“An anonymous observer under the cover of summer, she spent her days sitting downwind, listening to their conversations. They talked about nothing—waves and water, movies, surfing, their parents and school, girls, hamburgers.” Add to this list paralysis, stolen sperm, earthquakes, self-immolation, and runaway mothers-in-law, and you start to get a pretty good picture of A.M. Homes’s world. Rather than a Cheever manqué (as she was pegged circa Music for Torching) or a transgressive writer (thanks to the pedophiliac plot of The End of Alice), Homes is more like the anonymous observer in her own story: an invisible eye chronicling our modern America of anomie and OCD.
Most contemporary fiction writers are famous for their novels, but Homes thrives in the short form. Any longer and the toxic neurosis of her characters—so startling initially—would become oppressive. The Safety of Objects, her 1990 story collection (the movie version, directed by Rose Troche, is due out next year) was marked by the cracking sound of suburban men falling apart. One goes haywire after spending days on end trailing shoplifting teenage girls around the mall; another kidnaps a boy, takes him fishing, and offers him life lessons, only to return the nipper out of disappointment; and “Jim Train,” a corporate lawyer, exacts revenge for his stunted life by peeing on the boss’s plant once a day.
The Safety of Objects illuminated strange but singular characters in Homes’s piercing headlights, but Things You Should Know, her new short story collection, focuses more on symbiotic relationships—people bound together by neediness, dissatisfaction, and fear. “Please Remain Calm” and “Do Not Disturb” both feed on unhappily married couples in which the husband craves affection and the wife wants to be left alone. In the latter tale, the spouses live in a compartmentalized hell: He becomes “the holder of the feelings, the keeper of sensation,” while she—who happens to be dying of cancer—rejects any requests for attention. “I need to be married to someone who is like a potted plant, someone who needs nothing,” she snarls.
“Remedy” stretches the theme too far, pitting an obsessive female ad exec against a serene Buddhist senior citizen named Ray. Ray has moved in with the unnamed woman’s parents and brought an aura of peace to their lives, which massively pisses her off. Although the story frequently overstates its point, Homes still manages to stage a very funny battle of wills between this overgrown child who longs for connection with her folks and the invader who has transformed them into serene aliens: “She is noticing that she feels like hitting him, hauling off and slugging him. The unrelenting evenness of his tone, his lack of interest in her investigation, his detachment is arrogant, infuriating. She wants to say, I’ve got your number . . . pretending you’re so carefree, so absent of emotion, isn’t going to get you anywhere. . . . ”
Homes likes to play tricks with perspective—the sinister power of The End of Alice stemmed in large part from the way the reader was forced to sympathize with either a hardened male pedophile or a college girl with pedophiliac tendencies—and several of these new stories disorient us. At the start of “The Chinese Lesson,” a man is “holding a small screen, watching the green dot move like the blip of a plane, the blink of a ship’s radar.” But this blip actually represents something more ordinary and awful: a man trying to locate his lost mother-in-law via a global positioning chip embedded under her skin. As he follows the green dot, his architect wife (“minimalist monster from hell”) is drawing a grid of the neighborhood, trying to rein in the chaotic ball of senility and old-world messiness that is her mother. “Georgica”—one of the book’s most vivid stories—opens with a woman prowling the beach, scoping out the teenagers who screw around there at night. But she’s not just a voyeur (although she is that, too): Her prime motivation is collecting fresh sperm with which to inseminate herself. Nameless and semi-detached like most of the characters in this book, this woman nevertheless exudes the tenderness and fragility of someone who—put off by potbellied, bad-mannered men her own age—strayed from the conventional path without quite meaning to.
The sparse language and desolate themes sometimes make Things You Should Know feel chilly. Luckily, Homes isn’t averse to a burst of fantasy here and there, which warms the book’s tone considerably. “The Weather Outside Is Sunny and Bright” sets itself up as a kind of fabulist answer to all the other characters’ dilemmas. Its protagonist may be just as high-strung as the next Homes character, but she’s found an escape hatch from the desire for connection and control. She metamorphoses into a coyote or a bird—maybe the first of a new, more adaptable species who can shapeshift out of sterile suburban environs at will.
While most of Homes’s characters obsessively pick at emotional scabs, few of her stories make any attempt to get to root causes. They offer glimpses of the here and now, in beautifully lit tableaux that meld the precision of reality with the heightened drama of unreality. She apparently spent more than a year researching “The Former First Lady and the Football Hero,” a 31-page tour de force that imagines Nancy Reagan’s post-presidential life. The book’s most fascinating creation, Nancy is a flurry of inadequacies and terrors. She still dons her dragonlady-red suits and struts down Beverly Boulevard, needing to be recognized and “reminded of who she is, reminded that she is not the one evaporating.” But this is just a quick break from her weary life with the Gipper, now more than ever a chameleon whose mind skitters between eras and personae. His Alzheimer’s-riddled memory banks incorporate details from movie roles into daily conversation: “Where are we?” he asks, kicking gravel in the driveway. “You call this a quarry? Who’s directing this picture? What the hell kind of a movie is this? The set is a shambles.”
Now that her husband has been officially “removed from view,” Nancy survives in exile by constructing an elaborate secret life on the Internet. After dabbling with official duties she logs on to the Psychic Friends Network as “STARPOWER,” flirts with a middle-aged Harley-rider under the name “Lady Hawke,” then slips into an Alzheimer’s support group as “Edith Iowa.” Forever patrolling her every thought and gesture, N.R. finally lets herself cry among the miserable, anonymous masses. “After a lifetime of trying not to be like everyone else, in the end she is just like everyone else.”