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“Their nakedness is like a joke, something contrived to make them seem more exposed, only it fails – their skin is only another ill-fitting layer, like clothing. It has lost its memory – the landscape of the body hangs loose, shapeless. They make no effort to disguise themselves, to hide themselves, and there is something to be said for the honesty, the extreme humanity of all this faulted flesh – it is heartbreaking.”
Reading AM Homes is no easy feat. I bought Music For Torching along with The End of Alice when I was sixteen. I adored the controversy and brutality of Alice. I didn’t like Music For Torching. At sixteen, I didn’t enjoy the present tense and setting. Two years later, I read Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road (spurned on by Sam Mendes’ film starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio). Yates’ novel was that missing link that drew me back to Homes’ work. Yates’ novel was not just a fantastic novel that I constantly go back to re-read and demand friends read, it was a novel that made me obsessed with suburban fiction. The American Dream, The World’s Dream. People in their bricked houses, suffocating and screaming.
With Yates came Raymond Carver, who constructs whole stories of people in rooms. Carver did what Yates was doing only with his own torn-back style, his language just as naked as his characters. I read Carver’s Tell The Women We’re Going in a Fiction workshop at University. There, Carver put his writer’s eye to two best friends, one who continues his life wifeless, the other who conforms to the American Dream – the perfect suburban life. Carver weaves the story of this friendship together and shows the two men – Bill and Jerry – driving and trying to seduce two girls on the highway. Jerry wants it more, he needs it, needs out of this life. He’s dragging Bill along, the more vulnerable, less-suffocated Bill. Carver ends the story with: “He never knew what Jerry wanted. But it started and ended with a rock. Jerry used the same rock on the both girls, first on the girl called Sharon and then on the one that was supposed to be Bill’s.”
I remember reading Carver in a lot of coffee shops around London – how pretentious – as I was gaining work experience at The Times and The Sun newspapers. I had gone from Carver to Tom Perrotta, most notably Little Children, then Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Matt Haig’s The Radleys. I read and saw what all these writers were doing in their own way – exploring humans. Humans in boxes, needing to get out. The freaks. The characters that are so damaged, so aggravated. Homes’ ‘banal language’ (as it was referred to in The San Francisco Chronicle) is the foundation of this aggravation and rawness. She describes sex as if it were a shopping list, well, a rather angry, lyrical shopping list. “They fuck wildly. They fuck, and it is about fucking and nothing else – no bills to pay, decisions, resentments, failures. They fuck, and it is his dick and her tits.”
When I was at University, gaining my BA in English, I decided to work on a series of short stories about guilt in relationships. My tutor liked The Quiet Life, the story of a sex addict who is hiding it from his wife, the most and scribbled at the bottom of the page, “you write about unloving sex well.” I couldn’t tell if it was a compliment or not. What does it say about me that I can write about unloving sex well? What does it say about Homes, whose novel is full of unloving, awkward sex? What does it say about Yates who has his main character screw her neighbour in the back seat of a car and denies him when he pronounces his love? It says, of course, that writers imagine, they create, they make things up. With this imagination, however, comes the rawness of the writer’s self. Writers grab everything they can and throw it onto the page, even better writers in my opinion, use their anger and frustration to create something even rawer. Homes, Yates, Carver, Perrotta, the list goes on.
