2.21.2010

The Safety of Objects by A.M. Homes



Whether Amy Homes is here to shock you in her short fiction, novels, and memoir, is debatable, but shock you or not, how you can you not be amused by how twisted her imagination is in her debut collection of stories, The Safety of Objects, chronicling the emotional destitution of suburbia's parents and kiddos that is all too horrifically real?  Homes' book title is ironic, of course, as there's no safety to be found anywhere in the dark (though often, hysterical) worlds her characters -- both living and inanimate object -- populate.
signed first printing

The parents of "Adults Alone" ship off their two kids (one's a baby) to the wife's parent's house for the week so that our two substance abusing anti-heroes, Elaine and Paul, can take drugs and get high 24/7 while the kids are away. It's a stay-cation of cocaine, hashish, and acid, sans room service. The damn in-laws, though, announce they're bringing the kids home early because, after all, shouldn't a little baby be with its mother? Frantic, the dopester parents clean up the house in a hurry but, thankfully, for their precious baby's sake, aren't so wasted as to forget checking the cushions on the sofa prior to the baby's return in order to ensure there's no empty drug vials. A curious baby deep into its oral stage of human development might place an empty vial of cocaine in his or her mouth and choke to death. And that wouldn't be good, no sir-ree bob.

Another child disappears in "Looking For Johnny," and we see his perspective of his own kidnapping, much as we saw the girl's perspective of her own rape and murder in Alice Sebold's, The Lovely Bones - only this child, in Homes' story, hasn't realized he's kidnapped at first. We'd expect, as readers in this predictably tense situation, to read about the child being molested and ultimately worse, right? Instead, Homes, as she's prone to do, throws the reader one of her patented screwballs and we read of the boy only being forced to go fishing and to eat the fish he's caught (which he hates) and forced also to learn how to cook. Huh? That's it? Or, could it be, perhaps, since the child narrates the story, maybe the humiliated child doesn't want anyone knowing if stuff besides fishing and cooking went on, maybe? We can guess over the ambiguity, but probably only A.M. Homes (and our imaginations) knows the answer for sure.

An obese teenage girl in "Chunky In Heat," is so subtly disturbing (as all these biting gems of suburban nightmare black comedy are) I don't think I can write appropriately about it, but I'll try. It's about, well, an obese, lonely, sixteen year old girl, Cheryl, nicknamed, "Chunky," by the girl's mother after the girls favorite candy bar. We meet "Chunky" while she's sweltering in the summer heat in the backyard of her home on a K-Mart lawn chair, fantasizing in lewd and lucid detail about the thirteen year old boy next door having his way with every ounce of her. The ardor of her fantasy consumes her and before long she's half naked on the lawn chair. By the time her mother returns from grocery shopping, she's completely nude and nearly orgasmic. Her mother, without looking outside, calls for Chunky to come inside and help unpack the groceries. Chunky obliges. And here's where Homes masterfully lowers the boom (albeit an understated backhanded boom) describing a mother-daughter emotional disconnect so severe it borders on criminal neglect:

"Her mother is just outside bringing in bags from the car. The boy from next door passes by on his skateboard and looks in the door. He sees her and calls out her name, "Chunky". Cheryl stands there, sees him see her, hears her name, and still stands there. Without realizing it she drops her hand to her crotch, covering herself. Her mother comes in carrying three bags, looks at her, and says, "Get dressed, dear."

And that's it! That's all her mother says to her! As a reader I'm shrieking, 'Wake up, you cruel and clueless Mom you; your exhibitionist daughter is screaming HELP! She's literally naked before you, masturbating for all to see. Are you blind? Can't you hear her?' Homes is quite gifted at evoking outraged reader reaction in such a way you don't necessarily feel manipulated even though she's definitely angling for a strong response, especially when it comes to witnessing the wretched parenting "skills" of some of the most apathetic and oblivious parents imaginable.

I love too how Homes can say so much by saying so little. "Get dressed, dear." Three words says it all about that particularly disturbing dysfunctional relationship.

