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Things You Should Know

The Irish Times

June 2004

Darkness on the edge of town

By Eileen Battersby 

Before entering the weirdly dark world of A.M. Homes, it might be useful to know that these stories are far from typical of anything. Once that is understood, the reader may be able to settle down more easily into the experience—though I doubt it. Homes is yet another of the bright, younger generation of US writers, and is also another gifted exponent of what is an American art form, the short story. 

As for her material, she may look at contemporary US life as lived by middle class people but that is merely incidental. However, her true concern, in most of the ill-fated tales gathered here, is the horrible straitjackets we fashion for ourselves.

 

Relationships are one-sided and often dangerous, couples appear to hate and even fear each other. Admittedly, it is not that easy to like her characters, but very natural to feel an uncomfortably large affinity with most of them. Homes is interested in the prison of the mind and most specifically, the emotions, the helplessness of being alive and adrift.

 

Having said that, it would be a mistake to think these are emotional, much less sentimental stories. These are the fictions of a tougher, more relentless Alice Hoffman. The magic comes complete with the smile of a killer and a slash of steel. The all-seeing, hyper alert Homes writes well and at times rises to lyric images, but terror and unhappiness dominate. It is as if Chagall decided to exchange romantic fantasy for an advanced horror genre devised to test the unshockable. 


In "Georgica," a young woman patrols the sand dunes of a local beach. No notions of privacy are entertained, she spies on couples, hopeful they will engage in sex. She waits and is often rewarded with exactly what she is seeking, a used condom.

Neither a voyeur nor a spy, she wants the condoms and their contents, the possibility of new life, for her own use as living for her has become a ritual of 
seeking and planning. 

Following a car accident during which she was hurled into the air and left suspended upside down for some 30 minutes, she remains damaged, albeit more spiritually than physically. As the friendly local cop recalls when reminding her of the incident: "I was worried you were a goner. People said they saw you fly through the air like a cannonball. They said they'd never seen anything like it." Desperate for a baby the girl has become both stalker and outcast if ultimately something of a deranged saint. It is a creepy story, as are several of them. Although this one possesses an eerie mildness, several of the others are sustained by a fury that ranges from the subtle to the raw.

In the first story, "The Chinese Lesson," one of the few sympathetic narrators begins his story by reporting he is walking "holding a small screen, watching the green dot move like a blip of a plane, the blink of a ship's radar." If that is not arresting enough, he continues: "Searching. I am on the lookout for submarines. I am an air traffic controller trying to keep everything at the right distance."

Within a few sentences the truth is revealed, he is trying to track down his missing mother-in-law. The gadget leads him to a playground. There in the darkness, he finds her, "sailing through my beam like an apparition. Her black hair blowing, her hands smoothly clutching the chain-link ropes of a swing as though it were reins."

It is a dramatic moment, made all the sadder and funnier by the old lady announcing, "I'm flying," as the narrator looks at her "sailing through the night." But the heart of the story is not a disoriented old woman, it is the coldness of her daughter, the remote Yale-educated architect to whom the narrator is married. It is this quality of non-life so accurately rendered by Homes that makes her stories so terrifying and vivid. She can be funny, but her intention is to disturb—and boy, does she succeed. One of the stories, "The Whiz Kids," is probably the most offensive piece, outside formal pornography, that I have ever encountered. 

But well before that, when approaching the fourth story, I was considering surrender, and seeking out friendlier territory. In other words, finding something else to read. But, "Remedy" begins with such a heartrending—and real—declaration you have to read on. "It is about wanting and need, wanting need—a peculiar, desperate kind of need, needing to get what you never got, wanting it still, wanting it all the more, nonetheless. It is about a profound desire for connection. It is about how much we don't know, how much we can't say, what we don't understand. It is about how unfamiliar even the familiar can become."

Here an unhappy female of 35 is suffocating in a disastrous relationship. Her job confers no comfort, only more pressure. She wants to go home and decides to phone. When she tries phoning, it all becomes very difficult as the man on the other end is very unhelpful. It turns out to be a lodger who has moved in with her parents. 

Homes is at her best when describing the psychological stalemate that endures between Ray, the man who has introduced a chilling new order to the lives of her elderly parents, and an adult woman in crisis who needs her mother. From the moment she arrives back at the family home, it is obvious that little comfort will be on offer. 

"Her father opens the door, she steps inside, expecting the dog. She has forgotten that that dog is not there anymore, he died about a year ago." 
'That's so strange—I was expecting the dog.'

'Oh,' her father says. 'I do that all of the time. I'm always thinking I shouldn't leave the door open, shouldn't let the dog out. We have him, for you, if you want,' her father says. 'His ashes are on the shelf over the washing machine. Do you want to take him with you?'"

Not a writer given to pathos, Homes does nevertheless have a sure feel for the surreal grief of displacement. It is a fine story, as is "Rockets Round the Moon." In it a young boy handed back and forth between his divorced and resettled parents, reveals: "I was also used to being around people I didn't know, living with people I wasn't related to. I kept my own secrets. I'd taught myself to be a little less than human." Every summer he is passed on to neighbours who also have a young boy. During the vacation, the father of that boy, the narrator's friend, accidentally kills a child while driving. The narrator both witnesses and participates in his friend's family's subsequent guilt. 

When Homes is good she is remarkable. But even when she is average she is still pretty impressive. There is however a mannered cruelty at work while portrayals of apathy and inertia may prove too wantonly direct to endure. Proceed with caution.

 

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