Variations On a Single Tone

Picture this. You’re out on a date at a fancy restaurant when the waiter brings you the soup you ordered along with a plateful of hair. The restaurant is otherwise “nice” and tonight’s date is “the first [one] in months” and, to judge from the way your partner looks down at the plate of hair and then looks expectantly at you, you can’t be sure if this particular dish has been ordered by mistake or if your partner ordered it for you while you were in the bathroom. You don’t want to screw this up. You need to show manners and social graces. If you find yourself in this scenario, what are you supposed to do? And if you’re a writer for whom this scenario sets up a short story, how do you allow your protagonist to react to it?

You might take the realist’s approach to that question and have your protagonist make an issue of the horror, the repulsion, and not least the indignity of being served a plateful of hair. You might take the fabulist’s approach, having your protagonist consume it delicately and delightedly and without further comment from anyone else in a world in which it is widely known that a plateful of hair makes an exquisite meal. Or you might take the approach of Amelia Gray, which basically involves splitting the difference between those two possibilities. “Do try something,” the inwardly horrified but outwardly courteous protagonist says to her partner in ‘Dinner,’ the opening story in Gray’s collection Museum of the Weird. Implicitly inviting the gentleman to try the hair before she tries it herself, she manages simultaneously to register her disgust at the unusual meal she has been served and to show the social graces so crucial to the success of the date. Unfortunately, though, the gentleman, Dave, declines the woman’s seemingly generous offer:

Dave shook his head. He was still smiling, but his gaze had dropped to her lips, meaning either that he wanted to kiss her — she had read about this technique in magazines — or that he wanted her to take a healthy chunk of hair with her fork and choke it down with a swallow of red wine, forcing the clogged mass down her throat like an obstruction through the pipes of a bathtub.

What exactly does Dave want her to do? How exactly is she supposed to behave in the scenario she faces? The answer to such a question doesn’t really matter. The sheer mystery undergirding the question itself, a mystery unresolved and in fact spun out into an extended period of irresolution, is what makes ‘Dinner’ a typical Amelia Gray short story. It’s a question that similarly plagues the incredulous narrator of ‘Babies’ when she wakes one morning “to discover I had given birth overnight,” as well as dogging the perturbed and exhausted townsfolk of ‘Vultures,’ who struggle to make accommodations for the violent and predatory carrion birds that have taken up residence in their streets. And it’s there, too, in ‘Fish,’ which focuses on the awkward social standing of two men, Dale and Howard, who have decided to marry inanimate objects and who expect the people around them to view their marriages as not only legitimate but also unremarkable. “When anyone asked Dale if he had dated actual women before making the decision to marry a paring knife,” Gray writes, “he would look at that person with such incredulity that the stranger would feel as if they had been rude to inquire,” while Howard, who is a little more accommodating, admits that even though “a bag of frozen tilapia was different in many ways from a woman… in many ways it was the same.” Time and again in Gray’s short stories, characters either encounter or give rise to some monumental absurdity, some rupture in the logical ways of the world, and yet, while they do not follow the fabulist’s route and treat the absurd as anything but, they also don’t quite follow the realists in making an issue of it. They are realists in most respects but for their reticence to permit themselves an authentic reaction to absurdity, their insistence on facing the absurd with composure and decorum.

Taking a bird’s eye view of Gray’s body of work, one might assume that she churns out the sort of hip, disaffected, droll, vaguely snarky and often precious stories that tend to populate venues like McSweeney’s and Vice, both of which have published her. In fact, though, she doesn’t do this at all. Throughout Museum of the Weird as well as her first story collection, AM/PM, and her ingenious novel Threats, Gray has carved out a space all her own — concocting a tone all her own and steadily perfecting her recipe — and the trajectory she has followed in the course of doing this has reached a sort of apotheosis in her latest collection, Gutshot. More so than ever before, there’s something unsettling and beguiling to the cumulative effect of watching one character after another acknowledge absurdity in a way that is both laconic and stoic, and yet it’s less off-putting than hypnotically engaging. The result of the whole is an experience of uncanniness without the sense of spooky disquiet: a little like what you might get from watching a simulacrum of human interactions created by extraterrestrials, or from watching primates at play in a zoo and recognising some ancestral kinship in their more human mannerisms.