The freaks. The freaks in the houses. The freaks in suburbia. The freaks are freaks but they need to not be seen as them. That’s where we come in, we’re watching through the writer, seeing them as freaks because that’s how they’re portrayed. In the story, however, they need to remain perfect. Perfection – The Stepford Wives (and husbands) – is the heart of suburbia. We only need to cast our eye to Desperate Housewives’s Bree Van De Kamp to have an image of the fifties, suffocating housewife, remaining perfect, a mask she shows the world. Three examples in Yates and Homes’s work give us the freaks and their denial:
“He doesn’t tell Elaine that he’s been in Daniel’s room crying; he doesn’t tell Elaine that he wishes it wre his room, that he wishes he were twelve again and could have another crack at everything. Paul doesn’t tell Elaine that he’s worried about work – he doesn’t even understand what work is anymore – he’s worried about money, he’s screwing Mrs. Apple and he doesn’t have a clue what it’s all about…” (Music For Torching, AM Homes)
“She cried because she’d had such high, high hopes about the Wheelers tonight and now she was terribly, terribly disappointed. She cried because she was fifty-six years old and her feet were ugly and swollen and horrible; she cried because none of the girls had liked her at school and none of the boys had liked her later; she cried because Howard Givings was the only man who’d ever asked her to marry him, and because she’d done it, and because her child was insane. But soon it was over; all she had to do was go into the bathroom and blow her nose…” (Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates)
“She reaches her hand under Elaine’s ass to get a better grip. Crumbs. There are crumbs stuck to Elaine’s ass. Horrified, Pat twists around and begins licking them off, sucking the crumbs from Elaine, from the floor, and swallowing them like a human vacuum cleaner. ‘I sweep,” she says, wiping dust off her mouth. ‘I sweep every day. I’m sweeping all the time.’” (Music For Torching, AM Homes)
Who is the freak? We are. And where are we? Everywhere. Suburban fiction, however, usually offers us people who have moved away from their lives and started over – they’ve left the freak behind. But the freak doesn’t like it, the freak always comes back. Matt Haig gives us a family of Vampires, the mother and father lying to their children about what they are, giving them sun screen and keeping them on a diet. Even though the whole family are running towards finding the freak, it’s the mother, Helen, who is constantly battling with herself. She’s had an affair with her husband’s brother who is returning after a disaster and she can’t give in. “‘Pull yourself together.’ She puts it back in the airing cupboard. Her arms touches the water heater, and she keeps it there. It is hot, but she wishes it was hotter still. She wishes it were hot enough to scald her, and give her all the pain she needs to forget his beautiful, long-lost taste.”
Freaks are everywhere but in suburbia they are falling apart, they’re falling apart and not telling anyone about it. They’re hiding in rooms crying and screaming. They’re conducting affairs, secret tattoos, porno fetishes and addiction problems. They’re doing anything they can to break out – to run away – from this dream, this version of their life that they’ve made for themselves. How do they escape? How do they run away? Homes starts Music For Torching with this problem and her characters – Elaine and Paul – decide to burn down their house.
I sit by the window, in my house, surrounded by books. I look out at the sinking sun, blow smoke past chimneys and roofs. My desk is scattered with books and candles, pens and notes. In my house, the suffocation of the freaks continues. And who are the freaks? We are. And what are we? People. And that’s what the books look at – people, people and their strange, ordinary ways. Freaks. Monsters. Frankenstein’s Monster wasn’t a Monster, he was a being, a person. Whenever I discuss Frankenstein, I always loathe muttering the word ‘monster’. Of course, Mary Shelley did this on purpose. The Monster seen as a Monster by society and Frankenstein himself. In Yates and Homes’s worlds being a freak is hidden behind the ordinary, the people we see wearing masks.
I blow smoke through the gap in the window and grab a pen. I start scribbling a scene for the novel I’m working on. The husband, Alastair, has just been told to ‘be someone else’ by his neighbour after too many whiskeys. Alastair’s handed a black box. Inside, a mask. A real mask that he puts on and strips himself naked. In the box is also a knife. He stands in front of the mirror, as his wife sleeps, wearing the mask and stabbing at the glass, at his reflection, himself. I sit as the flame in the candle quivers, as my fingers scratch against the paper.
Thomas Stewart is a Columnist for Litro NY and has had his fiction, poetry and essays published at The Stockholm Review, The Cadaverine, Storgy, Vada Magazine, Anomaly, Agenda Broadsheet, among others. His debut poetry pamphlet, 'Creation' is forthcoming from Red Squirrel Press. He has an MA in Writing from the University of Warwick and a BA in English from the University of South Wales. He enjoys folk music, horror films, suburban fiction, watches, cooking, patterned jumpers and beat poetry. He is afraid of the dark.