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Days of Awe: A. M Homes

Over the years, I’ve read a number of short stories, and a few from Laurie Colwin, Margaret Atwood, and A.M. Homes stick in my mind. Homes seems to excel in creating people who behave badly, and that brings me to Days of Awe, a collection of twelve short stories

Days of awe

In the first story, Brother on Sunday, a middle-aged plastic surgeon on holiday with friends from his youth ruminates about his career, his relationships and his own mortality, but the holiday ends with a confrontation with his brother, dentist, Roger. While he wonders if he’d still make friends with his current crowd if given the choice, the bigger question is how much will he take from his brother. This story captures the tone of a successful man who is content with his place in life, comfortable with his choices and yet is disengaged and left an observer. We are inside the mind of a plastic surgeon at the beach as he clinically assesses the bodies of strangers around him:

In front of them, a woman is stepping out of her shorts. One side of her bathing suit is unceremoniously wedged in the crack of her ass; she pulls it out with a loud snap. Her rear end is what Sandy calls “coagulated,” a cottage cheese of cellulite, and, below it spider veins explode down her legs like fireworks. 

“Do you ever look at something like that and think about how you could fix it?” Terri asks.

“The interesting thing is that the woman doesn’t seem bothered by it. The people who come to me are bothered by their bodies. They don’t go to the beach and disrobe in public. They come into my office with a list of what they want fixed–it’s like a scratch-and-dent shop.”

In the second, complex story, Whose Story Is it, and Why Is It Always on Her Mind? a Jewish writer attends a conference on genocide. The “transgressive” fiction writer, Rachel, finds herself on a panel which is like “a quiz show with points awarded for the most authentic answer.” As questions bounce around, the writer’s authenticity, and lack of direct experience, is challenged.

Despite the fact that these panels are supposed to be conversations, they are actually competitions, judged by the audience.

The writer strikes up a relationship with Eric, a war correspondent. While the story pivots on this relationship, undercurrents include the survivor’s need to vocalise witnessed horror, or “relentlessly collect and catalog the personal effects of those who disappeared.” And what of Eric who acknowledges that there’s “something wrong” with him and the compulsion to travel to the world’s nightmare atrocities, “having to go back, again and again,” as though he “needs to be punished.” In spite of the fact that Rachel has a girlfriend, left at home, she embarks on an unpredictable relationship with Eric.

Several of the stories are set in California including Hello Everybody, a story in which Walter returns from university to his friend Cheryl’s posh home in Southern California. This is a glimpse into the world of perpetual California makeovers: Walter wears thick makeup to cover his acne, Cheryl sports a new tattoo and her white, white teeth are the result of a “crushed-pearl polish.”

They are forever marking and unmarking their bodies, as though it were entirely natural to write on them and equally natural to erase any desecration or signs of wear, like scribbling notes to oneself on the palm of the hand. 

They are making their bodies their own–renovating, redecorating, the body not just as corpus but as object of self-expression, a symbiotic relation between imagination and reality.

The story’s blurb describes this as an “anthropological expedition,” and it really is. These are “pool people.” Cheryl’s mother, Sylvia, is dealing with the fallout of having her eye colour changed, and the scenes when the entire family (and Walter) go out to a fancy restaurant for dinner where “they serve tiny, designer-size macrobitoic bites” is hilarious. Sister Abigail is anorexic and demands ten calories per menu item. Cheryl is, of course, in constant therapy and at one point she asks her therapist (in an inversion of the usual question) if it’s her fault that her parents are still together. The same family appears again in She Got Away. I would love an entire novel about these people.

And if we’re talking about California, how could Disneyland be neglected?  The Last Good Time is set in Disneyland, and while the story’s protagonist is unappealing, the plot intrigued me. This is the tale of an adult man who, on the brink of losing his grandmother, decides to take off to Disneyland and capture the last good memory of his childhood. The story resonated as I’ve known many people who make monthly, quarterly, semi-annual, or annual pilgrimages to Disneyland for a range of reasons: sentimental/honouring the dead/treasuring childhood memories etc., and it’s a concept I had to get my mind around.

Not all the stories worked for this reader (The National Bird Cage Show, Your Mother Was a Fish), but that didn’t impact my great enjoyment of the other stories. Reading Homes is like tasting a flavour you’ve never had before. Wonderful.

