In the hands of a minimalist writer, the aimless characters in A Home at the End of the World would add up to the usual pointless story. Parts of the novel, in fact, appeared in minimalist heaven, The New Yorker, and created a sensation, perhaps because of their sexual candor, perhaps because the plot threads its way through several recurrent journalistic obsessions: the Woodstock generation, drugs, rock music, AIDS. But Michael Cunningham has invested a small fortune of eloquent prose in his passive, impulsive characters, and he gets more than the fashionable bare minimum of literary return out of them.
”We’d hoped vaguely to fall in love but hadn’t worried much about it, because we’d thought we had all the time in the world. Love seemed so final, and so dull — love was what ruined our parents. Love had delivered them to a life of mortgage payments and household repairs; to unglamorous jobs and the fluorescent aisles of supermarkets at two in the afternoon.” This fear of becoming their parents delivers Cunningham’s characters to New York, to unglamorous temporary jobs and the dim aisles of used clothing stores at two in the afternoon. Going nowhere on the treadmill of relentless experiment, they seem as trapped in their inchoate potential as their parents were in their humdrum actuality.
The early chapters of the novel portray the parents as possessed by a fumbling urge to become their own children. That is perhaps why the children, trying to escape them, remain thoroughly tethered to them, still pouting and toddling in their 30s, trying on parodies of middle-class adulthood as they once tried on mommy’s hats and lipstick. Sensitive, tentative Jonathan has gone on from mommy’s hats and lipstick in Cleveland to gay life in New York City. He shares a squalid flat in platonic intimacy with cynical, witty, wistful Claire, who has run a gauntlet of marriage, abortion, and numerous lovers of both sexes. The arrival of earnest, inarticulate Bobby, Jonathan’s childhood best friend and sexual playmate, completes the ménage à trois. Claire initiates Bobby into the mysteries of heterosexuality, which leaves him crying like a baby and eventually results in a real baby. After a certain amount of floundering, the three infantile adults with infantile infant move to Woodstock to start a restaurant and wait for commitment and epiphany to arrive like uninvited guests.
Cunningham’s prose style, by turns evocative and reflective, has an unintentional comic side effect. He divides up the narration among the main characters, and they all sound the same. So Bobby, who barely gets beyond ”Uh, like, you know” when given a line of dialogue, suddenly comes up with sentences on the order of ”Its outbuildings are anchored on a sea of swaying wheat, its white clapboard is molten in the late, hazy light.” But the intricate, searching prose is all that keeps the novel from being as muddled as its characters. It does more to redeem them than anything they do. B