A Plea for AM Homes & Making the Familiar Strange Again
Book Review of The Safety of Objects by AM Homes
By Nick Farriella
A lot of people right now are talking about the strangeness of the times. How once-in-a-decade news events seemingly happen now twice a week, or one after another, stacked on top of each other in a day’s time for days on end, torching our nerve endings to the point of having to lull ourselves to sleep with the echoes of our own safe opinions on Twitter, recycling memes for comfort, or the wasteful masturbation of Netflix reality shows, or, for some, more serious vices. (In 2020, drug overdose deaths in the U.S. rose by 29.4%, to an estimated 93,331 in total.) Causes for this aside, what is obvious is that what this strangeness has affected more than anything, is our perception of what is familiar. You probably heard it a lot in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, irritatingly so, people exclaiming this is the “new normal”; that working and schooling at home and wearing masks and scolding those who don’t (and for some, those who do) and keeping an extra distance away from strangers and baking a shit ton of sourdoughs and doing viral dance videos with grandma and Zoom poker games and ditching pants and so on, are normal things to do. Let me set something straight: nothing about these things is normal; we just changed the definition of what is familiar. But how?
I’d argue that what changes a society’s perception more than anything is the cultural narrative it is telling itself. The stories we are feeding ourselves with, and often, for great reason. We had to make those crazy pandemic quirks become normal, and fast, so we wouldn’t lose our collective minds. As with the individual, the story one tells oneself in one’s head, is often the case. Example: If every day before leaving the house I tell myself that my neighbor across the street is an FBI agent, I will probably start to view his behaviors as odd, tactful, suspicious; that when he is seemingly clipping the hedges, he is actually wiretapping my house. You see here, even in this brief, silly example, how paranoid one could get based off the internal narrative they are telling themselves. Now, imagine a news organization telling you day-in and day-out in breaking news fashion that immigrants are coming to steal your jobs, or the government is trying to poison you and control you with a vaccine, and you could see how one’s story could change pretty quickly, and pretty dramatically, at that; especially when the ego oft makes one the hero of their own story––queue white men clad in baseball helmets walking down the streets of Portland brandishing AR-15’s at journalists and their mother’s calling them patriots on Facebook. Here, my internal editor is sounding off the alarms: “But Nick! Your neighbor can really be an FBI agent, and immigrants can really take your job, and (gulp) a government can really (although, please let me stress, how seriously seriously seriously unlikely) want to poison and control you!” To this I answer that these are anecdotal truths, not evidential truths, and the biggest contributing factors to our fractured notion of truth is the loss of understanding the distinction between the two, and the deliberate blurring of the line between them by political mouthpieces with nothing to gain, politically or morally speaking, but only in millions of dollars in ad revenue, of course. Moving on.
The assumed agreed upon shift in our perception of the familiar being caused by the change in our cultural narrative begs the question of, well, who is in charge of this cultural storytelling? The government? The ad-money hungry media? Nefarious journalists? Celebrities? The internet? Ourselves? To which I answer, yes. And while, there very well may be a longer, probably better, version of this essay picking apart each of the ways in which these things do so, I will spare you and keep it to the realm in which I tend to operate at full capacity: literature. Because believe it or not, once upon a time ago, it was novelists who had their turn at the great and glorious pen of cultural narrative. Before the internet and everyone had cameras in their pocket, it was the writer who went to foreign lands (often white, often of immense privilege) and relayed stories of different cultures. If one wanted to know about India, one read Kipling; about Spain, one read Hemingway. These writers familiarized the unfamiliar, albeit to a specific demographic and in their own narrow ways, we now know. And when the world became more familiar thanks to technology and the global market, and because of the civil rights movements, women were allowed more say and to leave the house and Blacks were finally being recognized as human, soon the quiet private lives of the working-class family became the unfamiliar, and writers like Carver, Cheever, Chandler, Baldwin, Morrison, O’Connor, Munro, and Hempel found their niche. And once those lives became familiar, the postmodernists were there to obliterate familiarity entirely, and instead make defamiliarization familiar, make one comfortable with discomfort, with recursion and the seemingly unstable territory of the mind. So, where does that leave the writers thereafter? Many, you will find scratching at the doors of the previously mentioned, begging to be let into those dated, but ultimately safe camps. Others, you will find making familiar the unfamiliar lives of LGBTQ+, Black Americans, people of color, and refugees and immigrants (all rightfully so). But what does the writer who wants not to or cannot fit into this “making the unfamiliar familiar” category do? Where does she begin her pen?
