January 2012

Evan McMurry


Threats by Amelia Gray

Amelia Gray's Threats is an unsettled and unsettling novel, an oblique work that grows more and more engrossing as it cycles down the slow wind of grief. Gray is the author of two short story collections, and her first novel, told in seventy-two brief bursts of chapters, bears some of the staccato vestiges of the shorter form. But the longer Threats soaks in its shivery atmosphere, the more its surface dread deepens into a legitimate and novel-dense case of despair.

The novel's Beckettian antihero is David, a dentist who lost his practice years ago due to a malpractice suit and has spent his days since sunk in an eremitic haze. Even the basics of existence have become opaque to David, so when something truly extraordinary happens -- and the precise details of his wife Franny's bloody expiration are never fully revealed – it's more than he can process. The threats of the title refer to the scraps of paper printed with sinister poetry that appear around the house after his wife's death, cryptically challenging David's attempted repurchase of reality. The drip of his sanity is the force against which every character fights, until Threats' narrative drive is not what will happen when the winter's frost finally thaws, but whether David, and by extension any of us, can be saved once the ice of loss sets in.

I call David Beckettian, for he shares much with Beckett's hapless protagonists, those Murphys and Watts who always seem to only have one shoe, and for whom walking down the street is an absurdist trial. Gray's novel meticulously tracks David as he loses himself in phone messages, post office etiquette, dental X-rays, mistaking the scales of sorrow for the thing itself. In Beckett this comes off as existential folly, but Gray's spotlight casts a more emotional shadow, David's sadness becoming all the more distinct to us because it refuses to do so for him.

The best moments of the novel take this dislocation head-on. When a firefighter informs David of his wife's death, he experiences the scene from her point of view, watching himself reacting "like a dog peering dumbly into the darkest moment of his owner's life." It's a wicked piece of writing, because it arises not out of literary trickery but from the inherent empathy of the scene. At times in the novel David becomes so inscrutable that the reader wants to be done with him; but if he was good enough to spend the worst moment of his life empathizing with the firefighter breaking the news, the least we can do is stick by him for a few more pages. Gray's virtuosity doubles as a vouch for the humanity of her characters, which is all one may ask of good writing.

If Gray errs, it is in the too-consistent application of her tone. This happens on the prose level, which falls into an occasional declarative stutter, but comes through more in her slant-eyed rendering of every character, as if the author had only one warped lens at her disposal. In addition to David, we meet a taciturn detective named Chico; wacky Aileen from the salon; Shelley, who folds clothes in a Sisyphean loop at the Laundromat; and Marie, a psychiatrist whose desk stands very unconvincingly under a wasp nest in David's back shed. The oddness soon feels unending. Is everybody in real life strange? Absolutely. But the task of mimesis is coterminous with the dramatic functions of narrative; too much of any one quality, however prevalent in the world, can turn a tale into a monochrome.

Fortunately, most of these minor characters exist mainly to curl us back around the curves of David's mourning, where Gray's writing is smooth and precise. "Death made more sense in the winter," she writes, "in the same way that doing the dishes made more sense in the evening, after a big meal." A frozen shoelace gathered "a snowy coating like a naked wick in wax." Eyes are "spangled by sunlight," while another character has "perfect tombstone teeth." And poor David, when finally forced to use a cell phone, "felt as if he was speaking into a potato chip."

These lines not only render the cold little corners of Gray's world, but give her novel dimension and depth. David recounts peering into his patients' mouths, seeing the decay creeping up their gums despite his best efforts, and so too do memories of Frannie seep up through David's memory, hints of the hidden parts of her life corrupting David's existence even as he attempts to refresh it. This cycle of life and decay infuses the novel's every sentence and last detail, creating a work that seems alive in its rigidity, and restless on behalf of the broken-hearted human beings that are stuck in its ice-wrapped world. 

Threats by Amelia Gray
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374533076
288 pages