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I found The Safety of Objects in Coventry library when I was an MA student at the University of Warwick. Immediately I enjoyed the stories but hadn’t come to ruminate over Homes’ questions and themes properly.
When I went back to the collection years later, I was prompted to read Tim Parks’ New York Review of Books essays on re-reading, Barbie theory, Natasha Walters’ Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, primarily her essay ‘Re-Reading Barthes & Nabokov’ and, of course, Homes’ other works – Music for Torching and short stories published in Granta Magazine. The books added to the ideas not just explored in Homes’ works but how my own mind, as a reader, is reacting to re-reading her words.
The stories in The Safety of Objects will always feel different from that of Homes’ second collection, Things You Should Know. Not just because my memories towards them are different but because Homes’ first collection is that ruthless, dark, suburban examination that gathers you in and doesn’t spit you out.
‘They fall in love not so much with each other, that’s history, but in love with the idea of being in love, of loving someone that much.’
Meet Elaine and Paul. Again. We know them from Music For Torching. They are pushing in and out of unhappiness. They are alike and so unlike everyone around them. They are reminiscent of Yates’ April and Frank Wheeler but they’re different, more daring, reckless, attempting freedom in any possible way.
They’re free for the first time in Adults Alone, when Elaine has dropped the “boys off like dry cleaning” and returned to a house that feels unfamiliar. Paul and Elaine don’t know what to do with themselves. ‘They are for the moment Siamese twins separated. They are off-duty parole officers. They are free.’ They don’t know who they are, they don’t know if they like each other very much. Elaine wants Paul to die and then not die because she loves him but then she wants him to die again.
I’ve read Adults Alone a few times now and each time I see the aspect of fantasy versus reality – a theme that evolves in the novel. Elaine and Paul fantasise about a life they want to have – a life they should have – yet the reality is much more miserable, bitter and confusing. The reality is they’re married, stuck and don’t have a great bond with their children. The reality is they have responsibilities. The weight and struggle with responsibility whirls in Elaine’s head when she sits on her bed, alone, eating crackers, cheese, grapes and drinking wine, greedily. She is reminded: “You’re the mother” from her mother. She is the mother. She is, therefore, responsible for her children.
Time away confuses that responsibility. When her youngest son calls and pleads to come home, she reminds him he can’t. Realistically he can’t. She can’t fly him home, he’s been there for a few hours but there is a secret desire within Elaine to avoid that responsibility for longer. To pause and forget who she is. But there is Paul. Adults Alone shows more of Elaine, and Paul becomes an irritant in our eyes. Elaine knows they need something to bring them together. In the end, they decide to smoke crack.
Esther in the Night
‘The Museum of the Modern Dead. Open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, admission five dollars, three for students, free for seniors, children under five, and the severely handicapped. Come one, come all, come to the birthplace of the living dead, come spend a day with us, it’ll last a lifetime.’
Esther in the Night is one of Homes’ harder stories. It’s dark, dense and dangerous. Esther walks through her house like a ghost. Her son sits in his bedroom, in a coma, on the verge of death. When I first read the story I hated it. I found it too bleak, pointless. A woman waiting for her son to die and then she kills him. It is a mercy killing, a completion of something someone else started. But I didn’t like it.
When I re-read the story, years later, I found myself drawn to it. I found myself within Esther’s body, walking her house, feeling the weight in her bones, touching the wallpaper as she ascended the staircase. She says, ‘I mistook a green metal tank for my son and for a moment thought everything was alright.’
I found myself bonding with Esther, hearing and feeling her anger, her confusion, her disgust. ‘I explain that what you smell – a sweet, heavy odour, with lingering bitterness, a sharp cleanser-like aftertaste – is the perfume of the living dead. Breathe with your mouth open,’ she says. She’s stuck. ‘In the middle of the night, I watch him float somewhere between sleep and death,’ she says. She watches her son, she watches herself. They are in waiting, in limbo, they are both between sleep and death.
I first found it’s shortness a problem. Why have such a bleak short story? I thought. What was its point? Now, it is it’s shortness that creates the power and intensity. A snapshot into Esther’s situation is all we need and is all we are allowed. Esther puts a plastic bag over her son’s head and when he is dead – as he has already been for months – the Museum of the Living Dead is closed for business. Esther wished, ‘he would take the things that make me who I am, and then I would be able to be someone else’ – now she can.
A Real Doll
Welcome to Barbiedom. Homes wrote A Real Doll when she was a graduate student at the University of Iowa. I listened to her give a talk where she described how she bought her first Barbie – meaning the Virgin Barbie – and how her friends at Iowa would come round and undress Barbie. Everyone did it. It seemed natural. Homes tapped into that natural instinct or rather the underlying sexual instinct in all of us. I read it for the first time when I was walking home from work one day.
I’ve read A Real Doll more times than any of the other stories in The Safety of Objects, not because it trumps the others in terms of favouritism, not even because it speaks to me more, in fact I feel far more detached to its nameless teenage male narrator. I’ve read it so many times because the ideas within A Real Doll, the complexities and boundaries of sexuality and violence, love and infatuation demand re-reading.
