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Things You Should Know

Familiar Feelings Undermined In Tales of the Unexpected

By Toni Davidson

Barry Lopez describes stories as "a powerful and clarifying human invention. It is through story that we embrace the great breadth of memory, that we distinguish what is true and that we may glimpse, at least occasionally, how to live without despair." Much of Lopez's writing is concerned with travel and the natural world; A.M. Homes writes about staying put and the artificial world. They have more in common than you would think.

This is Homes's first collection of short stories since The Safety of Objects,published 12 years ago, and there are distinctive styles and themes linking the two books. The setting for most of the stories is suburban America, from new townhouse condos to picket-fenced and whitewashed homes. There are glimpses of city living, of jobs moderately high-flying, but the heart and soul of the stories is off the tourist trail, down an ordinary and well-worn route to the quietly extraordinary

In this America, what you see is not what you get. Each story observes, then involves itself in the lives and fates of its characters, their seemingly secure and sorted set-ups becoming rattled and unsettled the more they are watched. Like other American writers—Don DeLillo or Dennis Cooper—Homes scratches so persistently at the surface that there is a tear across the perfect skin of conventional relationships, habitual residencies. 

In "Georgica," a young woman is both voyeur and participant in the expected rites of passage rituals of young couples with nowhere to go for their liaisons. She watches them make love on beaches at night and then rushes to the still warm and furrowed sand to scoop up the used condom. In her car, she injects herself with a semen-filled syringe. She has set it up. She has clandestinely distributed condoms to the youth of the town and has become part of a love-making process painfully absent in her own life. She is involved not just in second-hand impregnation but in first-hand intimacy. 

Of course the premise is as shocking as it is unusual but Homes displays great skill in positioning the fragile state of her character's mind with the pressures of normality swirling around her. Her needs and her desires are very real and yet through institutional apathy and personal tragedy, she has slipped from the rails. With typical adroitness, Homes describes Georgica as "one of those women who walk a dog alone at night, a mildly melancholic soul."

There are many such melancholic souls in the book. For Homes, the phrase "perpetual hospice" becomes a motif for the characters in the stories. They are not in therapy or critically ill but in limbo, a generational stasis. In "Remedy," a daughter grows increasingly concerned about a stranger who has moved in with her mother and father, a stranger who seems too perfect in her eyes even though her elderly parents seem quite happy that someone with zest and energy has intervened in the dying embers of their lives. Struggling with uncertainty in her own relationship, the daughter sees the steady foundation of her parents' existence endangered. She reacts with an understandable and protective paranoia. 

Homes's style is distinctive and complex. She cuts and abstracts; she shifts perspectives and narrative voices not just for stylistic effect but for emotional impact. The title of one story, "Raft In Water, Floating" is both fragmented and curiously evocative. It's as though reading a whole sentence would rob the reader of that necessary delight of now knowing what's coming next.