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The Mars Room: Rachel Kushner

“I sometimes think San Francisco is cursed. I mostly think it’s a sad suckville of a place. People say it’s beautiful, but the beauty is only visible to newcomers, and invisible to those who had to grow up there.”

In Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, 29 year-old Romy Hall is serving two life sentence (plus an additional six years) for something bad, something she actually admits she did. As the old saying goes, prisons are full of innocent men and women, but in this case, Romy is guilty and now lives out her life at the Stanville Women’s Correctional facility in Northern California.

The mars room

The novel opens very strongly with Romy, being transferred from one prison to another, describing a bus ride “up the valley” It’s two a.m., the women are shackled and counted, and Romy watches the world go by from the bus window. One pregnant 15-year-old is “in the cage on account of her age, to protect her from the rest of us,” but her whimpering attracts the attention of a more aggressive prisoner. This scene sets the stage for the story which centres on society’s outcasts: one woman who murdered her own child, trans Conan, and the novel’s central character, Romy Hall who grew up in the Sunset area of San Francisco. Running wild and unchecked, by age 11 Romy meets trouble; soon she’s more or less a street kid, shoplifting, doing drugs and eventually living in the Tenderloin, working in the Mars Room, a seedy strip joint:

If you showered you had a competitive edge at the Mars Room. If your tattoos were misspelled you were hot property. If you weren’t five or six months pregnant, you were the it-girl in the club that night. Girls maced customers in the face and sent us all outside, hacking and choking. One dancer got mad at d’Artagnan. the night manager, and set the dressing room on fire. She was let go, it’s true, but that was exceptional.

In prison, Romy is surrounded by poor, disenfranchised women–women who’ve had terrible things happen to them, terrible things done to them, and who’ve been altered as a result:

I said everything was fine but nothing was. The life was being sucked out of me. The problem was not moral. It was nothing to do with morality. These men dimmed my glow. Made me numb to touch, and angry. I gave, and got something in exchange, but it was never enough. I extracted from the wallets–which was how I thought of the men, as walking wallets–as much as I possible could. The knowledge that it was not a fair exchange coated me in a certain film. 

The novel, which moves from first to third person narrator, goes back over Romy’s past so that we eventually learn the path that led her to prison but then there’s also claustrophobic prison life. The other prisoners Romy mentions seem types rather than individuals: a masculine looking trans and a “butch security force.” 

Another main character is Gordon Hauser, and while he’s a teacher who works in the prison, there’s also something lost about him. He never finished his PhD, was teaching community college as an adjunct, and ends up teaching in prisons because it’s steady work.  Gordon retreats to the Sierra foothills where he reads Ted Kaczynski.

Romy’s strong voice is not entirely unsympathetic, but I suspect this is because her intelligence is evident :

Something brewed in me over the years I worked at the Mars Room, sitting in laps, deep into this flawed exchange. This thing in me brewed and foamed. And when I directed it–a decision that was never made; instead, instincts took over–that was it. 

Through Romy, the novel tackles some big questions, but ultimately, for this reader, the tale was relentlessly depressing and a rather bludgeoning experience. The novel’s message re: justice for poor females who are frequently victims in various ways, and end up behind bars as fodder for American’s prison system, makes a social-conscience novel which is heavy-handed, one directional, and unsubtle. The correctional officers are fat, stupid, abusive etc. Wentworth, a favourite Australian series of mine, in spite of being occasionally over the top, addressed the same issues, but somehow the intimacy, plot, social issues and moral grey areas were much better defined.

I had a friend, a correctional officer, who told me the women were the ‘worst” and he preferred working in a men’s prison. I thought of him as I read this.

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The Done Thing: Tracy Manaster

“If you live long enough there’s no line that you won’t cross.”