David Foster Wallace once said, in a 1993 interview with Larry McCaffery for the Review of Contemporary Fiction, that “fiction’s presenting function in today’s reader has been reversed,” that since “[everything] is now presented as familiar… it’s almost like we need fiction writers to restore strange things’ ineluctable strangeness, to defamiliarize stuff…” to “no longer mak[e] the strange familiar, but mak[e] the familiar strange again.” And that, “It seems important to find ways of reminding ourselves that most ‘familiarity’ is mediated and delusive.” The word choice of delusive is particularly poignant to me; think back to the sad intense grin of someone selfie-ing with their newly baked sourdough trying to hold it together as millions of their countrymen are infected and are dying from an unknown virus sweeping the globe, captioning the post with “The new normal!”
What Wallace describes––a type of literature that makes the normal seem strange––is, to me, as someone who strives to write in such a sphere, some of the most exciting work being done on the plane of internet writing and “indie lit” to this very day. Notably, I think, the work of Zac Smith, who often takes regular life scenarios––such as trips to the dentist or lunch at a Thai restaurant––and makes them remarkably strange and beautiful, and what they leave on you as the reader is an impression, or a notion, that something is incredibly off about today’s daily life, and that, you know what, it’s okay. (His forthcoming debut story collection is aptly titled, Everything is Totally Fine). This strange normal is the feeling I get when I walk down my block past a dilapidated church with missing shingles and a busted foundation that hasn’t been open in a decade that’s right next to a dim, crummy basement psychoanalyst’s office that I’ve never seen any patients go in or out of, which also happens to be beneath a new-age, bright fish tank blue LED illuminated CoolSculpting provider; the metaphors behind a middle-aged woman with self-esteem and body-image issues walking past religion and therapy to get her skin and fat cryogenically toned are almost too bold to try to capture in fiction, but they’d sure make for a great Wallace or Smith story.
Wallace aside, and perhaps Kazuo Ishiguro, Donald Antrim, Salinger, Denis Johnson, Grace Paley, vintage Saunders, Joy Williams, Garielle Lutz, Ben Marcus, Lydia Davis, and J. Robert Lennon, it is difficult to pinpoint some true pillars in this literary sphere, which is why I just spent the last ~1300 words clearing the way to make the case for one writer who makes the normal seem strange and downright disturbing in ways I haven’t seen from the aforementioned. I’m speaking of A.M. Homes, and specifically her near-perfect collection of stories The Safety of Objects, which was published in 1990.
What you get from Homes in The Safety of Objects is a series of tight, focused stories that act as a camera lens moving in for different glimpses on a diverse cast of characters that are all on the set of the same movie: modern America. Although, its sense of modernity is 1990, none of it feels dated at all, which, if anything, proves that this capitalist dream has gone on for so long it’s turning into a nightmare. For instance, Elaine, the protagonist in the story “Adults Alone” disparages her husband Paul’s fantasy of suburban life being, “the whole family is always in the car together, going places, singing songs, eating McDonald’s.” In this fantasy, which to me feels like a dystopian bent on the family unit of 1950’s America, there is no self, no individual or autonomy, no privacy––you are a part of a unit that does everything together; you sing the same songs (like those of whom only listen to Top 40 radio); you go to the same places (like those Instagrammable experiences); you eat McDonald’s (like everybody else). The fact that references in the book, to McDonald’s, to Hawaiian Punch, to Barbie, to Superman, Mickey Mouse and so on, are still permanently fresh in one’s brain today twenty-one years later and seeming to be searingly pressed into our consciousnesses until the day we die––Grandma asking, “Where’s the beef?” on her deathbed for one last chuckle––goes to show that the pop references the Realists once scorned as a fad are here to stay and as a part of nature now as much as trees, rivers, and mountains. Wallace was right.
