Say we’re trapped in a heart-shaped box where meanness, ignorance, dementia and brutality make up the walls around us. There’s no way out, no chance for escape. Even if we manage somehow to move through the world, this box defines our every thought and action, the smear from its walls an indelible imprint, soaked into the marrow of our bones. We pass it on to our children, our partners, everyone we meet. It’s our lifeline to humanity. That said, how do we deal?
In her second collection of short fiction, “Museum of the Weird” (FC2), Amelia Gray proposes that we acknowledge the absurdity of such an existence, gawk in wide wonder, perhaps, and laugh out loud every chance we get. Like an avant-garde jazz improviser, she accepts the melody or organizing principle of each sentence, story, conflict, situation or relationship, then she spins it all way out, interpreting wildly, embracing the surreal, the fantastic. Her prose imagines contemporary life as a freakish fairyland, woven from the radioactive filaments of one great narrative thread.
Gray’s soul sister from the Waydown South, Lindsay Hunter, tends to lean toward to a more raw approach in her debut storybook, “Daddy’s” (featherproof). Hunter challenges readers to bore into the Big Ugly, to be like the earthworm, suck down the dark, which is, after all, both viscera and bacteria: nasty under the microscope but an integral part of our day-to-day. In other words, that which beats us down makes us human. We might as well chug the rush of the spiraling descent, breathe deep the stink that fills our every hole.
Two ways of looking at brute reality. Two ways of personalizing shared experience. Both challenge readers to toss their blinders and see what is with new eyes. Evoking such clarity is the mark of classic literature, from Aristophanes to Shakespeare, illuminating the tragic-comic condition of being alive. And yet there’s an urgency, an intensity of vision in Gray and Hunter’s work—at once strange and familiar—that’s unmistakably the voice of 21st-century American fiction.
In “Waste,” Gray gives us a rare portrait of obsession in the guise of a lonely line cook at a vegetarian restaurant who needs to fry meat in her off hours. This fetish leads to exotic entrees—from beast (lymph nodes, salivary glands) and man (tongue)—which she shares in a stab at intimacy with her neighbor, a reclusive trash collector who bags lypo gunk from plastic-surgery bins. But her desire for forbidden flesh pushes her way beyond mere cannibalism into self-mutilation. Contrary to expectations, this over-the-top act feeds the cook’s blossoming relationship.
In “The Fence,” Hunter deals with the obsessive behavior of a sexually (and emotionally) frustrated young woman who gets off on her dog’s shock collar. Her clandestine affair with the invisible electric fence installed to keep her pooch from fleeing the property emboldens her to feign intimacy with her husband, who’s clueless that she’s unhappy. When he has the device disabled (because he believes their pet now knows its boundaries) the wife is bereft.
Each of these stories suggests an inability to cope with crushing loneliness, even in the presence of loved ones, and how alienation compels extreme action as a desperate attempt at connecting. Gray’s line cook loses all touch with reality, perhaps because getting close to someone is more than she can bear. Hunter’s young wife is utterly broken when her sexual-emotional life is wrenched from her own hands. Whether spiraling out of control or giving in to cold despair, both of these characters are stuck in a helplessness of their own creation.
Sudden violence is another recurring motif in each of these collections, and it’s often surprising, refreshing in its depiction. In “Fish,” Gray’s portrait of emasculated modern men on a fishing jaunt with their wives—a paring knife and a frozen package of tilapia (yes, the spouses are a paring knife and frozen fish)—one of the guys assaults a living, breathing woman who threatens to upset their fantasyland with the awful truth. In “The Vanished,” an abandoned wife, who refuses to accept her husband’s blow-off, viciously slaps love out of the hands of a young couple boldly devouring “right out in the open… great handfuls of love, sticky tangled masses of it.” In “The Pit,” a post-apocalyptic one-act play, a man lashes out at the first woman he’s seen in years, a woman he once met in a massive orgy, whom he now loves (or so he tells himself). When she barely remembers him, he starts screaming lines from Casablanca at her, which of course drives her away.
Funny, sad and hopelessly twisted, Gray’s flare-ups often come when characters act out from a place of pain bandaged tightly with delusions, whereas Hunter traffics more in a kind of open-wound cruelty. In “Unpreparing,” a sadistic boyfriend, who says he wants his girl to always be ready for the worst, tells her after they have sex that he just date-raped her. Then he asks, “What do you do now?” (Nearly all of the sex in “Daddy’s” is ugly, ignorant, brutal like this. In “Sex Armageddon,” a homeless teenage drop-out shoves a Bic pen up her boyfriend’s ass, and in “Loofah,” a college kid masturbates with, well, a loofah, plus some appletini bodywash to flush away the bloody mess.) Later, the “Unpreparing” boyfriend attacks his girl with a knife (just playing) and fakes falling down the stairs (to freak her out). Then he drives their car into a tree. Lastly, “Love Song” shows us a drunk Daddy who takes his dear sixteen-year-old daughter to the local bar for her birthday. When she dumps him at his apartment at the end of the story, he calls out, “I could just crush you to death with love, sweetness.”
These pictures of the boxed-in life are far from pretty, but you won’t be able to look away. The images, emotions and stories feel real, even at their most unreal, and this paradox is what makes each of these collections a thrill ride from one horrific, pitch-perfect, mad-sick moment to the next.
Jesús Ángel García is the author of “badbadbad,” a transmedia novel (forthcoming in May 2011 on New Pulp Press). 3xbad stories, songs and a trailer for the first in a five-part series of interconnected short films based on themes of the book can be found here: http://badbadbad.net.