Feral Chihuahuas

Jessica Olin

  • This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes
    Granta, 372 pp, £14.99, June 2006, ISBN 1 86207 848 3

‘This book will save your life’: it’s a bold claim. In A.M. Homes’s new novel, Richard Novak has systematically removed himself from the world of human relationships. In the wake of a failed marriage, he moved to Los Angeles and set up a perfectly ordered existence. He stopped going to work years ago; instead, each morning he checks the market while exercising on his treadmill and drinks his special breakfast shakes. The only people he sees are his nutritionist, trainer, house-cleaner and masseuse – women who nurture him professionally. Most of the time, he manages not to think about his son, Ben, or his workaholic ex-wife. Yet there is an atmosphere of foreboding: ‘He stands at the glass. The mechanical sounds of the house catch him off-guard. Ice tumbles into the freezer bin, the coffeepot begins to fill with water, air whooshes out of the vent, billowing up the leg of his pants. He shudders.’ Two crises shake Richard from his torpor: a mysterious hole appears in the ground behind his house, and a crippling pain sends him to the hospital.

Since the early 1990s, A.M. Homes has been a chronicler of America’s suburban nightmares. The End of Alice (1996), for example, is narrated by a child molester and his protégée, and was controversial not least for its depiction of a teenage girl as predator. Her short-story collection The Safety of Objects (1990) featured a boy’s sexual ‘relationship’ with his sister’s Barbie and introduced us to Paul and Elaine Weiss, a pair of ‘unrulyweds’ who live in a commuter town outside New York and who experiment with smoking crack as a way to deal with midmarriage ennui. The couple returned in the novel Music for Torching (1999), in which they set fire to their house. Since then, Homes and her interests have moved to Los Angeles. The city is the setting for This Book Will Save Your Life as well as her most recent short-story collection, the superlative Things You Should Know (2002), and a collection of essays entitled Los Angeles: People, Places and the Castle on the Hill, which she worked on while living at the Chateau Marmont.

Homes’s LA is a precarious utopia, built in defiance of geography, geology and common sense: ‘perched on a cliff, always in danger of falling, breaking away, sliding’. Its residents are vaguely aware of their risky position: ‘There’s some sort of warning – I can’t remember if it’s heat or air.’ Lounging semi-conscious by the pool, they imagine strange deaths: ‘“I might evaporate,” she says . . . “I might spontaneously combust.”’ In the story ‘Raft in Water, Floating’, there are hints of a disturbance: ‘At twilight an odd electrical surge causes the doorbells all up and down the block to ring. An intercom chorus of faceless voices sings a round of: “Hi, hello. Can I help you? Is anybody out there?”’

Relying on their cleaning ladies to do their food shopping, the wealthy ‘live on the surface in some strange state of siege’. Their isolation, and the inequalities inherent in their living arrangements, produce a mild paranoia. A bulb blows, the TV drones in the background: ‘People often have the feeling that there is something wrong, that they are not where they should be.’ Everyday sounds hint at revolt: ‘In the front yard they hear men speaking Spanish, the sound of hedge trimmers and weed whackers, frantic scratching, a thousand long fingernails clawing to get in.’

Mysterious, troubled and wild: Los Angeles is a site of potential upheaval. In This Book Will Save Your Life, the fragile truce between nature and civilisation is about to collapse. There are rumours of homeless people living in caves; the evening news reports ‘a series of sightings of what is being described as a sabre-toothed cat’ back from extinction; Richard’s ex-wife is chased down Rodeo Drive by a pack of feral chihuahuas. There are power cuts – ‘It is the grid, the grid has gone bad’ – and leaking septic tanks, ‘the secret of Malibu’. On Richard’s street, the dustbins have caught fire and resemble ‘melted molten blobs, strange sculptures, like burned aliens by the side of the road. There are smoke streaks up the telephone poles, as though they’ve been hit by lightning.’ These events seem to be coalescing; a larger disaster looms: ‘The radio is filled with warnings and road closings, flash floods, slide conditions; everything is about impermanence.’ There is a sense that the natural order has to be restored, whatever the cost: ‘I like the idea of it, nature coming back and kicking our asses. And I think he’s a she, a bitch for sure.’

