I first read ‘A Real Doll’ by A.M. Homes in the Barcelona Review, though it had been published a few years before. the start of a long-standing admiration for this unique American writer. In ‘A Real Doll’ a younger brother starts “dating” his sisters’ Barbie doll when she’s not around. What starts in all innocence becomes darker and darker. Homes manages to wring everything out of this scenario, but written in a lively, humorous voice. By channelling the sex doll fantasies that you find in Roxy Music’s ‘In Every Dream Home a Heartache’, and later, in TV programmes like Humans, what Homes does is go to heart of the matter – for this is “a real doll” the play on words with what a gangster might say about his girlfriend. It starts very funny – he’s taken her from Ken, who hasn’t exactly got the necessary equipment for a fulfilling relations – but by the end its almost a horror story.
First published in The Safety of Objects, Daedalus Press, 1990, and available to read online in the Barcelona Review
Tvetan Todorov says that the thing about a short story is that it’s so short it doesn’t allow us time to forget that it’s only literature and not actually life.
I’ve enjoyed AM Homes’ tough-minded, acerbic, emotionally off-kilter stories for years – from the one about dating a Barbie doll to the recent tour-de-force about love and atrocity, ‘Days of Awe’ (Granta 143; collected in Days of Awe, Granta Books, 2018). But I’ve chosen ‘Things You Should Know’ for purely personal reasons. When I studied Chemistry at school I always felt I was missing something basic: I muddled along, I passed the exam, but I never quite knew how or why. There must have been some explanation at the start of term that I had somehow missed. Over the years, this sensation recurred – remind me again why structuralism mattered? What is it you expect from me in this job, exactly? – until one day in 2003 I read: “There are things I do not know. I was absent the day they passed out the information sheets.” And I have never forgotten it. The sheets the narrator believes were handed out by her fourth grade teacher include, she guesses, “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.” It was perhaps the most banal epiphany ever because the fact that it’s a story – and the collection’s title story at that – means mine is obviously not a purely personal response at all.
Collected in Things You Should Know, Granta Books, 2003
I spent the summer of 1998 in Iraqi Kurdistan, after having suffered a sort of teen meltdown that made me need to get away from everything and everyone I knew. So I went to stay with family for the summer, ostensibly to “improve my Kurdish”. At the time there was no way to communicate with the outside world other than madly expensive satellite telephones, and the TV channels at my disposal consisted of news in Arabic and not much else. That short, three-month absence from European pop culture led to me returning to school the following fall, having completely missed the weird euro-bubblegum pop phenomenon that was Aqua. I could not believe that ‘Barbie Girl’ was a real song, that people were actually listening to, and felt a little unmoored at the vast radio-wave conquering assault of this ridiculous tune, as though the world I had returned to after three months was not the same world I had left.
When I read A.M. Homes’s ‘A Real Doll’ during a bed-ridden Christmas in 2008, the same feeling of disconcertedness re-appeared, but where the sexualisation of Barbie in the Aqua song was just a silly gimmick, in Homes’s fiction it is deadly serious, a thorough look at an adolescent boy’s psycho-sexual attraction to his sister’s Barbie, whom he dates, three times a week, while the sister is at dance class. He later also has a homoerotic moment with Ken, much to Barbie’s imagined dismay.
After having read it I texted my sister, saying that I had a vague recollection of torturing her dolls, charring their plastic against a spinning bicycle wheel. Homes’s story brought a memory to the fore that I had suppressed, and doubted the veracity of even as it was too specific to be anything but true. The three dots indicating a response in the making pulsated on my phone’s screen for a moment. Then the reply: “Not sure tbh.”
Collected in The Safety of Objects, Daedalus Books, 1990. Can be read online here