Museum of the Weird
By Amelia Gray
Reviewed by Nick Kocz
Years ago, I took a class taught by someone who announced that she thought all experimental writing was a decadent sham since it failed to address real world concerns. While I had heard such pronouncements before, never had I heard it from someone as intelligent, and otherwise as conscientious a reader, as this teacher. When she let this comment slip, an anxious silence fell over the classroom. We looked at one another. We had just heard someone lay bare their prejudices.
I thought of this moment often when reading Amelia Gray’s Museum of the Weird, winner of FC’s Ronald Sukenick/American Book Review Innovative Fiction Prize. An astonishing number of the characters within Gray’s stories suffer from medical conditions that border on the farcical, eat things like hairballs and desiccated human tongues, and/or are anthropomorphic animals. Men are married to plastic bags of frozen tilapia and paring knives, and women have boyfriends who zipper themselves into suitcases. It’s fair to say that most of these stories fail to directly address "real-world concerns." So are they decadent? Or wishful?
What would my former teacher make of, say, "A Javelina Story," a story in which, through clerical error, a pack of javelinas are deputized as police negotiators in a hostage crisis? Not surprisingly, the javelinas lack interest in the situation they’ve been thrust into. Instead, they root through police supplies for sunflower seeds, destroying the equipment that more able negotiators might have used to communicate with the gun-wielding hostage-taker:
The sunflower seeds remained trapped in their packet, the slippery plastic elusive to the animal’s teeth. The javelina made a trumpeting noise and drove his trotter down, first crushing a cell phone, then one of the walkie-talkies. The other beasts were alarmed and excited by the noise and tumbled down the hill in a mass. In their excitement they crushed the flares, smeared the paper into the earth, broke the sight off the riffle and bent the outer rim of the bullhorn.
That the javelinas are ultimately unsuccessful in preserving the hostages’ lives seems beside the point of the story. Instead, there’s a moment when the hostage-taker realizes that everything the javelinas do runs contrary to his expectations of how proper negotiators should act. Trying to make sense of the situation, he thinks the javelinas are pursuing crazy psychological tactics to outsmart him.
"I could really learn something here," he thinks, and indeed, we all could learn something: When freed from the bonds of traditional realism, story possibilities explode in exciting ways.
In "The Cube," a story about two-thirds through this stunning collection, a massive iron monolith is discovered by picnicking children. When they touch it, they scald their hands. An inscription is printed on one side of the block: "EVERYTHING MUST EVENTUALLY SINK."
Reading this story, I thought of Flannery O’Connor. Or, more precisely, I thought of how consciously un-O’Connorish Gray’s stories are. Very little rises and very little converges. Though one of Gray’s characters muses that "[t]he world needs tougher religious artifacts," ersatz preacher boys aren’t making off with anyone’s prosthetic legs in these stories. Yet like O’Connor, these stories are populated with desperate people at or beyond their breaking points. Like the gin-swilling penguin in another of her stories, they’ve "fought the fucking darkness."
In "The Vanished," a "man" vanishes. His "woman" refuses to leave their house for fear that, should the man return while she is out, he will leave again. She runs out of food and begins to starve, her belly distending to the point where it becomes plausible for others to believe she is pregnant. She turns crazy. She is as starved for love as she is for food, and the computer screws and pages of books she eats are offering no real sustenance.
Then, in one of the collection’s most mind-blowing passages, she looks outside and sees a couple who she feels certain have been sent by the long-vanished man:
The couple was a boy and girl couple, and they were eating love right out in the open. They swallowed great handfuls of love, sticky tangled messes of it, standing nose to nose with one another. They were gorging on the stuff. Love dripped from their hands and landed in spatters on their shoes. They boy wiped his hand in his hair and left a long slick. These gluttons of love spread it across each other’s mouths. They made wet noises as they consumed.
I’d be remiss in divulging the rest of this story, but suffice it to say that its disturbing yet glowing finish could not have been achieved had Gray relied on the tools of traditional realism.
"As adults, we experience a finite number of crystallizing moments in our lives, these points where we each had to close the door on a person or a feeling, or a way of life," one of Gray’s characters announces, summarizing his life.
This sentiment however is antithetical to Amelia Gray’s aesthetic, which is all about opening up the door to newer, more fantastic possibilities. Her stories are lush with wonder. In "The Tortoise and the Hare," decades after their fabled race, Tortoise visits Hare in the hospital, where the latter is dying of some unspecified medical condition. Amazingly, we sense the love that exists between these one-time rivals:
The hare looked at the place where the night nurse had shaved his fur to insert the IV needle. The skin was puckered and red in the shaved place… [The tortoise’s] shell wobbled a little as he scooted the chair forward and leaned precariously over to touch the hare’s paw with the flat portion of his beak. The hare could feel the warm air streaming from the tortoise’s nostrils, the cool air rushing in…
Throughout the book, Gray confidently takes readers places they’ve yet to visit.
Yet, in the back of my mind, I imagine what my former teacher would make of these stories. She’d gasp. Aren’t they decadent?
They’re as decadent as a new morning. And just as rejuvenating.