A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing
Prior to the publication of Things You Should Know, A. M. Homes (or “AM”, as she’s referred to in the publicity for this book) has published four novels and another collection of short stories. The tales in her newest collection bespeak a surreal, slightly menacing world of private paranoia into which intrude relentless, threatening forces of randomness, contingency, accident. Granta has placed on the cover of this book a Thomas Grunfeld photograph of a dog with a sheep’s head grafted on, a hybrid of shaggy-dog and sheepish pastoral that works perfectly to encapsulate the suburban weirdness of Homes’s fictions.
A suburban writer she surely is, in contrast to her apparent immediate precursor in modern American literature, the novelist and short story writer Mary Gaitskill, whose early work is firmly ‘New York’ in its own surrealism, urban, metropolitan, and concerned with alienated city life. Homes, in contrast, depicts alienated small-town or suburban life but with comparable verve and gusto. She shares with Gaitskill a concern with the experience of social and psychological disconnection that defines and constricts her characters, limiting their achievements but also framing their ambitions, which are in turn largely focused on achieving different kinds of connection.
These themes are established early in the first story in the collection, “The Chinese Lesson”, where the narrator’s alienation from others gradually mutates into an alienation from himself and his own life:
Sitting next to Susan on the train, I feel like I’m a foreigner, not just a person from another country but a person from another planet, a person without customs, ways of being, a person who has blank spots rather than bad habits. I am thinking about Susan, about what it means to be married to someone I know nothing about.
Physical proximity does nothing to alleviate psychological, political, moral and cultural distances, and Homes’s characters find themselves in these disconcerting situations where their desire for connection to others is continually thwarted by being misconceived, misread, or simply dismissed or ignored. The same narrator goes on:
Twenty minutes later I call her at the office—“Just making sure you got there OK.”
“I’m here,” she says.
“I want something,” I confess.
“What do you want?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “More. I want more of something.”
Connection, I am thinking. I want connection.
“You want something I don’t have,” she says.
The narrator here is a Jewish American man, Susan his Chinese American wife. Homes’s comment remains implicit throughout the story, but addresses issues of cultural hybridity, of where we all belong when cultural mixing becomes the norm rather than the exception, and of what happens in such a situation to traditional notions of identity, origin and belonging.
A similar emotional impasse is represented in “Do Not Disturb”, which explores a 38-year-old cancer victim’s emotional responses to her condition as experienced (again) by her husband, who narrates the story with a curious, slightly disturbing air of distance:
Every time I inject her I apologize.
“For what?” she asks.
“Forget it,” she says, disposing of the needle.
“Could I have a hug?” I ask.
She glares at me. “Why do you persist? Why do you keep asking me for things I can’t do, things I can’t give?”
“I can’t give you one.”
“Anyone can give a hug. I can get a hug from the doorman.”
“Then do,” she says. “I need to be married to someone who is like a potted plant, someone who needs nothing.”
The tension here between two different kinds of need coming into destructive conflict with each other is palpable, and lends the story a disquieting force in its mapping of dysfunctional love and how it spills over into demand and requirement.
Homes is excellent at quickly and firmly sketching out a particular psychological matrix from which the narrative evolves. The majority of stories here are first-person narrations, indicating an abiding concern with internalised experience and how it conflicts with external reality. At her most bizarre, in the title story or in “The Whizz Kids”, Homes creates a speeded-up, amphetamine-fuelled blur, in which narration confuses fantasy and reality, as in the latter story’s souped-up teenage-porn conclusion:
He unzipped his pants and peed on her. She screamed, and he aimed the river at her mouth. Her lips sealed and her head turned away. Torrent released, he shook it off on her, put it away, and stepped from her hands.
She raised herself. Urine ran down her cheeks, onto her blouse, and into her jeans. Arms spread, faces twisted, together she and I ran out of the woods, screaming as though doused in gasoline, as though afire.
Elsewhere she sustains the pervasive atmosphere of suburban oddity in stories that examine radically different contexts. “Georgica” is a bizarre tale of a woman’s attempts to impregnate herself with the spilled sperm left over from surfer-boys’ surreptitious lovemaking, which is voyeuristically studied and then plundered; “The Former First Lady and the Football Hero” imagines the post-presidential retirement life of the Reagans in powerful, touching terms, offering some insight into the horrific realities of Alzheimer’s disease (so many of Homes’s stories seem to locate themselves in mental or physical disease in order to allegorise social disorders). In each case Homes writes with a punchy, terse economy, allowing the narratives to develop in their own directions but never relinquishing control over her central concerns.
Homes is equally at ease in portraying character, place and action. Her world is one that hovers on the edge of most people’s vision, and consists of half-imagined, half-remembered things (like the semi-mythical list of “Things You Should Know” supposedly given out by the teacher in the title story, missed due to illness by the narrator, searched for forever after). Things You Should Know belongs in the ‘new books’ section of that list everyone has of “Things You Should Read”.