When doing this, I found that everything in the story seemed sexual. The narrator is dating Barbie. He is sneaking into his sister’s room to avoid Ken, grab Barbie and sneak off with her. He’s drugging Barbie, too, slipping Valium into her Diet Coke so she can relax. Their times together seem sexual and eventually become sexual. But it doesn’t seem erotic, in Homes’ world, the most grotesque – even macabre things – can seem sexual, tender, perhaps sweet. Homes has discussed this before, she’s had characters eat scabs from their lover’s arms, crumbs from the other’s ass, and so on. But with A Real Doll there seems more of a dangerous line. The narrator has a physical power over Barbie, he can do what he wants, when he wants it.
His most unforgiveable act is when he pops Barbie’s head into his mouth. He stands in the hallway with her there, inside him. ‘I could hear her screams in my throat. Her teeth, white, Pearl Drops, Pepsodent, and the whole Osmond family, bit my tongue and the inside of my cheek like I might accidently bite myself…her feet uselessly kicked the air in front of my face.’ Uselessly. He knows what Barbie is and he knows who he is. He has the power and we, as humans, have the power.
The boy wants to possess Barbie. ‘I ran my tongue back and forth over the slivers, back and forth over the words “copyright 1966 Mattel Inc., Malaysia”.’ He has sex with the type of Barbie, he has sex with her brand, her breed. There is a Barbie religion: ‘I’m Tropical, she said, the same way a person might say I’m Catholic or I’m Jewish.’ The boy wants Barbie in every way.
In the end, the narrator’s sister commits the most unforgiveable act. ‘Wednesday Ken and Barbie had their heads switched. I went to Barbie, and there on top of the dresser were Barbie and Ken, sort of. Barbie’s head was on Ken’s body and Ken’s head was on Barbie. At first I thought it was just me.’ The narrator’s sexuality comes into question, he begins to look at Ken ‘in a whole new way’. He looks at Barbie differently, too. His sister has sawed off Barbie’s breasts, tortured and mutilated her. Barbie is ruined, Barbie is different and he abandons her. There is a cruelness to A Real Doll but a lot of the stories in this collection are cruel in the sense that they are real even when they’re not. Barbie may not be able to talk, she may be very un-real but the young boys and girls torturing Barbie are not.
Other (Looking For Johnny)
‘I disappeared a few years ago; I disappeared and then I came back.’ But who did I come back as? That’s the question I kept asking when re-reading Looking for Johnny. It was the first story I read in the collection, a story that encased me in darkness and uncertainty – Homes could take me anywhere.
In the story, a boy is kidnapped by a man named Randy. Randy calls the boy Johnny – ‘He just kept driving and calling me Johnny.’ The boy believes Randy – his mother has sent Randy to pick him up and take him home. Randy doesn’t seem like ‘that kind of person’. The boy wakes in Randy’s house and: ‘…saw my clothes all folded up at the end of the bed. I saw them and thought everything was okay because something who folds your clothes up and puts them on the end of the bed doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would mess with a kid.’
The story is told from the boy’s perspective – we are in his naive head – and what we end up seeing is something quite cruel, as well as sinister. The story is about identity and the loose of it. The boy loses his identity. With Randy, he is Johnny and part of him wants to become Johnny to please Randy. In the end, Randy rejects him and leaves him. He drops him off where he found him, all the crueller, it’s as if it never happened. “You’re not the right kid. You’re not Johnny.” The kid is dumped back to his life, a life and identity he didn’t really enjoy or know: ‘all the things I’d always liked, knowing who lived where and what their dog’s name was, only made me feel worse. I went past clotheslines and instead of thinking it was funny to see Mrs. Perkins’s flowered underwear hanging out, I wanted to rip it down. I wanted to take everything down and tear it into a million pieces.’
He returns to his sister, Rayanna, who is alone at their house, standing in the sandbox. She screams ‘Erol’ but it sounds like ‘Error’. The boy flees. ‘I turned and ran back through the yards. I ran until I didn’t know the names of the people in the houses around me. I ran through the backyards until I stopped hearing Rayanne’s voice calling Error.’
Five Favourite Quotes:
“He’d see Paul, eyes open, looking nowhere, the body twisted, or more un-twisted like a pretzel undone. He’d see it all and drop everything. He’d run from our house not wanting to take anything, not wanting to hold anything that had been touched by the magic of the living dead.” – Esther In The Night
“Porno is not a gift.” – Adults Alone
“She had nothing and was incredibly aware of both the nothingness and Ben’s interest in the empty space.” – Slumber Party
“I went out in the evenings to roam men, to display myself, to parade, to hunt. I was what everyone wanted, white, clean, forever a boy. They wanted to ruin me as a kind of revenge.” – The I of It
“I looked and in a moment noticed she had the whole world, the cosmos, drawn in makeup above and below her eyes. An entire galaxy, clouds, stars, a sun, the sea, painted onto her face. Yellow, blue, pink, and a million silver sparkles.” – A Real Doll