There is much to praise about A.M. Homes's varied story collection Days of Awe, her first since 2002's Things You Should Know. Wired into the zeitgeist, she's both a keen observer of some of the more absurd aspects of contemporary American life and someone who's not afraid to explore the boundaries where real life morphs into fantasy ... The best of Homes's stories take a familiar situation and give it a bizarre twist. That's true of A Prize for Every Player, where Tom, Jane and their two children embark on what appears to be a routine Saturday morning shopping trip at a Costco-type store. But this outing takes on an eerie aspect when one of the children discovers an abandoned baby atop the towel display; meanwhile, Tom's observations in front of a bank of televisions inspire his fellow shoppers to promote him as a presidential candidate. In barely 20 pages, it's a telling satire of our consumer culture and current political moment ... Unlike many story collections whose appeal lies in some unifying theme, Days of Awe's pleasure emerges from its embrace of the unexpected. Turn the page and you never know what you may find.
Homes circles and tugs at the question of what it means to live in flawed, fragile, hungry human bodies ... The title story is about a war reporter and a novelist who meet at a conference on genocide and have a weekend affair. Here the body is death—the millions killed who haunt the conference attendees — but it’s also desire. The affair is vivid and real and yet there is a shard of violence in it, the everyday violence of two people using each other to counter pain they don’t know how to digest ... One character embeds rose thorns in her feet; several have very disordered eating habits; people die too young, go to war and hold in their cells and minds the memories of past trauma ... The absurd and the delicate occupy the same space. Another story begins with a family going grocery shopping and ends with the father being nominated to run for president by fellow customers in the electronics aisle, while holding a baby his daughter found on a stack of towels ... Whatever the tone, hanging over Days of Awe are questions about how we metabolize strangeness, danger, horror. In each story the characters seem to be looking around at their lives and asking: 'Is this even real? Has the world always been so jagged?'
'It’s like a kinky psychodrama,' says Cheryl, the student protagonist of the final story in AM Homes’s new collection. She’s talking to her friend Walter. They’re both dressed up in her parents’ clothes. The line comes from within the role-play and outside it. She’s commenting on the peculiarity of their idea of an afternoon’s entertainment but also on the absurdity of her life in general: a life in the upper echelons of Los Angeles, where even the dog has had plastic surgery to remove its unappealing fatty tumours, the TV channel changes depending on who’s walking past and their favourite restaurant serves only tiny designer-sized macrobiotic bites ... Much of Homes’s skill lies in inventing plots that seem just about plausible as she leads you along but far less plausible when you stop to consider them. She narrates the stories in a pacy present tense, energised by amusing quips and details.
Days of Awe is different from most of her other books, because it is not, for want of a better phrase, as horrifying ... There is so much to say that her characters seem to burst out of the narratives that hold them. The most explicit expression of this principle comes in the many conversations in Days of Awe that play out through ventriloquy ... she has returned to the same territory, the American family, but has turned inward rather than outward ... In its hard-earned ease among the perils of the American home, Days of Awe feels like an authentic step forward in a career that is continuing to mature.
In her most successful stories, Homes’ gentle exaggeration hovers on the very edges of the plausible ... Homes is a devastating satirist, and many a passage is wickedly sharp. Yet the eating disorders, plastic surgery, consumerism and spiritual aridity of America’s well-off are familiar objects of fictional mockery. Taking the mickey out of rich, neurotic Californians seems not only fish-in-a-barrel easy, but faintly dated ... The most incisive satire cuts close to the readers’ bone: it’s about us. This satire is more distanced. Unless you’ve a large pool in your back garden, it’s safely poking fun at other people ... The very best story in Days of Awe is the title one, which displays thematic depth and sophisticated emotional layering.
...the time seems right for her latest story collection, Days of Awe (304 pages; Viking), as it presents a chance for readers new and old to check in with this prominent voice in transgressive literature ... Her fiction ushers our American landscape into a literary funhouse, commenting with acerbic wit and deft characterization on the distorted reflection that appears. Days of Awe is a reminder that we are lucky to have her singular talent.
Each story here could well be a masterclass in the art of writing dialogue as Homes employs it throughout to do much more than reveal character or move the story along. For non-writers, these stories show how to listen closely in our everyday conversations to what is said and, more importantly, what isn't said. In our time, when so much communication happens online and asynchronously, preserving and evolving the art of two-way communication feels even more critical. Real-time dialogue, in the end, is about a give-and-take between two people; it's an exchange of not just ideas but also emotions; it's a crucial skill in every walk of life and one that we never stop developing ... She drops us into the middle of the ongoing life journeys of her characters at seemingly ordinary moments which then unfold in rather unexpected ways. The element of surprise here is not so much an added twist as a derailment—all done with Homes' signature knowing winks and sly nudges. Sometimes, you can see the devastation coming even as you are transfixed and rooted in your window-seat. And, sometimes, a story takes a sharp corner so quickly, you could never have seen it coming ... That said, there are occasions when the near-constant dialogue is clip-clopping along so rapidly—one-liner after one-liner, quip after quip — that it highlights the absence of and need for narrative. Three stories, particularly, could probably have used a few more narrative sections for intermittent relief and, frankly, to develop their plots more substantively: 'All Is Good Except for the Rain'; 'The Last Good Time'; and 'Be Mine.'
Homes’s uneven collection of short fiction searches for humor and wonder amidst the anxieties of contemporary America ... In Brother on Sunday, a brother-in-law’s unwelcome visit shines light on the blemishes of a very surface-obsessed marriage. Totaling only five pages, Whose Story Is It, and Why Is It Always on Her Mind? follows a self-harmer who pushes thorns into the soles of her feet ... Homes’s fans—as well as readers looking for sharp and funny short fiction—will find much to enjoy.
A collection that examine the absurdities of modern life ... Throughout the book, dialogue is given tremendous weight and space. Characters speak in full paragraphs, and where there is self-awareness about that, it is quirky and fun. When shoppers overhear Tom (A Prize for Every Player), launch into a long, nostalgic monologue about America, they convince him to run for president. Too often, however, such awareness is lacking. This is most glaringly the case in The National Cage Bird Show, a story told entirely through messages in a chat room for bird owners. Even when there is an actual narrator, Homes shies away from exposition, forcing her characters to say too much. Nonetheless, there are many true gems of conversation.