With a particular sharpness and wit––to that of Saunders, but without the quirkiness and underbelly of Mr. Rogers-level compassion––Homes portrays the strangeness of normal contemporary America. In the story, “Jim Train” a man is left to feel like an alien in his own home, when he is sent home in the middle of the day from his office in the city after a bomb threat, showing the ill-effects of corporate culture on the home life under late capitalism. From the start of the story Jim is very much a man who wants to express his autonomy; he demands to walk to the train station, as opposed to being dropped off by his wife “like all the other men.” When sent home in the middle of the day, he begins to lose his place in the world outside of the office: he tears out what he thinks are weeds (they’re really his wife’s marigolds, again Homes poking at the image of the helplessly naïve modern man); to calm himself down he spreads out dirty laundry on the bed, lays on it and sucks his thumb––this is notable, as he is lashing out in expression of wanting to be dirty, unclean, wild, childish, not a man of rigid structure, not like the cookie cutter corporate men he rides the train with. Outside of the office, he’s out of sync with his wife’s routines to the point where he’s almost burdensome and considers going to the office anyway, even if he can’t, where Homes writes, “If the guards won’t let him go upstairs, he will refuse to go home; he will throw himself on their mercy.” This had me thinking of all the people fighting to go back to the office during the pandemic and how people have become so reliant on who they are at their jobs, being home too much has become down-right uncomfortable. At one point in the story, Jim fantasizes about who he is in the office: “At the office, he thinks… I’d be talking to my secretary who likes me very much, having a drink in the restaurant next door, buying snacks from the blind man in the lobby, watering Patterson’s plants (he pees on them, again an insertion of his own rebellion). His eyes water. He almost cries.”
Much like the protagonist of “Jim Train” a man named Frank in the story “The Bullet Catcher” is driven mad by the alienation he feels in the world but instead of corporate life, it’s by the strangeness of hyper consumerism and youth in a shopping mall where all of the teenage girls and boys look like identical twins in how they are dressed, “like a mirror ball, a million reflections spun across the mall,” as they are “watching the people go by like they were watching something on MTV” and there is a radio contest being held, where contestants have to keep a hand on a new Jeep for the longest to win it, showing the lengths people will go to––standing for sixty-seven hours to the point of vomiting, buckling knees, loss of feeling in limbs––just for a new prized possession. Despite this grotesque scene of materialism, Frank is made out to look like the crazy one here, and even takes a bullet for it, when he simply cannot take it anymore.
It is refreshing to get this dystopic angle from a woman writer, especially when it comes to her perspective of the male gaze. The men in the collection set timers to be on time to meet their wives, need their wives to monitor their cholesterol, lick ice cream cones in a mall and imagine better lives outdoors, fishing, in cabins in the woods, they hide dumb purchases from their wives, and are often naïve, childish, stubborn milquetoasts. Where a lazy reader may say she is sexist or something, what she actually is offering is a good, hard look in the mirror, a deeply compassionate one, at that; if you’re a man and identify with any of the men in this collection, you may find yourself feeling a little ashamed and wanting to change. Whereas some of the aforementioned male writers are lauded for their plunge into the experimental and strange, where their wild and unbecoming nature can be romanticized, even revered, which can inspire men to descend further into the male gaze, women writers who attempt the same are often met with contempt, signaling that women writers aren’t writing just as surreal, gritty fiction as their gender counterparts. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as the most interesting, progressive and experimental fiction being written these days are by women. As Homes herself said in a 2013 interview with The Guardian, in reference to The Women’s Prize for Fiction, “If you look at this award, it’s changing. If you take any year and look at the body of work written by women writers internationally and you really see that it is substantial and there are historical books and long books and books that are not just about dusting. And you begin to realize that there is an incredible range being written [by women] and it redefines what that voice of authority is.” And men can and should learn from this shift, instead of resisting it; as is the same with feminist movements, men can learn more about themselves from women’s movements more often than they can from themselves.
