Stranger Than Fact

By Alexandra Shelley
A.M. Homes Marion Ettlinger

“Days of Awe”
A.M. Homes

Viking, $25

“The first rule for a writer of fiction is it should not be made so strange as fact,” Thomas Hardy warned. A.M. Homes is a fiction writer who can be counted on to ignore that rule, her novels and stories outstripping the absurdity of life — usually. The alarming thing about reading her latest short-story collection, “Days of Awe,” in 2018 is that life in America might be catching up to her vision. 

As the “transgressive novelist” in the title story “Days of Awe” puts it, defending herself from an attack by the moderator at a genocide conference: “As for the question regarding an intention to shock, I have written nothing that didn’t first appear in the morning paper.”

In recent weeks as I read this grimly entertaining collection, I saw the news refracted through A.M. Homes’s funhouse mirror. I’ve been influenced by her vision since the mid-’80s, when I was working at The Star and started a weekly fiction series. From the slush pile, I picked a powerful fable about a Procrustean therapist who uses his couch to either stretch out or cut down his patients, depending on what he thinks they need. I called the author to tell her we’d like to publish the story, tentatively suggesting that the ending wasn’t quite right.

A.M. asked affably what I thought she should do about it. As a recently minted English major, it hadn’t occurred to me to respond to a piece of fiction with anything but veneration, or perhaps a ruler to measure the iambic pentameter. But together we worked out a new ending, and in the 30 years since then as an editor and teacher of fiction writing, I’ve stretched out or lopped pieces off many a story.

In that time, A.M. Homes has become one of our darkest surrealists, perhaps most strikingly in her novel “The End of Alice,” about a convicted pedophile and child murderer who corresponds from prison with a 19-year-old girl who describes seducing a 12-year-old boy. 

“The Mistress’s Daughter,” Ms. Homes’s memoir about meeting her biological parents in her 30s, reveals that even her own life surpasses her imagination. Her “father” insisted on rendezvous in hotels and refused to introduce her to his other kids, as if she were his mistress (as her mother had been at age 17). Her “mother” demanded affection from the daughter she gave up for adoption at birth, and ultimately was hoping A.M. would donate a kidney to her.

It’s a uniquely American combination of the wholesome and corrupt that Ms. Homes chronicles in “Days of Awe,” which is made up of an exhilarating profusion of genres, including the epistolary style updated into four voices in a parakeet-owners chat room, a mermaid fairy tale as dark as a Grimm’s, a transcript of a therapy session. 

Ms. Homes conjoins the mundane with the phantasmagorical in a way that makes you acknowledge how fine the line is between them. The story “Days of Awe” revolves around a genocide conference that gets out of control when its participants square off against attendees at a gun show in the convention center across the street. The past comes back to life, and you see that “genocide” cannot be contained in the orderly contemplation implied by “conference.” 

Another of the recombinant stories is “The National Cage Bird Show”: An American soldier in Afghanistan, a school girl on the Upper East Side, and two unidentified bird owners meet in a parakeet chat room. . . . It sounds like the first line of a joke, but there are graphic deaths and mutilations by I.E.D.s, child molestation, and one of the budgies gives birth — “smiley faces all around,” writes the bird’s owner. 

Like all good surrealists, Ms. Homes is slyly polemical. Among the givens she invites us to examine is our obsession with how we display ourselves. If beauty is only skin deep, it better be nicely burnished, tattooed, collagened. In an interview circulated by her publisher, Ms. Homes is asked about the role plastic surgery plays in several of the stories, and she allows that she’s interested in “the split between who we present ourselves as and who we are to ourselves.” For most of her characters, the former entirely eclipses the latter.

This is a book that begins with a Botox injection — just a prelude to a day at the beach in “Brother on Sunday,” a story featuring a plastic surgeon. Tom, the narrator, is preparing for an encounter with his brother, a dentist who “visits the beach once a year, like a tropical storm that changes everything.” In his bathroom, “He injects a little here, a little there. . . . Later, when someone says, ‘You look great,’ he’ll smile and his face will bend gently, but no lines will appear.” 

