Amelia Gray’s Gutshot bristles in the best way. Just about every prick and sting compels you to seek more, to take up the next story—gingerly—and the next. Indeed, the author’s second set of short fiction represents an advance for her in its size alone. The 37 pieces here were written in just six years, according to Gray, and they come to a baker’s dozen more than her Museum of the Weird, the 2010 winner of FC2’s Innovative Fiction contest. Other than that, the books share telling similarities. Both include many miniatures, fictoids perhaps, just two or three pages long; both provide a reading experience for which “innovative” and “weird” will do as an introduction. Still, this time around Gray achieves more sustaining fascination, more startling satisfaction. The work bristles in the best way, and when you seek to understand, one question pops up quickly: what’s with these sections?
Gutshot is sorted into five sections, each group titled with a number only. Yet the world, the weird, registers as uniform. Unsettling even at their most sedate, at times the stories erupt into phantasmagoria. “Date Night,” in Section Four, begins with couples wiping away their own faces and climaxes with an image worthy of Un Chien Andalou: “Flesh is siphoned into a bowl and poured without discrimination into a freestanding grandfather clock that is set on fire and rolled into the street.” On the other hand, the freakshow doesn’t suggest a fairytale. The prodigies of Gutshot might turn up in a trauma ward, or on the drafting board of an engineer: more William Gibson than Kelly Link.
Then, too, Gray handles even her flesh in a clock—and put that way, doesn’t the image yield significance?—with formal precision. Rhetoric like “siphoned without discrimination” reins in the bizarrerie. “Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover” may unfold in 50 sentences separated by space breaks, but it’s no trick of the prose that makes your skin crawl: “When he asks you to marry him, panfry his foreskin.” Note, too, that the stylistic restraint doesn’t interfere with specificity, neither about the meat nor the way it’s cooked. Overall, “Fifty Ways” proved swiftly engaging, and eventually touching; less successful was “Loop,” Gutshot’s lone foray into linguistic games (“& yr hart it’s a wallv th sambrick repeetd, th snik-snik.”).
Otherwise, we’ve got prose that’s pretty much straight-ahead and people who just won’t stay on the rails. That goes for all five sections. Looking more closely, an assiduous critic notes that the first three run roughly the same length, the last two a bit shorter. Still, it’s not as if the pacing picks up. Granted, Gutshot’s first two stories are among the longest back-to-back, and both sketch, if roughly, Freytag’s Triangle. But the opener, “In the Moment,” establishes two gifts that the author uses to great effect throughout. It starts with a swift kick—“It had been a memorable date after such a long line of failures”—and ends off-kilter. The date leads to a bumptious affair, but when it hits its last bump, when the girl reveals “flecks of dried blood” inside her bra, the boy thinks not of cancer but of “a hornet alighting on the upper corner of his crib and disgorging the first papered layer of its nest.” Indeed, he follows up this strange brainstorm with two more. Granted, like the grandfather clock in “Date Night,” these images may constitute a metaphor; the epiphany may link risk with commitment, a fitting notion for losers in love. Still, the ending comes out of left field; it works, like Sontag, against interpretation. The boyfriend declares, as his mind’s eye fills with apparitions: “I can’t even imagine.”
So the opening snatches you up and the ending slings you off God knows where. These same two devices click in everywhere, for Gray, though now and then, as in “House Heart,” the first lines intrigue more quietly: “The home remains. Even if the house was razed, the foundation scored and broken, and the pieces carried away, there would be a feeling of home, where people cooked dinner or lay down exhausted.” This second story, as I say, runs among the longest. First “House Heart” develops a whacko variety of the sex trade (the language, while never fussy, maintains its decorum) and then in the final paragraph lurches into science fiction. Other than that, I don’t want to summarize—to water down a winning story.
The sections, in short, remain difficult to account for. Chronology of publication doesn’t matter either. A mid-length piece called “Labyrinth” certainly delivers the goods, an adult round of hide-and-go-seek, a game that grows ever more unnerving. I wouldn’t put the story at the top of the pile; I’m bothered by the close echo of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” but it’s Gray’s first in the New Yorker and her latest publication—and it turns up in the middle of Section Three. Then, too, regarding previous publication, the book’s all over the map. A few stories following the New Yorker hit, we come to a piece from Knee-Jerk Magazine. The same openness reigns when it comes to literary references: here Shirley Jackson and there, in “The Swan As Metaphor for Love,” Kafka’s disappointment with his “Eleven Sons.”
Still, since metaphor appears to be on Gray’s mind, I‘d venture that something similar, a thematic arrangement, drove her to divvy up Gutshot this way. A conceptual unity, loose but legible, emerges from the groupings. Section Three, for instance, seems all about desperate, not to say fatal, misunderstandings; “Labyrinth” promises a “Jamboree” but ends up face to face with a monster. Section Four, even in the CGI effects of “Date Night,” considers coupling and its consequences. This batch ends with two cases of Gray’s vision at its disturbing best, “Precious Katherine” and “On the Teat,” both taking the love between child and parent to infernal regions.
As for the rest, One, Two, and Five, I could go on playing professor. But I’d rather put down the chalk and put my hands to better use: applause. If in fact these stories offer a handful of prisms for viewing the clash of desire—the gut wants what it wants, isn’t that what they say?—what’s dazzling about them is the color, not the cut of the glass.
JOHN DOMINI's latest book is The Sea-God's Herb, selected criticism, and in 2016 he will bring out a new set of stories, MOVIEOLA!