By Amelia Gray


Farrar, Straus and Giroux
April 2015

Reviewed by Matt Weinkam


No one can agree on how to label the eclectic stories in Amelia Gray's new collection, Gutshot. Are they fables, parables, nightmares, jokes? Is she writing body horror, gallows humor, absurdism, or simply a strange form of magical realism? All of the above. More than her remarkable 2010 collection, Museum of the Weird, or the brilliant but flawed 2012 novel Threats, this new book displays the full range of Gray's craft and concerns. The thirty-seven stories here are no longer than three or four pages each, but they take on such a diversity of forms and moods that it can be difficult to hold them under the same umbrella. Finding the stylistic or thematic connection between any two pieces becomes a kind of game: what does a couple that locks a girl in the air ducts of their home have in common with a woman whose dead mother haunts her pimple?

Even an individual story can defy expectation. Take the quietly subversive collection opener, "In the Moment." "It had been a memorable date after such a long line of failures," the story begins. Mark and Emily, out to dinner for the first time, discover they have much in common: "Neither had been to Europe and both dropped an ice cube in their morning cup of coffee." But before the date is over the reader is propelled into their future. By the second page Mark and Emily are in bed together, by the third they are making plans for when they grow old. Pretty soon they are sharing meals, a home, their lives. It's a familiar story.

But the narrative comes apart without reason and without the reader even realizing it. Emily empties their house of all their possessions and Mark is fired from his job for staring at posters and chanting under his breath. On his way home from work Mark rests on the sidewalk for hours "to observe the way a banner flapped beneath a store awning," while Emily sits on an empty milk crate at home, naked from the waist up. "What do you think this is?" Emily asks Mark, holding up her bloody bra. The reader is as baffled as they are. The story ends.

What makes the writing work is Gray's skillful manipulation of tone and pacing. Impossible events are delivered with deadpan earnestness while the most banal exchanges are revealed to be bizarre. Registers shift and actions leap at such a breakneck speed that the reader can hardly keep up. Here's the beginning of "Date Night":

The woman and man are on a date. It is a date! The woman rubs a lipstick print off her water glass. The man turns his butter knife over and over and over and over and over. Everyone has to pee. What's the deal with dates!

But just a few sentences later the two start to disassemble their bodies:

She plucks at her cheekbone until it forms a sharp point. He grasps his thumb and twists it hard. It pops into his palm and he overhands it into the kitchen. The woman bares her breasts and flicks her nipples off her body like flies on a summer day. They land on the floor and a waiter catches one under his heel and slips across the tile.

The result reads like Gary Lutz filtered through early David Cronenberg or Diane Williams by way of John Carpenter's The Thing. The Three Stooges are in there somewhere too.

It may be difficult to categorize the stories or determine exactly what Gray is up to, but it's easy to agree on how the writing makes the reader feel. Blurbs on the back of the book call the stories "visceral," "violently creative," "gruesome," "a nightmare," and "an assault." There is nothing quiet or tame about them. The most memorable stories confront the reader aggressively, like an alleyway mugger holding a knife to the throat.

"Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover," for example, is exactly what the title says it is. "When he buys you a drink, plunge a knife into his nose and carve out a piece. When he asks you what you do for a living, dig into his spine with a broken juice glass." And so on. In the very next story, "The Moment of Conception," a loving couple develops their own method for having a child that involves genital mutilation. It's funny, it's frightening, and it demands a reaction. You have to decide what to do with the feelings these stories evoke.

Sometimes, admittedly, the feeling is frustration. More than a few stories end abruptly or trail off without clear direction and it's hard to tell if the move is meaningful or if Gray just got bored. A reader could be forgiven for thinking that some pieces were included in the collection just to add to the page count. But if every story landed with a satisfying twist or an emotional punch line, the collection wouldn't be as unsettling and therefore, as effective. It might begin to feel predictable, the death knell for this kind of writing. In fact, on a second read, crowd-pleasing stories like "The Swan as a Metaphor for Love" or the title story don't hold as much fascination as more impenetrable entries like "The Lark" in which a post office clerk, who vomits after every sentence he speaks, meets a customer with a cat carrier who repeats "the lark the lark the lark." The story ends without development, characterization, or discernable meaning, but despite—or because of—that fact it worms into the brain and latches on.

Longtime fans of Gray will discover new emotional registers amid familiar fun. First-time readers, on the other hand, will have no way of being prepared for what they will find behind the cover. In a literary landscape manicured with finely wrought forgettable fiction, Gutshot is a welcome weed. The stories are unusual, unapologetic, and hard to get rid of. Best to let them take over.