“I’d say the purpose of fiction is to illustrate and illuminate,” says the writer protagonist of "Days of Awe", the short story from which AM Homes’ new collection takes its title. “We see ourselves more clearly through the stories we tell.”
She’s the “Transgressive Novelist” — capital T, capital N — who wrote a novel “illustrating the multigenerational effects of Holocaust trauma.” Whether that’s her story to tell though, and whether fiction is the right medium for a subject so “sensitive”, are questions people like to ask her, including the moderator of the panel on which she’s speaking at a conference on genocides: “What does it mean to you to be a transgressive woman who writes books that are intentionally shocking?”
It’s a question Homes has surely been asked herself. Her 1996 novel The End of Alice, the story of a correspondence between a convicted paedophile and child killer and a 19-year-old girl who’s planning on seducing a 12-year-old, was famously controversial. There’s no rule that this illustration and illumination should be comfortable and cosy, though; two words that definitely don’t apply to the stories in this collection either, each as sharp-edged as a jagged slither of broken glass.
The corporeal body takes centre stage throughout. The first scene of the opening story, "Brother on Sunday", features an off-duty plastic surgeon giving himself a little Botox top-up before heading out for a day at the beach with friends: “He injects a little here, a little there; it’s just a touch-up, a filler-up. Later, when someone says, ‘You look great,’ he’ll smile and his face will bend gently, but no lines will appear.”
Meanwhile, death and desire intertwine in "Days of Awe", as the Transgressive Novelist steals time for illicit sex with a fellow conference attendee, a seasoned war correspondent, between discussions of dismembered body parts and mass graves. As in other stories, a distinctive black humour abounds: “Don’t forget your welcome bag,” says a volunteer, handing out “a canvas tote, laden with genocide swag.” One of the conference sponsors is a “family-owned ice cream company,” and there’s a free chair massage in the “spiritual recharge room” brought to them by a company called Watch Your Back.
One of the most engrossing stories here, "A Prize for Every Player", nails this commercialisation of modern life. In it, a family treat their weekly grocery shop like a game of Supermarket Sweep. By the time they’ve left the store on this particular day, they’ve added to their numbers, with a baby they find in the homewear aisle, the children begging their parents to let them keep it. “They’re just like you — consumers to the core,” says the wife to her husband. “They love the idea of getting a baby from the store — more things to shop for.” Meanwhile, after giving an impromptu rousing speech in the electronics area, the husband also finds himself running for president.
As in many collections, the quality is a little patchy, but the ones that work linger disconcertingly. “Handle with care” is the warning that springs to mind.
'Days of Awe' is published by Granta