Life is a little tricky for the inhabitants of Amelia Gray's stories. They might fall in love with a bit of frozen tilapia or find themselves policed by javelinas. There are multiplying vultures to contend with and hair that must be eaten, and the problem of trying to find a girlfriend in the post-apocalypse. Perhaps closer to articulated impulses than fully-formed fictions, Gray's work tackles our emotional realities through unreal set-ups: A penguin and an armadillo walk into a bar; a woman's boyfriend takes up residence inside a suitcase. It is this try-anything aesthetic that invigorates and sometimes undermines Gray's new novel, Threats.
Her first book, AM/PM (2009), consisted of 120 interconnected snippets, many of which were witty, earnest, affecting and controlled, and capable of exiting swiftly on a graceful note. Though odd, there was little magical thinking at work in them. In her follow-up, Museum of the Weird (2010), Gray's short tales grew longer and more overtly strange. The collection suffered from some self-consciousness, but a dark vein of intelligent and peculiar humor ran through it.
Threats is a book about death and decay, and the terrible need to be perfect. It's about insecurity and isolation, and the knowledge that the people we love are often not what they appear to be. Here, through a mix of experimental writing and narrative drive, existential pain renders the world manifestly unfamiliar. Heavy as this might sound, this world is, for all its death and loneliness, oddly unserious. Gray's prose is simple, at times beautifully so, and capable of lovely surprises. But it is also given to an artlessness that grows wearying.
Gray's novel opens as David, an erstwhile dentist and recent widower, receives his wife Franny's ashes in the mail. Inept, earnest, and mostly housebound, David has been rendered helpless by her death. Moreover, David perceives threats everywhere—he's convinced, for example, that the deadbolt on his front door is electrified—and then suddenly, actual threats begin to appear: typewritten, tucked into his sugar bowl or taped to his coffeemaker.
Soon, David begins to wonder whether Franny is actually dead. At this point, the novel steps away from him to follow three other characters: Chico, a police officer investigating Franny's demise, who occasionally consults books on the interpretations of dreams; Marie, a "mental health professional" who, unbeknownst to David, has been living in his garage with a nest full of wasps; and Aileen, a coworker from the salon where Franny worked. In a quest for answers, David wanders disjointedly among them, all the while reflecting on his own personal history.
Though it occasionally displays an absurdist wit, Threats often indulges in wacky repartee for its own sake. Details suddenly spring forth to set up moderately amusing—but less than integral—passages, and then are never returned to. Too often, the book amuses itself with faux insight, such as when David "drank apple juice and ate the potpie, which had leached in the flavors of the freezer and tasted like plastic and wet paper. He thought about how the potpie was a product of its environment." Unfortunately, Threats never fully engages with the complicated experience of grief.
When Gray does pause to make thoughtful connections, her talent for drawing metaphorical resonance surfaces. In a chapter exploring the slow deadening of Franny and David's marriage, Gray plays off David's "personal failure of a pottery class" to explore deeper failings: "Years later he would stand next to a kiln and hope the objects inside would drastically change shape. They emerged as they had entered, amateur and uneven, too small, colored like wet sand." Gray manages a more tender evocation of David's inertia here than in most other scenes, such as the many passages in which his home accumulates life's detritus. Meanwhile, unifying threads do materialize: When we learn that Franny felt threatened for years before her mysterious death, her fear of home invasion smartly evokes a more generalized anxiety of modern life.
Franny emerges as the book's most compelling character, and ultimately, it's hard not to wish Gray hadn't waited until late in the book to incorporate her perspective. Among other things, our brief time with Franny in a scene revisiting her death provides a corrective to the work's unruly desire to ramble from weirdness to weirdness. In this final scene, Gray's prose rises to the occasion, locating poetry in the simple magic of loving another person while subtly blending the couple's perspectives. "There would be a moment when she would breathe for the last time…There would be that moment for him as well, for all, but it was her moment at that moment, her prize of air, her still lake, her sweet boat floating away away, her body warping wood, swale and heavy, a sinking thing." It's a notable attempt to layer meaning, but this late in the book, it accomplishes less than we might have hoped.
Mindy Farabee is a critic and writer living in Los Angeles.