In The Safety of Objects, Homes takes the alienation a step further in the story, “Adults Alone” where she explores the strangeness of parenthood, but not the picturesque glamour of parenting you see on today’s social media pages––which, to me, with the milestone stickers and photo ops is an endless feed of corporate sameness, the way a McDonald’s menu is––she explores what happens to the individual, especially a woman, after years of cohabitation with a spouse and two children. In the story, Elaine and Paul drop their kids off in Florida for a kid-free week in Westchester, which sounds like a sort of vacation, and at first, it is––Paul is finally able to change a light bulb after 6 months, which read to me like a joke: what does a dad need to change a light bulb? The kids out of the house––but you quickly find that they no longer know how to function without their kids. They no longer are capable of functioning as a couple and definitely not as individuals. Without the shade of children, Elaine sees her husband in a new light––pot smoking, hyper-sexualized (like a lot of Homes’ male characters; he brings her home a porno tape as a gift, not flowers or something like a scarf she’s been wanting), and he’s sort of childish, incapable of making his own decisions (at dinner their first night alone, Paul orders fettuccine without checking with Elaine, who is in charge of monitoring his cholesterol. The next day, after a night of gas so bad Elaine had to sleep in their son’s room, Paul asks her why she let him have fettuccine, Homes writes, “She doesn’t say anything. It’s too complicated. She let him eat it because she doesn’t like him and doesn’t care what he does and wishes he would die soon. She let him eat it because she loves him and can’t deny him his pleasures and is determined not to act like his mother.”) When left to themselves, Paul sits in front of the TV playing Nintendo and drinking a glass of spiked Hawaiian Punch (this to me is remnant of every Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle t-shirt donning adult male who probably thinks that drinking and playing Nintendo is an ideal good time––and if I’m being honest, it kind of is, but one should maybe be distinctive from their ten-year-old selves) and Elaine brings a bottle of wine to bed with some cheese and crackers and watches TV in an attempt to relax, but first can’t change the channel, so is forced to watch golf and then gets a call from her sons in Florida who are upset and blame her for leaving them there; the guilt of the children is always more of a burden on the mother. Lost without their parental roles and uncomfortable with their broken relationship, Elaine and Paul turn to literally trying crack-smoking after watching a half-hour report on it, which then transforms the story into this chaotic and silly emphasis of the extreme lengths one may go to the explore the parts of themselves that might have been silenced after years of giving up your selfhood to please a partner, or to raise children. They do say being is a parent is a “self-less” job, but no one talks about the horror one feels when losing that self. This is where Homes shines best as a storyteller, by exploding the real into these surreal cleansing fires. Where one might get left with a taste of cynicism, Homes uses this exposing of poignant observations of normalcy to bring solace to her characters, to find a new kind of acceptance in the suffering of reality. One not neatly packaged and given, but one found through exorcism. It is a vital message: that yes, being a parent is wonderful, but is also soul crushing. Both of these truths can exist, simultaneously, and you’re better off learning to live with both, instead of denial of either. After all, Elaine and Paul find comfort again in their roles as parents when they find out their sons are coming home early, and have to quickly get the house in order, where they look back on their crack vacation with a sort of fondness, as something good, even necessary. The resonant message being, sometimes self-destruction is a way to build again.
