A.M. Homes’ The Safety of Objects is one of the most powerful and visceral story collections I’ve ever read – it’s up there with Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behaviour – and so a new volume is always exciting: Homes is an insightful and empathetic writer, but she’s also utterly fearless (see Ask Alice): if there’s any dubious ‘there’ to which one might want to go, as a reader or as a writer, there’s a very good chance Homes has already gone there, and she probably set the place on fire before she left. Which is to say: expectations were high.
Expectations, however, were not entirely met. It’s a good collection – it’s eminently readable, and it’s got some truly stellar moments. Homes is a brilliant anthropologist of the Humans of Late Capitalism – her novels, and these stories, show us a world in thrall to consumerism, where everything from smiles to babies can be purchased, a world that Homes conjures with considerably more wit, grace and ingenuity than everyone’s other favourite Vapid L.A. chronicler, Bret Easton Ellis. Her ear for dialogue is exemplary and she’s got a canny understanding of relationship dynamics, in all their complex lies and omissions. But? But, at times – ‘All is Good Except For the Rain’, ‘Be Mine’ – these skills are undersold, as the stories, like sketches for stage-plays (very punchy ones, to be fair), rely almost entirely on dialogue: the dialogue might be good, but to do it more than once (more than twice, in fact) felt less like stylistic experimentation, and more like the stories were simply less developed than they might have been. Elsewhere, experimentation felt stale: ‘The National Cage Bird Show’ – the story of a traumatised army vet and a young girl who gets raped (NB: not by the army dude) – is told as a transcript of an ongoing chat-room conversation, interspersed with the banalities of bird fanciers asking advice; the very chat-room context, as well as the reliance on differentiating fonts, feels dated, and the artifice of the format detracts, then, from the power of the contents. ‘A Prize for Every Player’, an extended skit on consumerism in which a family pick up a baby from Aisle Nine while getting their weekly shopping, is surreal and funny, but coming from the writer of ‘A Real Doll’, it’s a throwaway piece.
All that notwithstanding, though, the highlights are high. The opening story, ‘Brother on Sunday’, despite a corny final couple of lines, is an excellent glimpse into adult sibling strife and marital breakdown, starring a beleaguered off-duty plastic surgeon; in a nice inversion of the usual beach holiday narrative, it’s great on male body image issues. The title story, ‘Days of Awe’, starring a novelist and a journalist who hook up at a conference on genocide, is beyond sharp in its pillorying of the commercial/academic/historiography crossovers at an event that passes out genocide goody-bags alongside running sessions on survivors’ trauma (though I’m not sure that its female protagonist’s version of a midlife crisis is particularly well-chosen from a gender politics perspective). Two of the stories make a loose, but very effective pairing: both ‘Hello Everybody’ and ‘She Got Away’ feature the same characters, the latter picking up their story several years later and making much better use of Homes’ macabre humour in its social critique than ‘A Prize for Every Player’; its final scene – which closes the book – is one that lingers.
Any Cop?: There’s enough in here to please the fans, but it’s not her strongest collection. Newcomers should head right back to The Safety of Objects and take it from there.