The first story in AM Homes’s new collection begins with a cosmetic surgeon injecting himself with a little Botox – “just a touch-up, a filler-up” – before going to the beach with his wife and their friends, where they drink champagne, compare recent purchases (jewellery, cars, houses) and wait for the surgeon’s bullying, boastful, mysteriously popular older brother to join them. “Since I was five, Roger has been stealing my friends,” the surgeon complains to his wife, who doesn’t have much sympathy. The day ends with the brothers punching one another on a sofa, and the wife, her frustrations with her husband forgotten, cheering him on. This is classic Homes territory: warring siblings, a rocky marriage, conspicuous consumption, sudden violence.
All that’s missing is a gruesome accident or an outlandish scheme: Homes’s novels and stories, published over the course of nearly 30 years, offer readers the suburban surreal, combining the alienation and ennui of seemingly comfortable American lives with the truly – and often unpleasantly – bizarre. Her two most recent novels, This Book Will Save Your Life (2006) and the Baileys Prize-winning May We Be Forgiven (2012) are satirical picaresques set in the wealthy suburbs of Los Angeles and New York respectively. Although both novels send their emotionally stunted, middle-aged male protagonists on a journey towards self-knowledge and human connection, they are less interested in plot or character development than in portraying a relentlessly materialistic, spiritually empty society.
Homes is expert at replicating the practices and patter of such a society but, even with the full complement of Homesian injuries, accidents and illnesses, her satire wears a little thin when spread across hundreds of pages (May We Be Forgiven pushes 500). The short story may be her ideal form: although this collection, her third, is uneven, its best stories are original and destabilising, at once melancholy and absurd.
In a number of them, characters connect with one another both through and despite the excesses and deprivations of consumer culture. “A Prize for Every Player”, one of the standout stories, follows a couple taking their young children to the supermarket. They begin their weekly game: mother and daughter against father and son, competing to be the first to find all the items on their list – although, as Tom reminds his wife and children, “we evaluate not just for absolute number and identification of items but also for quality of purchase: Is it on sale, in the flyer, covered by a coupon, part of a value pack?” They leave the store with improved moods and increased affection for one another, having spent less than they expected and acquired a newborn baby along with their groceries.
In “Hello Everybody”, Homes portrays a Los Angeles family to which she returns in the collection’s final story. The mother spends her days recovering from various cosmetic surgeries and the older daughter is a model who only eats foods containing fewer than ten calories. The younger daughter stoically accommodates their neuroses. Alienated from their own desires, they can’t see beyond the stifling luxury of ultra-wealthy LA; they are held together by a combination of listlessness and love.
These families live in worlds that prioritise the new; history before the second half of the century seems not to exist. Other characters in Days of Awe are trying to recover the lives of their ancestors and preserve the past. The funny, complex title story takes place at a conference on “Genocide(S)”, and narrates the affair between two attendees: the War Correspondent and the Transgressive Novelist. In rather laboured sections, each argues for their own form of writing as the best way to memorialise suffering; at other, more intriguing moments they collaborate on a different kind of memorialisation, role-playing their Jewish immigrant grandparents. Elsewhere in the collection, characters relive ancestral trauma or imagine their forebears as quasi-mermaids. In “Omega Point”, Homes ties together several obscure strands of American history. The material is enough to fill a novel; opening with a 200-word explanatory footnote and crammed into 35 pages, it’s sufficiently complicated that one begins to sympathise with the characters only concerned with the present day.
But even those who ignore history cannot escape nostalgia. In “The Last Good Time”, a Londoner’s debased version of California “conflates Disneyland with Hollywood and doesn’t even know it”. His fantasy isn’t so different from the speech that Tom gives in “A Prize for Every Player”, and that prompts his fellow shoppers to set up a campaign for him to run for president. In the speech, he calls for the return of a vanished America: “I remember remote controls with big white buttons like teeth and an audible click… I remember Yogi Bear and Ranger Smith.” Of course, there’s nothing inherently admirable about a large remote control or Yogi Bear; Tom longs for them only because they are the now simple-seeming objects of his youth.
Will the collection’s younger characters grow up to feel nostalgic for the very things Homes satirises? The strange behaviour and unlikely events of her fiction are as ingenious as ever but, reading Days of Awe, I experienced something like nostalgia myself: for a time when obsessive dieting and compulsive shopping seemed the aspects of America most in need of critique.
Days of Awe
Granta, 304pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 11 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit farce