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Reading an AM Homes story for the first time is a little like being drunk – you’re not really sure what’s going on, you kind of like it, everything’s going fast and a bit suddenly. Along the way, however, you’ve discovered something, and at the end of the stories within Homes’ second collection, Things You Should Know, there are many discoveries.
I’d been re-reading at random. Dipping in and out of the words, the weirdness, the people watching. It wouldn’t be impossible to write a column about each of them in this collection – it would just be very long – thus, I have decided to pick my top three favourites.
Raft In Water, Floating
Once, in an interview, Homes said that she was “very interested in shapeshifting.” At first, this seemed random, unfitting to her works of domestic unhappiness and murder. My ignorance left me at Raft In Water, Floating in which an unnamed young woman may disappear. ‘I might evaporate,’ she says – and she indeed might. The girl spends her time in the water, alone but with visitors, people come to her, the vanishing act. The girl is watching the world, the water, her parent’s house, and in that watching, in that not living, in that floating, she feel she may disappear. ‘She sees her sister come out of the room. She watches the three of them, her mother, father, and sister, through the glass.’
In my latest column, I questioned what the term ‘ghost story’ actually means. Do ghost stories belong in the horror world? Ghouls in the shadows? Is there such a thing as family ghost stories? I concluded yes. In the case of Raft In Water, Floating we are witnessing the arrival of the ghost – the girl becoming. People come to her, to the ghost, almost to capture her – her beauty, the vision that she is. The girl’s transformation is eclipsed by the arrival of a shapeshifting coyote:
‘Her body is changing again, she is trading her fingers for fur, a black mask appears around her eyes, her bill becomes a snout. She is out of the water, standing on the flagstone, a raccoon with orange webbed feet.’
Whether the shapeshifter is real is up for debate. On a metaphorical level, however, Homes gives us what this girl is not – someone who is changing. But she is not, at least not in the way she feels. Her fear of disappearing is just a feeling, when the coyote changes, when it sits at the pool and eats sandwiches and becomes a raccoon, the girl is still the girl, left behind in a world that is far too grotesque than it should be. A world where technology rules – ‘It throws her parents into relief; the sliding glass doors are lit like a movie screen. IMAX Mom and Dad’ – a world of laziness, a world of spoon-feeding, a world where we ask: “Is the air on?”
The theme of technology runs through the collection – specifically the first three stories. The opening line to Georgica: ‘A phosphorescent dream. Everything hidden under cover of night becomes abundantly clear, luminescent’ is not only a glimpse into the tragedy that has occured, not only a nod to our technological age, again, but a way of bringing in the theme of exposure, of being caught out, being discovered.
Georgica was the story I kept hearing about. The ‘weird insemination story’. When I began reading for the first time it felt like classic Homes – weird, unique and more honest than a lot of other writers I’ve read. Georgica is a woman who has been beaten up by the world and has decided the way forward is to have a baby. Armed with night-vision goggles and her other supplies, Georgica watches teenage hopefuls – girls and boys full of promise:
‘Agile and lithe, they carry themselves with the casualness of young men, with the grace that comes from attention, from being noticed. These are hardworking boys, summer-job boys, scholarship boys, clean-cut, good boys, local boys, stunningly boyish boys, boys of summer, boys who every morning raise the American flag and every morning lower it, folding it carefully, beautiful boys. Golden boys.’
She watches them kiss, watches them undress, watches them have sex and when it is over when they are ‘embarrassed, overwhelmed, suddenly strangers’, when they have gone, she goes for the used condoms. She goes back to her car, hikes her legs up, sits like an astronaut and waits for the change to happen. But she is always reminded. As she waits, a police man arrives, informing her she cannot sleep in her car. But he recognises her: “Oh, it’s you, the girl from last summer.” She is the woman who was in a car crash, whose ex-fiancé was drunk and ran off the road and caused her to break her neck. She is trying to run away from all of that, trying to start over, but those around her prevent that – they keep dragging her back.
‘“Sorry to hear about your grandmother – I read the obituary.”
She nods. A couple of months ago, just after her ninety-eighth birthday, her grandmother died in her sleep – as graceful as it gets.
“That’s a lot for one year – an accident, a cancelled wedding, your grandmother passing.”
“It is a lot,” she says.
“You a birder?” he asks. “I see you’ve got binocs in the back seat.”
“Always on the lookout,” she says.’
When I first read Georgica I was on a train to Birmingham. I remember standing by the train door, the window open, coming to the end of the story. I felt a sudden blaze of memory, of time, reading the words. When re-reading, what came out was the idea of people always bringing back tragedy – your tragedy becomes their own. The police man, the friends, the witnesses, it is their tragedy too and they will never let her forget it. To them, she is the girl from last summer.
