Richard Novak, the protagonist of A M Homes's new novel, is officially retired, living in luxurious exile in the hills above Los Angeles (he's a New Yorker who fled westwards some years earlier, walking out on his wife and son). But he still gets up early each day to catch the opening bell on Wall Street, playing the markets on a laptop as he pounds his treadmill wearing top-of-the-range noise-excluding headphones.
Those headphones are a clue that Richard's exile is psychological as well as geographical. After the medical episode with which the novel opens, and whose causes remain inscrutable despite an MRI scan that feels to him like "test-driving a coffin", Richard realises he hasn't left the house for nearly a month. He has a record of his transactions, but nothing in his diary save for a few botched appointments; when he wasn't online, it seems, he simply "didn't exist".
Like a number of her contemporaries - David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen in particular - Homes is fascinated by the alienating textures of late capitalism. For instance, she riffs almost lyrically on the way Richard rides "the wave of the market, catching it on the up, betting on the down", and her prose is thick with the jangling, clashing nomenclatures of macrobiotics, high finance and pharmacology. Evidently Homes is tempted by the idea of the novel as a form of cultural analysis: at one point, we find Richard, stuck in his car somewhere between Beverly Hills and Malibu, "mentally writing his treatise, his exegesis on Los Angeles".
Yet This Book Will Save Your Life is not simply a fictional retread of Homes's own exegesis-cum-travelogue, Los Angeles (2003), and Richard is not merely a conduit for his creator's observations about the culture. Homes seems as interested in Richard as she is in rehab, real estate and the rest. (You might say that she's as interested in the inner life of her central character as she is in what Don DeLillo calls the "inner life of the culture".) The core of the story, then, is a sort of reverse Bildungsroman in which Richard attempts to reclaim himself by reclaiming his past, and comes to see the truth of something said to him by his reclusive neighbour Nic: "You can't escape yourself. Everyone has a history."
When he leaves hospital, he discovers that a sinkhole that had appeared on the hillside outside his house has got bigger, and is advised to leave until the foundations are shored up. While he waits for his estate agent to find him temporary lodgings elsewhere, he flies to Boston to stay with his brother and his family.
Richard is unsettled as much by his brother's domestic achievements (the family breakfasts, the people carrier) as he is by his professional ones (the brother, a scientist, narrowly misses out on a Nobel Prize). He also discovers that his brother and sister-in-law have stayed in touch with his wife and son Ben, and that Ben is about to embark on a road trip that will end in LA, where he is due to spend the summer as an intern at a talent agency.
Homes's treatment of Richard's slow reconciliation with Ben is at once tender and unflinching, especially in a terrifying set-piece in which he comes home late and is assaulted by his drunk and angrily in-consolable son. There is genu-ine pathos here. Nevertheless, Homes can't quite pass up the easier rewards of social caricature. Between his return from hospital and Ben's arrival in LA, Richard is accompanied on his journey back to himself by a parade of lurid characters (a doughnut-seller, a deranged housewife he meets in the supermarket, a woman imprisoned in the boot of a car), each of whom becomes the recipient of his new-found compassion and largesse. "How does it feel to be a superman?" the doughnut-seller asks. The effect is not to persuade us of Richard's redemption, but merely to tempt us with sentimental uplift.