A less sinister but equally bizarre aspect of This Book Will Save Your Life concerns the peculiar dream-logic of LA, where everyone is writing a screenplay and every experience becomes a movie. When a horse gets stuck in the hole behind Richard’s house, people driving by think it’s a film shoot; Richard’s neighbour, Tad Ford, a movie star, gets a helicopter and the stunt co-ordinator from Paramount to help lift the horse out. Afterwards, he thanks Richard for thinking of him. ‘Well, I just thought the part might appeal to you; it seemed like your kind of role,’ Richard says. The government inspector who comes out to look at the hole gives Richard his script, ‘a disaster film combining fire, flood, earthquake, pestilence, mudslide’ – which could also describe This Book Will Save Your Life. Ben gets an internship at the Agency, a company set up by ‘two ex-CIA guys who wanted to make action-adventure films’. In a hall-of-mirrors scene Gerald Ford and Harrison Ford meet at the Agency to discuss a ‘picture about the Ford presidency’. As Richard says, ‘it’s a lot of Fords.’

Homes’s characters are looking for a way out of the maze; they pin signs to telephone poles: ‘You Are Not Alone . . . Talk to Me.’ They come up with ‘mental candy’ to help them, ‘a pill for all your problems’, and talk in slogans: ‘How to feel in control when you are out of control.’ ‘Do you have a particular point of view,’ Richard asks his doctor, ‘a way of life, something you want others to do as well?’ In the title story of Things You Should Know, the narrator explains: ‘Right away I knew I’d missed something important.’ When this suspicion becomes an obsession, she is sent to a psychiatrist:

‘What exactly do you think is written on this “Things to Know” paper?’ he asked me.

‘Things You Should Know,’ I said. ‘It’s not things to know, not things you will learn, but things you already should know but maybe are a little dumb, so you don’t.’

‘Yes,’ he said, nodding. ‘And what are those things?’

‘You’re asking me,’ I shouted. ‘I don’t know. You’re the one who should know. You tell me. I never saw the list.’

In a way, this is surprisingly optimistic: the idea that there is an answer at all, even if it is being withheld. Homes’s characters prepare for disaster: ‘We have flare guns and fire extinguishers, walkie-talkies, a rubber raft, a hundred batteries in assorted shapes and sizes, a thousand bucks in dollar bills . . . We are ready and waiting.’ But when the catastrophe comes – cancer, Alzheimer’s, a car accident – ‘you can do everything and think you’re prepared, but you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t see what’s coming until it hits you in the face.’

This new novel is a companion piece to Music for Torching. Like Richard, Paul and Elaine Weiss are ‘stuck’, but while Richard exists in a ‘vacuum of silence – life cancelled’, their problem is the opposite: too much sex, too much food, too much drinking, the kids, chaos. In both novels, Homes uses a damaged house and its repair as a metaphor. Like Richard, Paul and Elaine work through their issues while dealing with a series of architects, cleaners, painters, decorators, insurance and real-estate agents. There is even a hole in the ceiling of their house to match the hole in Richard’s back yard. But unlike This Book Will Save Your Life, Music for Torching is stuffed with life. They may be experiencing a common phenomenon – the mid-life crisis – but the Weisses respond with drastic action, like a cat fighting its way out of a paper bag. Paul gets a tattoo, vomits a ‘pink, chunky mess’ of baby shrimp onto the street, shaves off all his body hair. Elaine – ‘I am The Yellow Wallpaper!’ – has athletic sex with anyone in her orbit. The violence of what is done to their house contrasts with the vague ‘depression in the earth’ of This Book Will Save Your Life: ‘melted curtains, the dining-room table cleaved in half, singed chairs, bubbly walls, blistered paint’. In Music for Torching, the suburban ideal cannot contain the elemental fury. It’s not under the surface: it’s putting its fist through the wall. There’s a sense of urgency, that things matter, that this is a life and death struggle.

