Review: THREATS by Amelia Gray

It is doubtful that any significant percentage of Anobium readers will respond to Amelia Gray’s name with a “duhh who?” type of response, or anything close to it. A site and project dedicated to both literature and weirdness, such as this one, will have a good amount of readers who love Amelia Gray.

Should I be mistaken, here’s a few words on the lady:

1)      She’s the author of two popular and well-received story collections, AM/PM (Featherproof Books) and Museum of the Weird (FC2).

2)      Museum of the Weird won the 2008 Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize.

3)      AM/PM won the WHAT THE WHAT prize within all of our hearts, further solidifying the legitimacy and impact of flash fiction, especially hers. (This is how AM/PM makes me feel in my insides.)

4)      She has since become a kind of small publishers’ darling, a strange new voice in experimental fiction. And, most importantly…

5)      She’s written a new novel, THREATS, recently published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. A small press writer at FSG!

All in all, she is a Queen of the odd, inventive sadness that has begun to permeate contemporary fiction.

This new vain of contemporary fiction—this subdued, sparse language paired with strange, surreal content, all composed by a steady narrative hand—is gaining in recognition. Here we often find multiple areas in plot that bend the boundaries of realism, Kafka-esque moments of innovation that rely on the purest kind of invention, cautious (but present, which is the important thing) sentimentality, boatloads of symbolism, a good amount of gore, and lots and lots of shy weirdos and outsiders.

Enter THREATS, a pillar of inventive strength with its rampant symbolism, bodily ruin, violence, surrealism, and our lovable weirdo shmuck at hand, David.

David, our most unreliable narrator (and frighteningly unhinged dentist), has just lost his wife, Franny. David and Franny may have been an odd couple—she with her flighty disappearances into the woods in the middle of some nights, and he with his frequent “confusions,” such as wandering into the middle of the road to spy on some quarreling blue jays, or visualizing a lady in a painting who speaks to him, or his unexplained charge of malpractice in dentistry—but the sweetness of their pairing rings true throughout. There is a gentle sway to their relationship, put forth to us in contextual fragments and memories, deftly created and chosen by Gray.

The essential plot of THREATS is very simple: David has lost Franny. The novel opens with his receiving a package containing Franny’s ashes. The very moment she is gone, one of the first things David feels is confusion. He begins to mentally switch places with a female firefighter attempting to console him, not knowing how to comfort himself from her point of view. He soon begins to find threats everywhere he goes—scratched into the side of his TV, written on a receipt that’s taped to the back of a picture frame, scribbled on a sheet of notebook paper inside a bag of sugar—that are both chilling and thrilling, such as:

I WILL LOCK YOU IN A ROOM MUCH LIKE YOUR OWN UNTIL IT BEGINS TO FILL WITH WATER.

She exists in the book almost entirely as a ghost, via these threats and other fragmental memories. Not in the literal sense; she doesn’t haunt him in the way you’d imagine a ghost haunting a person, ominous moans and creepy late-night cameo appearances and whatnot. Rather, Franny haunts David merely through David’s intense attachment to her. In a way, he is haunting himself.

What makes the novel compelling, however, is an ebb and flow between believability and disorientation. We, too, become confused.

The presence of the novel’s few outside characters are the most relevant example of this. These outsiders include Detective Chico, who seems to be battling with demons from his own past; Marie Walls, a Trance Regression Therapist working out of David’s wasp-infested garage as she researches emotional devastation linked to the words “you” and “love”; Shelly, a frequenter of the local laundromat who’s obsessed with perfecting her folding and stacking techniques; a slew of ladies from the salon/spa where Franny worked; and one of the more prominent employees in the establishment, the anxious and supportive Aileen. There are moments where their actual presence in reality cannot be questioned, and others—such as when Chico slowly opens his mouth to reveal to David three pills lying on his tongue—when reality isn’t so much the name of the game. (“I see,” is David’s answer to this act, for the record.)

We have questions: Are they really there? Is David just imagining them? Is he only imagining some of these interactions? Are they total figments of his imagination, or are we to embrace several different realities in this story, maybe?

As Chris Feliciano Arnold recently observed in his essay on the novel’s recovery, “the slim book gets weirder and weirder, answering questions with more questions.” There are definitely a ton of secrets that we’re not in on in this story, resulting in many, many questions.

Gray often works in this disjointed fashion of storytelling, omitting seemingly important details. She has said herself, in a recent interview at BOMBLOG: “Nothing is essential in a piece of short fiction. Any rule can be violated if it is violated well.” And more often than not, this is where her writing glows, punching you in your supple gut. A good amount of her power lies in her understatements. It translates well to her long fiction, too, but I do find myself wondering if novels beg for a certain kind of ascension that shorter fiction cannot quite attain, and if they thus ask for deliberate choices and assertiveness on the part of the author.

However: This novel is, I think, meant to allow us to understand what it is to grieve over a huge loss, as opposed to simply understand “what happened.” Readers will have their own theories throughout the book, and they will be larger in number than you’d think, and it’s likely that none of them will entirely pan out or even really matter by the end.

Whether or not it does indeed matter, this intricate web of details that leaves us with unanswered questions, is up to you.

And ask yourself what kind of resolution David feels. Think of living life with one single counterpart, and then that counterpart becomes a ghost. Imagine your sacred life filled with ghosts, threatening to further disintegrate your mind. How would that feel? What would you see? Who would you turn to?

Hard to articulate, I’d imagine.

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0-374-53307-6
Binding: Paperback
Price: $14.00

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