Here, please allow me space to just admire Homes’ spectacularly pretty sentences, that have unique rhythm, style, and voice, and a surprising quality where each one is packed with evocation and wit waiting for you around the corner. Each line within each story carries with them these wonderful mini revelations, that lead to bigger grander ones on the story scale. To reach the heights of revelation, Homes takes risks that few writers will; most of her 1996 novel The End of Alice, is narrated by a pedophile and child killer serving a life sentence in prison. In The Safety of Objects, the story “Looking for Johnny” is narrated by a boy named Erol who was kidnapped at the age of nine and when proves unable to uphold the kidnapper’s cliché vision of a father and son relationship––he literally tries to teach him how to fish, cook, chop wood, and drive––the kidnapper returns him unharmed, saying he wasn’t “the right kid,” that he wasn’t a “Johnny.” Erol comes off as deeply wounded, broken; a child of divorce and sibling to a sister with a mental disability––perhaps, the only thing that does feel dated about this collection is the non-politically correct language, which in the story, Erol always refers to his sister as “retarded” but it felt almost refreshingly honest, in how kids actually still speak today. But it’s in Homes’ reversal of norms, that makes you feel sorry for a kid who was not even good enough to be kidnapped. Let that sink in for a second. On top of that, she has a near sleight of hand swift way of making the reader feel compassion for all of her characters, even the more troubled ones; for example, you sympathize for the kidnapper, who is obviously more damaged than Erol, and who we find out was drugged as a kid by his own mother. Instead of pointing the ruly finger of moral authority at him, she treats kidnapping as a symptom of some inner woundedness and not an outward expression of some evilness. All of her characters are complex and human; they aren’t dummy set-ups for compassion, they require work, and they challenge the reader to dig up true empathy.
To further explore strangeness, Homes also brings to light the strangeness of our bodies and with that, sexuality. First in the story “Chunky in Heat” where she shows us the sexual urges of a young fat woman named Cheryl and again in the story, “Yours Truly” where a young girl writes herself love letters, and again in my personal favorite of the collection, “A Real Doll.” In it, a teenage boy confesses to being in a relationship with his sister’s Barbie doll. Drugged up on Valium with distant parents who won’t even let the kids ask questions and are obsessed with materials (where the father believes new shoes could change your life and the mother asks if his sister is okay and suggests she could use a new pair of jeans, a wonderful parody of “Boomer” parents who are steeped in the “American Dream” of repression and material wealth). Here, I deviate to consider the meaning of collection title, The Safety of Objects. While one could confuse the phrase for implying that objects are a safe place for human attention and care, what Homes is actually saying is the opposite; the title is ironic, which may be why the cover designer for my edition chose a large image of a safety pin unlatched, showing its lethal point. Homes is saying we should be weary of casting our troubles onto material things, they will not save us, we can only save ourselves. Like Randy, the kidnapper in the story “Looking for Johnny” who hates television and technology says, of objects, “It gets like it’s part of you and then it’s gone, and you feel like you’re gone also.” Homes is making an astute point: we lose ourselves in our material things whether it is a job title, a new Jeep, or a Barbie doll, that has true consequences to our relationships with ourselves and other people. For example, in “A Real Doll” the young boy is so far gone, he hallucinates a sexual relationship with his younger sister’s doll and is blind to her growing anxiety around her own changing body and possible body dysmorphia––he finds the Barbie gets more deformed as the story goes on, first with chewed up feet and eventually being mutilated and burned with a lighter. It is delusion and sexual desire which keeps him alienated from his sister. But as with the other stories, it is this ramping up of the surreal, of the perverse, of the unsettling, that A.M. Homes’ characters are able to find their way back to each other and find the spark they need within themselves to do better, to be better. That to change the relationship with either oneself, one’s partner, one’s workplace, or one’s body, one needs only to walk through fire and look from a slightly different place, of a skewed and warped perception that is uniquely human, to see things for the way they really are, despite discomfort or pain, often with discomfort and pain. None of her characters are making the unfamiliar feel familiar for the sake of coping or diluting themselves just to make their lives easier; no, they are looking at the normal as strange, as fucked up and deranged, as nothing more than a catalyst for real change.