In the story ‘Do Not Disturb’ from Things You Should Know, a woman describes the physical pain caused by cancer: ‘Something is struggling inside me. It’s like one of those alien movies, like I’m going to burst open and something’s going to spew out, like I’m erupting.’ In such company, This Book Will Save Your Life is half-hearted; Cynthia, a ‘crying woman’ Richard befriends in a supermarket, claims to be angry, but she’s a pale ghost compared to Elaine, who vibrates with anger. Homes gives Elaine great scenery-chewing moments – beating up her husband; fucking her neighbour with a strap-on; chopping up the dining-room table with an axe – whereas after one round of Housewife Rehab Cynthia is happily baking cookies again with her daughter.

In the absence of an urgent narrative or compelling characters, Homes uses a variety of techniques to keep things busy. She introduces motifs and plays with them, only to drop them again. On the first page, Richard gazes at a woman who swims laps in her pool each morning. She wears a red swimsuit in a ‘pool of unnatural blue’; he refers to her as his ‘confidante, his muse, his mermaid’. Later, he moves to Malibu and fantasises about a woman who swims every morning in the ocean in a yellow bathing cap; he refers to her, too, as a ‘mermaid’. At first it seems there’s a link, or some significance, but it’s a red herring. In a way, everything is: the horse, the movie star, the doughnuts, even Cynthia. None of them, in the end, matter to Richard’s story.

Homes plays around with malapropisms and mishearings. She did this in Music for Torching, too, but there the confusions point to a deeper anxiety: ‘erratic’ sounds like ‘erotic’, ‘negligence’ like ‘negligee’, ‘homeowner’ is misheard as ‘homo’. When a character in her new novel says ‘stationary’ instead of ‘sanitary’, he’s just being silly. Perhaps the strangest aspect of the book, though, is its unyieldingly flat affect. Homes subjects the reader to a series of conversations detailing the most mundane arrangements:

He calls the nutritionist. ‘Cecelia told me you were away,’ she says.

‘I was on a retreat. They had spirulina and ground flax seed.’

‘Very good. So where is your new place?’

‘Malibu.’

‘Oh, far. I have a route that I kind of stick to, but I could meet you somewhere along the way. Maybe Santa Monica?’

‘Whatever works; I’m flexible.’

‘Meet me in the Fred Segal parking lot tomorrow at two-fifteen and I’ll make you a bunch of things that will get you through the week.’

Or:

He calls the trainer. ‘Malibu – wow, you’re out of my service area. When will you be back?’

‘A month, maybe two.’

‘There’s got to be a gym or a Shanti out there – look in the phone book under “exercise”.’

He does, and finds something called Malibu Gyrotonics.

‘Have you ever done Pilates, gymnastics, or other dance-based exercise?’ the woman answering the phone quizzes him.

‘No.’

‘I can put you in with Sydney tomorrow at three.’

‘Perfect.’

‘It’s 85 dollars a session.’

And on and on. These conversations, which should be resting places between the action, end up being the action – the book is comprised of little else.

Richard’s life may be empty, but the outside world presents a barrage of possibilities. Whenever Richard has a conversation with his trainer, masseuse, insurance agent, real-estate agent, travel agent, contractor, government inspector, 911 operator, decorator, painter or nutritionist, there is a list of questions. ‘Have you seen any water, heard any gushing sounds? Is there anything bubbling or seeping out of the hole? Have you felt any land movement or earthquakelike activity? Was there a previous incident, or lack of stability in your neighbourhood?’ Homes used this same technique in Music for Torching, to black comic effect: ‘What other kinds of explosive devices does your husband collect: rifles, shotguns, grenades? Any ammunition of other types? Land mines?’ The options are endless; for Richard, ordering a pizza becomes almost not worth the trouble:

What do you want on it? One for three, three for five, five for ten. We got mushroom, pepperoni, onions, peppers, garlic, regular cheese, smoked mozzarella, feta, goat, cheddar, Swiss, fresh garlic, sun-dried tomato, fresh tomato, avocado, broccoli, broccoli rabe, spinach, pineapple, sausage, turkey sausage, tofu, red peppers, green peppers, green olives, black olives.

