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Things You Should Know

Oddness of the Heart

By Richard Eder

What do you see in Edvard Munch's painting The Scream; the horror of the visage or the innocence of a visage torn by horror? Without the latter, the former, after the jolt of the new had subsided, would be gratuitous and, more important, meaningless. The truly horrifying aspect of a corpse is the defacement of what was alive.

Over the course of literary modernism and the patchwork of styles and purposes crowded in since (lacking new ground to build on, the house of letters, like a Moscow apartment, stuffs the successive generations into a single cramped kitchen and bedroom), the grotesque and the absurd have been used in two ways. The first is to refract the real through its grotesque or absurd deformations (to see the humanity of an upside-down figure and not just its upside-downness, you stand on your head). The other is to focus on the grotesque, absurd and upside-down for their own sake—for purposes ranging from prophetic to denunciatory to playful

Nothing wrong with that, except by now (80 years since the glory days of Antonin Artaud) it shows wear: prophecy trampled by a future coming so fast as virtually to lie behind, and denunciation turned into a reflexive cliché. The enduring exemplars of the grotesque and absurd belong to the first category. They stand for what shines through them. Kafka's insect is about a human plight, not arthropodics; Beckett's splendid non sequiturs are about outraged reason; and the stories of Donald Barthelme are not just absurd but absurdly tender.

So much as preface to a now collection by A.M. Homes, whose novels and stories have earned the indignation of some critics over the past dozen years and—delight might be the wrong word—the admiration of others. "Perverse" was used by some, "transgressive" by others, for The End of Alice (1996), her novel about two pedophiles, one male and one female, who recount their seductions in graphic detail, including scab-chewing and dismemberment; and for Music for Torching (1999), which advances Cheeveresque suburban tension into mayhem and arson.

Some of the stories in Things You Should Know—an archly didactic title considering the things in it that you've no real need to know—display the grotesque very much for its own sake. The extremity is disproportionate to any human message; the transgressiveness a sort of artistic complacency. "Rockets Round the Moon" is an example. Here, as in some of her other fiction, Homes writes not only of the sterility but the dark nightmare corners of the suburban life. The narrator, a boy whose divorced parents are chilly and dietarily correct (large salad meals), spends his time in a neighboring household, marked by warmth, noise and baloney sandwiches. It is a refuge until the father, speeding, runs over a child. That life offers no safety, even, or especially, in the suburbs, would be a reasonable point. Homes gothicizes it by having the repentant father try to incinerate himself in his barbecue pit; and his son, the narrator's pal, attempts an equivalent suicide by standing up suddenly during an amusement park ride. He manages only to throw up, befouling the narrator, while the author as arbitrary deity seems, as it were, to hold herself coolly apart.

In "The Whiz Kids," a brutish bisexual adolescent seduces a friend, then has him watch as he forces a girlfriend to lie still while he urinates on her. Shock effect seems to be the only point, but for any true shock we would need some involvement with at least one of the three characters.

But there is far more to Homes. There are stories where the strangeness is in uncertain but fascinating balance with those who display it. "Raft in Water, Floating" has a rich California couple whose self-absorption is wittily symbolized by a matrimonial bed with two halves that raise and lower separately. "They both want what they want, they need what they need." Their teenage daughter spends her days and nights in the swimming pool, where she is visited by a beguiling shape-changer (raccoon, duck, man, woman, etc.) fond of snack food.

In "Georgica" a young woman haunts the beach at night to spy on young men with their girlfriends, and, fed up with men and wanting a child "born of the sea," recovers their used condoms to inseminate herself. It is a wild story far-fetched, yet inexplicably (to me at least) it fetches far.

"The Former First Lady and the Football Hero" imagines Nancy Reagan's life with her Alzheimer's-afflicted husband. It is a witty, perhaps cruel, exercise upon an easy target, but a line transforms it. At first, we learn, the Nancy Reagan character thought they'd deal with Alzheimer's the way they'd dealt with cancer and the assassination attempt. "But then she realized that it was not something they'd deal with, it was something she would deal with, alone."

By far the finest balance between oddness and the heart is in "The Chinese Lesson." The story opens with Geordie Harris, the narrator, walking the streets of his suburb holding a global positioning device. He is looking for his Chinese mother-in-law, who tends to wander off, and has had an electric chip implanted to help him find her. Satire of course, but telling. Our virtual means turn real ends into virtual ones: old Mrs. Ha has been to this degree de-natured.

The satire segues into a story of marriage and distances. Geordie cossets his mother-in-law, helps her shop for chicken feet for soup. His wife Chinese-American can't stand her mother and the old ways she represents: the chicken feet, she is sure, are a poisonous conspiracy. He tries to reason with her chilly hostility; after all Kate, their daughter, is half-Chinese. "I don't like that half of Kate," she replies.

The story is surreal, it is emblematic and it has a beating heart. At the end there is a moment of cinematic beauty. Geordie thinks quixotically of taking their whole family to China, imagining they will all reconnect there. He recalls the story of a man who has a bicycle accident in the Chinese countryside and breaks his hip. There is no help; he fashions his broken bicycle into a crutch and makes his way to the city.

Here Homes approaches the art of the great absurdists. Strangeness becomes a revealing back entrance into the human condition of our day.