The opening story of Gutshot, for example, focuses on the relationship between a man and a woman perfectly suited to one another until, halfway through a sentence, they begin to lose their memories of their life together. Rather than asking what might be happening to their memories, despite their awareness of a profound loss, they simply ask questions of the world around them, questions intended to help them find their way back to themselves, so that the simple act of asking becomes the new common denominator of their life together. ‘The Lark’ is a similarly bizarre yet heartfelt story focusing on a man who cannot speak more than a few words without vomiting into a bucket, but it is less about his suffering than about the chance encounter that brings him true love in spite of his condition. ‘The Labyrinth’ offers a sketch of a father who succeeds in replacing the children’s maze at his daughter’s birthday party with the mythical structure patrolled by the Minotaur, but it is less about the motives that lead him to do that, or the means by which he does it, than about the pride he feels for having done it and his yearning to share his pride with other parents. And in ‘Date Night,’ whose setup has echoes of ‘Dinner,’ a couple are out on a date at a fancy restaurant when the man excuses himself from the table and the woman, left alone, accidentally begins to disassemble her body. She “scratches her forearm a little too hard and a slice of skin peels up with her fingernail,” and with this she sparks a craze of deliberate, artful bodily decomposition that spreads to her fellow diners:

A woman screams until someone slips a dessert spoon under a muscle in her neck and flings her larynx to the floor, at which point the woman grasps both breasts, rips them from her body, and applies them to her throat. … Flesh is siphoned into a bowl and poured without discrimination into a freestanding grandfather clock that is set on fire and rolled into the street.

Those words, together with the title of the collection, suggest a preoccupation with viscera that extends throughout Gutshot and gives it a vividness and a force that make it altogether more powerful than AM/PM and Museum of the Weird. So too does the general compression of the stories, with only the true rarities running to more than three pages in length, and so does a modification of tempo that generates a creeping insidiousness, a slow burn rather than a sudden shock, which the short and punchy title otherwise conceals. Entry for entry, story for story, Gutshot is more focused than Gray’s previous collections, more confident and reportorial in its style, more dedicated to perfecting the qualities of the typical Gray short story, and more powerful in its protracted explorations of bemusing responses to outlandish events. It is also, on the whole, the work of an author more secure in her aims and more assured of her own abilities, particularly as she manages to achieve her preferred effects through a number of structurally experimental stories. ‘Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover’ is exactly what it sounds like, a woman’s list of strategies for carving up, cooking, and consuming her partner, one body part at a time while he is still alive, implicitly to achieve a more thorough, more sensual appreciation of his corporeality. ‘The Swan as Metaphor for Love’ begins as an earnest essay on the titular subject before it takes an abrupt self-reflexive turn and points out the absurdity of swans, the absurdity of love, the absurdity of looking for compatibility between the two, and the absurdity of continuing any discussion of it. In the title story, a dying man who repeatedly laments that he has been “gutshot” is visited by Jesus, who attempts to comfort him in his final moments by calling to his attention to assorted elements of his surroundings that become imbued with a poetic elegance simply by virtue of context, and, in ‘Viscera,’ Gray pieces together a visceral description of the material history of the page on which the story is printed, rendering the page itself an object of both disgust and wonder.

It would be easy for a writer working with this sort of subject matter to submit to temptation and allow her work to slip into one of the tones favoured by other writers mining similar territory. It would be easy for a writer of Gray’s calibre to mimic the self-deprecating irony of Dave Eggers, the overweening whimsy of Karen Russell, or the increasingly contrived yuk-yuks of George Saunders. That Gray doesn’t submit to temptation is impressive enough, but more impressive is that she has charted a fresh, distinct, and sharply defined alternative path across such well-trodden terrain. Her tone — if that’s even the right word for the quality of her stories that makes them identifiably hers — comes from the sense that she is simultaneously looking askance at her awkward characters and yet looking at them in a resolutely non-judgmental way. While this tone suffuses all of the stories in Gutshot, each one advances an ever-so-slight variation on it and allows Gray to replace the irony and whimsy and yuk-yuks she has rejected with something altogether rarer, less prefabricated, and more potent.

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