Homes is painstakingly criticising the seemingly infinite choices in our culture: ‘Where did all this stuff come from? . . . Is there a reason we need graham crackers in assorted shapes, flavours, and colours? Twenty-two varieties of orange juice?’ But it’s such an obvious point, it’s hardly worth making.

And then there’s Anhil, the car salesman turned doughnut-shop proprietor who resembles a yammering animal sidekick from a Disney cartoon. His raptures over Richard’s Mercedes are embarrassing: ‘She is the African Queen. If she was mine I would polish her every day, I would clean her with q-tips. The leather – it is like the most beautiful woman. If I didn’t think my wife would worry, I would make love to your car.’ Of Ben’s VW Beetle: ‘She is a happy, smiling car. I laughed the whole time I was driving. I took the flower from the dash. I did not want her to wilt.’ He’s clearly supposed to be Richard’s ‘wise fool’, pointing out the simple truths, reminding us to stop and smell the flowers, but he’s just an idiot. He delivers tiresome platitudes on ‘the human donut’ and American culture: ‘Americans try on the spiritual life of others like they don’t have any of their own’; ‘America has two kinds of politicians – one has sex, the other has war – which do you like?’; ‘In America everyone is famous.’ He is presented as a joke: ‘Like a puppet, Anhil pops up from behind the counter.’ The portrayal would be offensive if he weren’t such a ridiculous ‘stereotropical’ caricature; but the more serious issue is the damage he does to the book’s emotional credibility: it’s hard to take Richard’s metaphysical crisis seriously when his best friend is such a jackass.

Maybe the real trouble is that Richard’s problems seem so banal. He sees his hazy memory as part of a pathology, explaining: ‘It’s not like I keep thinking, Oh, I don’t remember; it’s more like nothing occurs to me and then, all of a sudden, a little piece comes back and I think, That’s interesting, I’d completely forgotten that.’ But doesn’t that happen to everyone? And once he makes an effort, he seems to have no difficulty radically changing his life, meeting people, connecting with them, ‘making a difference’.

This Book Will Save Your Life reads at times like a collection of baby-boomer rants. At a ‘wow-wow’ on the beach, one father marvels: ‘It’s a chemical culture. My kid can’t do his homework unless he takes Ritalin, and when my daughter started on an antidepressant she thought it meant she was a big girl – like going from chewables to gelcaps. It’s a rite of passage, like what getting braces used to be.’ Another man spends the evening ‘alternating between talking on his cell phone – saying: “Hello, hello, can you hear me? It’s not a good signal. Hello, can you?” – and checking his Blackberry for messages.’ Someone explains that he uses a typewriter because ‘I can’t take what I write on the computer seriously. I need to pound it out, word by word, line by line, in order for it to mean something to me. I like the hum of the machine, the way you have to really hit the keys.’ It’s not just that these criticisms are clichés; it’s that we’re well past the point where it matters whether Prozac, cell-phones or computers are a good or bad thing. It’s like arguing about the relative merits of horses v. cars as modes of transport. There may be an interesting way to portray these characters and their feelings about the world, but this isn’t it. The focus is especially mystifying because Homes always used to seem so ahead of the times. In her story ‘The Chinese Lesson’, a woman has a tracking chip put in her wandering mother’s back; in ‘Georgica’, a middle-aged woman attempts to impregnate herself using pilfered sperm. And in ‘The Former First Lady and the Football Hero’, perhaps her most ambitious story, Homes depicts Nancy Reagan visiting online chat rooms so that she can experience anonymity. Why has she resorted to such threadbare territory here? This is Homes’s first novel in six years, and her penetrating critique has given way to self-help truisms: ‘There is no VIP room in reality . . . You can’t Google the answers.’ Feral chihuahuas would have been sharp ten years ago; now, with every C-list starlet toting a teacup Tinkerbell, it’s so plausible it’s passé.