The Whiz Kids
The Whiz Kids is not a story I enjoyed the first time I read it. The New York Times called it ‘shocking’ but perhaps only for the purpose of shock. Shock value. An argument not uncommon to Homes’ work. The Whiz Kids, looking at the relationship between two young bisexual boys which results in the assault of a young woman, felt reminiscent of Homes’ story Slumber Party from the collection, The Safety of Objects (we’ll be getting to that in a month or two) due to its depiction of children. Homes has always been fascinated with children in her writing – from Sammy in Music For Torching, Alice in The End of Alice, Harry’s nephew and niece in May We Be Forgiven, the list goes on. Homes’ children aren’t fillers, either. Nor are they there to be babied or over-loved. Homes’ children are their own. In the case of The Whiz Kids this fact is more than apparent. This is a story in a world without adults.
What’s striking and familiar and strong is Homes’ capability to create intimacy in the most unlikely places. The opening lines – ‘In the big bathtub in my parent’s bedroom, he ran his tongue along my side, up into my armpits, tugging the hair with his teeth. “We’re like married,” he said, licking my nipples’ – sets in motion an intimacy that is unfamiliar.
‘Later, in the den, picking his nose, examining the results on his finger, slipping his finger into his mouth with a smack and a pop, he explained that as long as we never slept with anyone else, we could do whatever we wanted. “Sex kills,” he said, “but this,” he said, “this is the one time, the only time, the chance in a lifetime.” He ground his front teeth on the booger.’
This love becomes an obsession. The narrator is the more submissive in the couple, trying his best, however, to break out of his sex-obsessed partner’s patterns. Between jerking off with the door open and trying to sell his ‘virgin sperm’ the narrator’s lover wants more, the intimacy they created becomes dangerous, unwanted. The story ends in a random and brutal manner, yet fitting. I say random in the same way the end of Music For Torching is random, in the same way that life is random, that all things are random. They come out of nowhere, there’s shock, there’s life. One of my favourite things about this story – among its themes and sharpness and power – is its last line:
‘Arms spread, faces twisted, together she and I ran out of the woods, screaming as though doused in gasoline, as though afire.’
(Other: Do Not Disturb)
Let’s run away to Paris. It is the city of dreams, the city of lights, the city to start over. April and Frank Wheeler decide to run away to Paris in Yates’ Revolutionary Road, they never get there however. Their suburban household and marital problems crumble their dreams of ever moving on, getting away, starting over. In Homes’ Do Not Disturb, the couple in question want to start over but not necessarily together.
The narrator, the husband, is married to his wife, the doctor who has ovarian cancer. His wife, the doctor, has become the woman with cancer. He has become her carer, this is now his life too. Homes’ couples are more honest than a lot of others in fiction, perhaps too honest. They hurt one another, they say what’s on their mind. Although the couple in Do Not Disturb are honest – more so the wife – there are some things that, when said, cannot be unsaid.
When I first read the story I found it to be dark to the point of miserable. The weight and brutality of cancer, the way it navigates through a marriage, a family, guttering normality. When re-reading, I felt the rage. The doomed participation with this disease. The lack of hope and accelerated feeling of entrapment. Those suffering from it can do nothing, nor can you.
‘I am not going to be able to leave the woman with cancer. I am not the kind of person who leaves the woman with cancer, but I don’t know what you do when the woman with cancer is a bitch. Do you hope that the cancer prompts the woman to re-evaluate herself, to take it as an opportunity, a signal for change?’
They go away to Paris. Paris, the clean break. Although, I keep thinking, where to the dysfunctional couples in Paris go? It seems an injustice to explain what happens when they get to Paris, mainly because of its cruel irony and symmetry. The story is made to be re-read in the same way it is made to be revisited in different mind zones. Like all great stories about couples, when returning you’re confronted with a different view-point. At first, the wife was my focus, where my heart belonged. When re-reading, it was the husband. He’s trapped on an island he wasn’t invited to:
‘Luckily she has good insurance. The bill for the surgery comes – it’s itemized. They charge per part removed. Ovary $7,000, appendix $5,000, the total is $72,000 dollars. “It’s all in a day’s work,” she says.
We are lying in bed. I am lying next to her, reading the paper.
“I want to go to a desert island, alone. I don’t want to come back until it’s finished,” she says.
“You are on a desert island, but unfortunately you have taken me with you.”’
Five Favourite Quotes:
‘They’d look at me, instantly dismissive, as though I too was doomed to divorce, as though domestic instability was genetically passed down.’ – The Chinese Lesson
‘She begins to shift, to change; first she is a coyote, then a zebra, a mare, and a man. Her bones are liquid, pouring. She is laughing, crying in ten different languages, barking and baying. His hands slide over her skin, her coat, her fur, her scales, her flippers and fins. He is sucking the toes of a gorilla, kissing the ear of a seal. She is thick and thin, liquid and solid..’ – The Weather Outside Is Sunny And Bright
‘“I want to live,” I tell her. “I just don’t know how.”’ – Please Remain Calm
‘“How are you feeling?” “Like I’ve taken a trip to another country and my suitcases are lost.”’ – Do Not Disturb
‘It is about wanting and need, wanting and 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.’ – Remedy