by A M Homes

There’s a Ruth Rendell quote on the front of AM Homes’s The Safety of Objects: “Here are all the things that even in our frank, outspoken times we don’t talk about. We think of them punishingly in our sleepless nights.”

      It’s a remarkable quote. First because unlike so many other slices of literary cover-whoring, it’s right on the money. And secondly for the realisation that, at 74, Rendell is refusing to grow old conventionally, preferring instead to spend her bingo years in the company of businessmen on the verge of nervous breakdowns, child abductors, toy abusers and crack-smoking parents.

      The overused ‘tour de force’ slice of hyperbole seems almost justified here: it carries the right connotation of strength, but none of the subtlety you’ll find on display within The Safety of Objects. This is language used like an ice pick, a penetrating accuracy that brings about massive internal upheavals and leaves hardly a trace of having slipped under your defences.

      As a reader you come to these fleeting vignettes and marvel at just how much is packed into the streamlined form of each one. And yet, something about them all stays elusive and beautifully fascinating for their indeterminacy. Part of the reason for this has to be Homes’s… Economy. Of. Words. The style is shockingly tight, with a very broad brush of targeted thoughts and emotions crammed into 173 pages. One moment you’re bundled into a laundry cupboard with a neurotic and compulsively charged teenage girl, the next contemplating the manhood of an AIDS victim. Yet every character you encounter – even the guy who uses a Barbie doll for sexual gratification in the final story – is depicted with a painstaking accuracy that stands disproportionate to the minimal word count. Each one is human, each has their own fantasies about “what they would have done, if only” and each has been damaged or irrevocably changed by their passage through life.

      Homes, however, doesn’t just present a standard dissection. Yes, she likes to pin out and display the internal workings of all of her characters, and yes, she does like to get them physically naked whenever the chance arises. But, in addition to this baring of the body and soul, she also manages to work in a sense of wonder and enigmatic prowess to each and every one. Again this is the result of Homes’s cleverly crafted ambiguity. As you read, customary notions of omnipresent voyeurism are repeatedly undercut via the general sense of unravelling that permeates every tale.

      ‘The Bullet Catcher’ is the centrepiece of this collection of 10 short stories, and its focus – the midlife meltdown of a man called Frank – serves to epitomise Homes’s balancing act between revelation and nondisclosure. On the one hand, Frank’s drive to ogle at and pursue a trio of young girls appears obvious. He’s stranded in his marriage and a life where only the vigour of youth seems to convey any real meaning. In reaction he attempts to assert himself, to locate a mythical path back into the lost realm of the young by wielding the only potency left to him – his credit rating. Although, even here, in the pursuit of consumer happiness, he finds himself hobbled by guilt. Instead of installing his expensive new CD player in his car, he hides the compulsive purchase from the accusatory eyes of his wife.

      So here we see Frank the lech, Frank the consumer and Frank the impotent no-hoper. Or do we? There are moments in the tale when the disassociation he experiences through age acts like a fresh lens scanned across the facile, product-driven world that surrounds him. He asks his questions like an innocent and is repeatedly perplexed when his whys and general incredulity are met with cool silences from the accepting masses around him.

      His breakdown, when it finally arrives, is triggered by the moment of victory in a ‘touch the truck’-style competition at his local shopping mall. It’s closing time, and only the last contestants and a few straggling customers remain. And yet, on a radio station supposedly transmitting the event live, the sound of an ecstatic crowd is being broadcast to the outside world. Reality and marketing clash causing a transformation in Frank that’s as liberating as it is tragic. At last he becomes truly animated, a mobile hunter rather than passive observer and, although he ultimately pays dearly for his subsequent acts of insurrection, for a moment he’s completely free.

      Alternatively, if you look at the child’s attempt to escape his abductor in ‘Looking for Johnny’, and his almost equally powerful resistance against returning home, you’ll find this subtle opposition at work once again. On face value it’s a story of warped rejection, but the implicit exposition of two characters searching for something to make their existences whole, is a much more complex, dark and ultimately unresolved tale.

      As for the upside, that sense of wonder we mentioned earlier that pulls against the undertow of delicate bleakness, you only have to encounter the achingly accurate sexual awakenings of Chunky in ‘Heat’ and ‘Slumber Party’ to recognise Homes’s mastery of youthful observation. Even with the cloistered protagonist of ‘Yours Truly’ and her imposed exile in the laundry cupboard of her house, you’ll find a comic epiphany that has her breaking free in her imagination and doing a loved-up tap dance throughout her house. All tainted and skewed moments of hope, but hope nonetheless.

      Collectively these strange attractors – revelation and hope in opposition to enigma and despair – could easily leave your attention stranded under their combined influence. But not at the hands of Homes. She generates something that’s more seductive, more mood than reportage delivered in a style more analogue than digital. It’s as if the stories are individual stations spread across the frequency band of human experience, each one a dark show transmitted from another dimension. You’ll listen, you’ll find them unsettling as they probe beneath your senses, but you’ll also be compelled to return time and again.

      Each revisiting stirs up a new nuance, and while it’s easy to pick out general themes, the meaning of the collection’s title remains elusive. Are these objects safe in any conventional sense? When you look at the seemingly treacherous prick of the AIDS victim, the pissed-in flower pot, the deflowered Barbie doll, they seems anything but. Take a second pass at Frank’s catcher’s mitt, at the girl’s linen closet, at the relationship rescuing crack vials and, as with everything else in this book, you end up in a vague territory off the edge of the map. The only certainty is the beauty with which all the tales are told. And, despite their vicious edges, you’ll want to hold each one security blanket close.