“Brother on Sunday” bears some similarities to John Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother,” but though in both stories the beachside confrontation between the brothers does escalate, in Ms. Homes’s distilled version, the emotions that have fueled this conflict over the years can be postulated only via the numbness of the brothers. It’s Cheever on Botox.

This numbness afflicts many of the collection’s characters who are stuck in corrosive marriages, toxic families, or their own imperfect bodies. The aimless young woman narrator in “Hello Everybody” confides to her best friend as they sit by her family’s pool in L.A.: 

    “I don’t mind feeling paralyzed. I think I’m used to it. In fact, I’m not even sure that what people would call paralyzed isn’t just normal for me. I don’t move a lot.”
    “Unless you’re in spin class,” Walter says.

“Hello Everybody” is set in an L.A. where the residents have tinkered with themselves to the point that they have no idea who they were originally. The mother of the narrator, Cheryl, is temporarily blinded after attempting to change the color of her eyes, the dog is recovering from surgery to remove unsightly fatty tumors, the father walks with a hand mirror held in front of him so he can stare at himself, and Cheryl’s older sister, Abigail, is a model: 

    “You should be an actress,” people used to tell Abigail.
    “You should be yourself,” Cheryl says.
    “No idea how to do that,” Abigail confesses. 

When we’re reunited with the family in the collection’s last story, “She Got Away,” they have met predictable ends, including the mother’s spa-induced coma. Abigail has married her plastic surgeon, Burton; is “so thin she actually looks flat,” and cannot smile or frown thanks to all the filler and Botox. When they visit their mother in the hospital, Abigail reports to her sister: “Burton thinks Mom looks good, very relaxed.”

Cheryl’s reply: “She’s unconscious.”

The intersection of consumerism and electoral politics is captured in “A Prize for Every Player,” a story presciently written eight years ago. Tom Sanford, mesmerized by the TV display at the Mammoth Mart, begins a screed about American politics of his youth versus today. The crowd anoints him the people’s candidate for president.

    “Do you believe in God?” someone calls out.
    “Yes, I believe in God, and I believe in shopping to Friday sales flyers,” Tom says, and everyone laughs.

It’s in the ameliorating, realistic “everyone laughs” that Ms. Homes’s surrealist genius lies — that and the next scene in which the presidential candidate is struggling to install a baby car seat (for the infant they’ve acquired at the Mammoth Mart). Anchoring her “sur” in this “realism” — the recognizable tasks, squabbles, small victories of daily life — Ms. Homes seduces readers into believing it all — God, coupons.

The collection’s title story addresses in a way Thomas Hardy’s warning to fiction writers about rendering real life believable. Fiction is represented by the novelist who has written a book about the Holocaust and speaks on a panel alongside a Holocaust survivor who challenges the novelist’s right to tell a story she herself hasn’t lived through. 

Nonfiction is represented by a war correspondent, an old acquaintance of the novelist’s, and though they wind up having sex, they also argue bitterly over who is a more convincing witness to atrocity. Argues the novelist: “ ‘The point of fiction is to create a world others can inhabit, to illuminate and tell a story that stirs empathy and compassion. And, asshole,’ she adds, ‘fiction helps us to comprehend the incomprehensible.’ ”

“Days of Awe” does help readers comprehend the incomprehensible, and challenges us to feel for characters who are barbed, or else seem to have been pithed, their innards replaced by some sort of low-calorie foam and their exteriors plastic surgeried into the American standard of flawlessness. Much of the dialogue consists of ripostes and retorts. If a character says “I love you” to her oldest friend, it’s modified by “you asshole.” When a husband cries, his wife’s response is: “Really?” (This in a story titled “Be Mine.”)

By the end of “Days of Awe,” I interpreted the title differently: “Awe” as in the destruction of a “shock and awe” military campaign, because the damaged characters of these stories wouldn’t allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to feel awe, except maybe manufactured awe, as described by the narrator of “The Last Good Time” as he sits in his car atop the parking garage at Disneyland: “. . . the evening fireworks — Believe in Magic — Sleeping Beauty’s castle becomes a winter wonderland, the air is charged with awe and wonder. . . .”

Alexandra Shelley is an independent fiction editor and professor at the New School in Manhattan. She lives part time in Sag Harbor.

A.M. Homes has a house in East Hampton.