Monday
Dec102012

Threats

By Amelia Gray


 

FSG Originals
February 2012
978-0374533076

Reviewed by Kelsie Hahn


 

Threats is mysterious. David's wife is dead under strange circumstances. Threatening notes lie in wait like tiny paper bear traps for him to find. But the mystery isn't only the death of David's wife—his whole world is a mystery. David is unable to remember or put together or handle information, memories, or logical solutions to problems. This, combined with an ability to take things in stride that verges on the superhuman, makes him a target of confusion, unkindness, and pain.

The novel is divided into seventy-odd very short chapters which mirror David's fragmented perception of the world and give Gray flexibility in jumping around in time. This fragmentation, however, perhaps also exaggerates the extent of David's mental disconnection, making it hard to pin down exactly how confused he is.

 The chapters also allow Gray to transition to the points of view of other characters, such as Detective Chico, who pities David and recalls an earlier tragedy he worked with the family, and Marie, who wants to administer David's therapy and has been conducting business, rent-free, in his garage for years. The characters of Threats: A Novel are trapped, caught in a never-ending loop as they return again and again to the same places. The spoken goal of the characters is to find out what happened to David's wife and how the threatening notes fit into that, but this becomes less and less of a priority as the characters sink beneath their own neuroses.

Gray's writing is darkly funny and peppered with just the right amount of off-key bon mots, disturbing lines, and surprising images. The imagery is bleak and literal, reflecting the advancing decay of both David and his surrounding. Particular delights include the sound of drinking glasses exploding like "a single powerful firework followed by a garbage boat advancing slowly through the ice" or dead leaves that "hung from the trees like leather pelts." The threatening notes are gorgeous, hilarious, and chilling:

CURL UP ON MY LAP. LET ME BRUSH YOUR HAIR WITH MY FINGERS. I AM SINGING YOU A LULLABY. I AM TESTING FOR STRUCTURAL WEAKNESS IN YOUR SKULL.

The notes all share this sense of tenderness and danger, longing and aversion. They become a character to themselves and a companion in David's misery.

At one point in the novel, Marie, the therapist, describes David as "the kind of man who allows things to happen to him instead of forcing them to happen," and here is where I encounter my dilemma for this novel. We often think that novels need to have a dynamic protagonist, one who makes decisions and takes action. And while I don't believe such a character is necessary to all fiction, the sense of constant circling in the novel makes me, as a reader, also wonder where I'm going. Where are we going, together? David, and nearly all of the characters in the novel, including minor walk-on characters, cannot deal with reality as it is happening. David's main goal becomes not to discover the truth about his wife, not to change what happens to him, but to prevent more things from being forced on him. We see this in the boarding up of his house, in the cocooning of his bed. The actions devolve from seeking the truth to protecting himself from the world and from all the things he has allowed to happen to him.

While I was often delighted by the imagery, observations, and structural movement of the book, I shared David's sense that he makes no progress, that he shuts down, that he can hope, at best, for only a modicum of understanding. The trajectory of the novel is downward. It does not offer redemption. Answers, such as they are, bring no peace, and I find myself in the same position as David: dazed, unsettled, and left only with the impression that I have encountered the mysterious without clearly understanding what was gained.