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Things You Should Know

Fertile Ground

By Ali Smith

If the first major literary marker of the American dream of aspiration, potential and never-ending youth was F. Scott Fitzgerald's lyrical piece of doomed yearning, The Great Gatsby (1925), its post-modern flipside, 70 years later, is A.M. Homes's The End of Alice (1996), whose paired literary voices made a grotesque harmony of two yearners after the dream of youth, both pedophiles; one a middle-aged lugubrious male child-murderer, the other a bland-speaking, sweet-seeming 20-year-old college girl. 

Homes is best known for this book, and as a cutting-edge satirist of the American middle classes, whose last novel, Music for Torching, was about a couple so juvenilely unable to live with their everyday "normality" that they try to burn down their house so they don't have to live in it any more.

Though the comparison might at first seem unlikely, Homes knows, like Fitzgerald, the promise of the dream and the dream's surreal underside. Like him, she is a deeply moral chronicler of her contemporary America. When National Geographic offered her the chance to write a non-fiction book about anywhere in the world, she didn't choose wildlife in Africa or snowboarding in Scandinavia, but flew from her home in New York to Los Angeles, "perhaps the most surreal place in America." This is the place where there are no old people on the streets ("it's got to be hard to age in a city panicked by history, by anything with too long a back story"), where people keep their survival kits ready-packed in case of earthquake, where "the Dream has become inflated as if to compensate for all that is otherwise not happening, as if to distract us from an underlying depression." And like Fitzgerald she is also a sublime short-fiction writer whose stories are like sharp and luminous rips in the social fabric she so acutely describes. 

Her second collection, The Things You Should Know, is full of moments of high surreal hilarity and discomfort. In one story, an electric surge causes all the doorbells in a rich street to go off at once. "An intercom chorus of faceless voices sings a round of 'Hi, hello. Can I help? Is anybody out there?'" In "Remedy", an advertising executive ("Products for Modern Living"), who is "35 and suddenly needs her mother," goes upstate to her parents' house to find they've let a stranger live with them. Her parents prefer him to her.

"I am lost," a man says in "The Chinese Lesson," as he tracks his mentally fading Chinese mother-in-law through his neighborhood; she has been implanted with a chip and he is watching her on the screen of a tracking device. In "Georgica," a woman who has survived a horrific accident, and so knows the difference between life and death, waits in the sand dunes of a seaside town to collect the still-warm condoms discarded by bright young lifeguards after sex with the local girls so she can inseminate herself her own way. "Golden boys. Like Toasted Wonder Bread; she imagines they are to warm to the touch." The story becomes a new virgin birth, a perfection of pornography. It questions what a story is, what a creation myth can be, in these days of accepted, surreal, clinical creation and existence. "When the child asked, Who is my father? she couldn't imagine saying R144... she would rather tell her child the story of the guards, and that she was born of the sea."

The stories examine panic and anxiety as a way of life. They are full of people who live between aspirational advertising and real despair, people who need more, who want something they can't name and can't get, who have an inability to deal with death or end but who long for its seeming purity, it's unexploredness. "Death is a place with no history, it' not like people have been there and then come back to tell you what a great time they had, that they highly recommend it, the food is wonderful and there's an incredible hotel right on the water." They detail a new kind of frontier living: all these explorers can do "is open the refrigerator door and hope there is something inside. They live on the surface in some strange state of siege."

"Everyone is something else, everyone wants more." This foray into the social jungle that calls itself the civilized world is as lithe, grotesque, paradoxical and loving as any good Fitzgeraldian analysis of dream and consequence. A repetitive rhythm between stories, of crashes and deathwishes, chipped or tagged lost people, shared fears, creates a literary texture like a nervy new music, and as in all her writing Homes's satire is so close to the truth it's terrifying. At the same time, in the unlikely meeting of creative possibility and sheer anxiety, there are unexpected transformations that suggest lyrical alternatives in something beyond the self and selfishness. This echoes subtly throughout the collection, which is funny and glinting and masterful, light as air, strange as a dream, monstrous as truth: the real and classic thing.