And Homes says even a lot more about how absurdly relationally disconnected we've become in suburban, North American culture, in what has to be the most darkly comic and bitingly satirical short story I've ever read (so biting there's practically fang punctures in the story's pages, and this story is not - repeat, not - to the best of my limited knowledge, about a love struck teenage vampire); the centerpiece of her debut collection, the cult classic, "A Real Doll". David Foster Wallace regarded it so highly he made "A Real Doll" required reading in his creative writing classes.

photo of A.M. Homes by Marion Ettlinger
On the surface, "A Real Doll" is about an adolescent boy who "dates" his little sister's Barbie doll when his sis isn't around and, more importantly, when Ken isn't looking. Homes sums up her story's plot in its iconic opening paragraph: "I'm dating Barbie. Three afternoons a week, while my sister is at dance class, I take Barbie away from Ken. I'm practicing for the future".

In Homes' marvelously demented hands, Barbie talks audibly to the boy and the two become fast friends. They learn one anothers likes and dislikes; how Barbie hates it when Jenny, the boy's sister, chews on her plastic feet, for instance - and it hurts! Were Barbie human, her feet would be horribly deformed from so much girlish chewing!

The boy and Barbie soon share intimate secrets and, just as dating between two human beings often turns romantically intense, resulting in sexual sparks, so does the boy and the piece of plastic become "intimate". Pardon what may sound like a sexist statement at first blush, but the first time I read the following passages from "A Real Doll", I was shocked (and maybe I'm naive) when I considered that this provocative narrative came from the pen and mind of a woman. I don't think any male writer I've ever read has ever written about a teenage boy's lustful fantasy life quite so pruriently, humorously, and well:

"I've never seen anything so big," Barbie said. It was the sentence I dreamed of....She stood at the base of my dick, her bare feet buried in my pubic hair. I was almost as tall as she was....I was on top, trying to get between her legs, almost breaking her in half. But there was nothing there...except a small thin line that was supposed to be her ass crack...I rubbed the thin line...Barbie said, "Don't stop"....

Trust me when I say that Homes omits no explicit details (as I have) in describing their bizarre (and laugh-out-loud funny) erotic encounters. Barbie just can't get enough of the boy because the makers at Mattel inadvertently deprived Barbie all those years ago when they created a Ken doll endowed with only a "bump". Poor Barbie! Imagine your boyfriend only had a bump! What would you do?

So that's the surface of "A Real Doll". Cut open and look inside the plastic, though, just as Jenny, the boys sister, ultimately does, beheading both Barbie and Ken and then switching their respective heads so that Ken becomes a she and Barbie becomes a he, and you're confronted with a multitude of socio-sexual commentary. Namely, our culture's obsession with sexual pathos and, in some cases, "perversion," if I dare call it that; and, more specifically, how our gender roles and sexual identities - our "sexual psychologies," if you will - are formed and informed and maybe re-informed and oftentimes "twisted" - such as in the case of the boy in "A Real Doll". But, is the boys behavior with the doll truly twisted? Is his behavior a sexual aberration? A fetish? Is he "deviant"? Or is he just plain weird? How would the DSM-IV-R, I wonder, classify his sexually plastic proclivities? Will his youthful predilection for Barbie dolls cause him, once he grows up, to rape and murder life size human women named Barbie? Homes never directly addresses these questions, but it's obvious she's implying them - and having a helluva lot of fun in the process. I think she's also asking: What exactly happened to this teenage boy, friendless and so isolated, that he would resort to amorous experimentation on molded plastic rather than experimenting with, say, the flesh and blood comprising the girl next door? I wonder if maybe the Barbie doll, in Homes' mind, symbolizes pornography, and perhaps Homes is covertly inquiring why it is that boys (a.k.a., "men") so often prefer the emotionally- and psychologically-disconnecting and destroying media of pornography over a real face-to-face relationship with a woman?

But that's just conjecture and maybe over-analysis on my part. Sometimes, a Barbie doll is, in fact, just a Barbie doll; a doll meant to, in the spirit of childhood, have its feet regularly chewed and head decapitated and replaced with Ken's by a little girl, and to also be literally used as a sex object by a teenage boy.

Who knows these days?

And sometimes, too, a new writer like A.M. Homes arrives on the literary scene as she did nearly two decades ago with a sublimely subversive book taking point of view and pathos and absurdity to strange but all uncompromisingly true satirical scenarios previously unimagined in contemporary literature.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

the author's name is HoLmes. not homes. i love her writing. please correct this! for her sake!

Anonymous said...

Nope, he is correct. Her name is Homes.