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.’

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