Tracy Manaster’s powerful novel, The Done Thing, examines the actions of a retired orthodontist, Lida Stearl, whose sister, Barbra, was murdered almost two decades earlier. The killer, Barbra’s husband, Clarence Lusk, is sitting on Death Row in Arizona while his appeals run out. In the aftermath of the crime, which left Barbra, her lover and a young policeman dead, Lida raised Pamela, Clarence and Barbra’s child. But now Lida is a widow, and Pamela is married. Largely left to her own devices, Lida stumbles across a website for prisoners who are seeking penpals, and here Lida finds Clarence, admitting his boredom and loneliness, seeking correspondence. For Lida, who has tried to visit Clarence once a year  only to be refused, a correspondence is just too tempting an opportunity. She rents a PO box, assumes a fake name, pretends to be a young flirtatious girl, and begins a correspondence….

the-done-thing

Lida is admirable in many ways; she’s had a successful career, a happy marriage, and she’s shelved her own desires for motherhood in order to raise Pamela, but she’s also deeply twisted when it comes to the subject of Clarence Lusk, and yet who can blame her? When it comes to Clarence, Lida is completely obsessed; it’s an unhealthy thing to indulge, yet she does–sometimes in ways that are downright nasty. Here’s how the book opens, brilliantly, showing us both Lida’s obsession and her train of thoughts.

The State of Arizona conducted her executions at dawn and had for several years, a policy change from midnight for which no explanation had been offered. I liked to keep abreast of such things. I had the Daily Star delivered to my St. Louis home, days late and at not small cost. For nearly two decades I’d collected clippings and taken notes on legal pads. I ran calculations and so I knew: forty-eight percent of inmates took breakfast as their final meals. Maybe they sought grounding, one last moment in step with the breakfasting rest of the world. The eggs, though, threw me. Thirty-four percent of prisoners-even some slated for electrocution-demanded fried eggs.

Lida should, of course, walk away from the penpal scenario for her peace of mind alone, but she doesn’t; she embraces the opportunity to suck Clarence in to a fake relationship. Lida’s husband used to keep her grounded and “knew there was no peace to be had from a certain vein of thought,” but Lida is worried that Pamela may have a lover (like her mother) or even be in touch with her father. Lida has “waited for eighteen years and four appeals” to see Clarence exit this world, but “Clarence lingered, unshakeable as the phantom weight a watch leaves on a naked wrist.” She even has special “execution suits” ready for the Big Day, and the window opened through the penpal relationship allows Lida a tempting glimpse into Clarence’s inner life.

It wasn’t actually peace I wanted. I wanted to be sure Clarence Lusk wouldn’t find any.

There are some wonderful secondary characters here including Pamela, who has effectively lost both parents, and who becomes the staging ground for emotional ownership. Then there’s Pamela’s in-laws, the boisterously happy  Claverie clan. Finally there’s Marjorie Lusk, Clarence’s mother, “funneling her retirement into his defense.”  A small part of the novel details letters back and forth between Clarence and Lida aka Maisie, and since Lida is our first person narrator, a great deal of her thoughts are directed towards Clarence.

I loved this novel–not just for its unique approach, and for the way the author showed another way of tackling the topic of crime, but also for the way the author created such horribly flawed human beings.  The novel explores the idea that it is impossible to tell what Lida would have been like if this crime hadn’t hijacked her life and stained her personality. There’s definitely a before-and-after for Lida who is left to wonder how Barbra might have aged, what she might have achieved. Lida does some very nasty things in the book, but these acts are hand-in-glove with the murder of her sister, and this is one of the marvellous aspects of this book: I asked myself how I would act under the circumstances.

I hadn’t yet learned to think more terrible things.

The book’s blurb  says: “As letters pass steadily between Lida and Clarence, her preoccupation with his crime and its echoes intensifies, and she finds that crossing one line makes the ones that follow all the more tempting to cross.”  That’s a perfect quote, and I can’t do better so I’m including it here. While this is a story of one woman’s obsession, the book opens into much more complicated avenues which include notions of justice, the irrevocable nature of murder, the death penalty, and forgiveness. And lest you yawn at some of those topics, I’ll add that the novel is not preachy and does not take definite positions–the plot is far too subtle for that. This is a beautiful, mature examination of some of our darkest behaviours, and the plot wisely doesn’t step into the muddy waters of motive, repentance  and justification, and instead allows the reader to chew over the plot without authorial heavy-handedness. Murderer and victim(s) are forever linked together, and in The Done Thing, Tracy Manaster explores the terrible damage incurred in an act of violence.

I liked Tracy Manaster’s first novel, You Could be Home By Now, but The Done Thing is unique and thought-provoking. It’s only January, and The Done Thing is already a candidate for my best-of-2017 list.

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