‘A Real Doll’, by A.M. Homes

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