However, their marriage is still stubbornly standing, just like their house, yet it is full of holes and dirt. Elaine imagines what it would be like to run away, but she has only ever known one role in life; wife and mother. She has no idea what she would do if she left her home and her marriage, because as bad as they are they are the only things that she has a strong connection to. In this passage, Elaine questions why she and Paul continue to promote the facade of their love. She imagines running from him but not knowing why, and he chases her for no reason other than that it must be the right thing to do. Paul’s instinct is to drag her back to the house despite the fact that they both feel unhappy with their situation. However, they are both striving to be the ideal couple, and they know that divorce would besmirch their reputation among their well-to-do friends. Their reason for staying together seems to be based entirely on the idea that they have familial roles to play as parents and lovers, and that breaking from that would make them outcasts from society.
While Elaine is struggling to fulfill her place as a wife and mother, so too is Paul scrambling to act like the ideal man; strong, protective, and stoic. Paul is shown to be weak of character, as he cheats on his wife, lies to his children, and acts immorally in many ways with no remorse. While Paul knows that his actions are wrong, he does not want to expose himself as a person with faults as that would damage his standing as a man. Paul continually needs to prove himself as smarter and stronger than Elaine, and although she makes it clear to him that she is aware of his misdeeds he pretends like he can get away with anything. After the house burning, however, Paul realizes that he can no longer just pretend like there are no problems in their lives. Homes states that “The house is not something Paul can make a virtuous and manly show of Mr. Fix-it with. There’s no reaching a hand in to turn a loose screw-saving them a handyman’s house call and seventy-five bucks. The house isn’t even like a radio he can pluck apart with the enthusiasm of learning how things work, sure he’ll be able to put back every diode. Paul has never fixed anything. And he reminds himself that he did this, he brought it on; without a moment’s pause to wonder whether or not it could be reconstructed, he destroyed it. Worse yet-and this is the part he’s admitted to no one-he got a kick out of it. It felt invigorating, it felt fucking fantastic” (Homes 90). Paul is used to being the man of the house, the person who can perform physical tasks and act as the quintessential masculine figure. In this case, however, Paul realizes that his actions are not something he can fix using any type of manliness. Whereas before his family relied on him to solve simple problems-tightening screws, fixing radios-he knows that he cannot repair the damage done to their house on his own. In this case again, the house serves as a symbol for his marriage to Elaine. He used to put minimal effort into the relationship, merely fixing small things when they came up, but now severe damage has been done and he cannot simply brush it away. It’s going to take actual hard work and cooperation to rebuild both his house and his marriage, and Paul is coming to the conclusion that he enjoyed the destruction. He instigated the fire, and he continually treated Elaine badly because he liked the feeling of power that came along with it. As a man, he feels the need to dominate, to control and command. Yet with the burning of the house that power is gone, and gone with it is the sense of masculinity that was motivating so many of Paul’s actions.
Music for Torching lays bare the realities of marriage, family, and suburban life in a provocative way. Elaine and Paul are grotesque characters whose actions seem ludicrous when compared to those of the actual average middle-class American. However, the pressures and anxiousness of suburban ideals in the novel ring true. Paul and Elaine’s problems are not mystical or deeply psychological; they are products of the label-obsessed culture that assigns each person a specific role in society. The man is to make money and protect his family, the woman is to raise the children and keep the house, the man is to have a mistress or two and the women is to remain content and unbothered. Elaine despises the life of a housewife but feels that she has a duty to retain her position. Paul is inwardly self-conscious but presents a pompous attitude in order to seem powerful and masculine. The culmination of these lies and falsehoods eats away at their marriage and their home, and in the end they have no choice but to send everything up in smoke.
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