There’s nothing to trust about anyone or anything. So saying seems as good a note to start on as any with respect to Amelia Gray’s first novel, THREATS (March 2012, Farrar, Straus and Giroux). It doesn’t take too much attention to narrative detail to realize THREATS is, to say the least, an unconventional novel. None of the characters we readers are introduced to seem trustworthy, its narrator is at best unreliable, and what’s more, the home of its two principle actors, David and Franny — home likewise to many of the pivotal narrative turns — delivers threats in the form of random words typed or scribbled on bits of paper, or even carved in wood. Threats that begin to follow David around, as though compelled by someone’s guilty conscience or reasons perhaps more sinister. (A novel having the title THREATS is nothing if not sinister, so sinister reasons (or at least their possibility) are to be expected.)
What Franz Kafka did to expressing bureaucracy in terms of its human subjects, of the feeling of powerlessness we all face when we are set against the shear enormity of our many institutions, Amelia Gray seems to capture in our interpersonal relationships, in knowing least the people we thought we knew best and the ostensible impenetrability of this divide. People become institutions of self, little worlds of disconnectedness, disengagement. And in THREATS it’s hard to argue Gray’s just glibly rehashing the age-old question of whether anyone can truly “know” anyone else. Instead, there’s something far more layered to this. She seems to touch on the ways we wall ourselves from others for reasons we may not fully understand, for a subliminal purpose that probably can’t be understood, much as we may be aware of it and attempt to reconcile it.
There is so little intimacy in THREATS. Characters relate only by their characteristic inability to express themselves and be understood. Something always stands in the way. And no one can deliver anyone from this burden they share. Every character has a sadness about them, a loneliness, a void. Which wouldn’t in itself be especially notable were it not for the kinds of forces that keep them occluded, and the damning effects of occlusion. Nobody wants to be set apart, but the forces of occlusion have an eerie tenor of self-imposition.
The two characters about whom the narrative is most expressly concerned are the married couple, David and Franny. They offer the quintessence of a lack of intimacy.
(Semi-spoilers having to do with specifics of plot can be found from here on out. Just sayin’.)
We’re introduced to David and Franny as the remains of a relationship, as near to literally as that term can be construed. On page one, we see David is in his home with a package of cremated remains. It’s only hinted in these opening passages that this is Franny, this is what’s left of Franny. David himself strikes the reader as something that remains. Neither individual is present as they once were. It’s a morose note to begin on, but deft and effective at setting the tone for what ensues.
The narrative bounces around, in and out of time (out of time to some form of metaphysical dissolution in which, for example, a character might imagine him/herself in another’s shoes, literally, as when David switches position (uniform and all) with the female firefighter informing him of his wife’s death). We’re soon made to understand the dream-like quality of Franny’s demise, as ambiguous as anything else in the story, if not maddeningly more so. And you begin to realize that’s just it, for most of us ambiguity is an inextricable part of living. I like to think of this in terms of deep and dark secrets that are lifelong and kept from you, against whatever odds someone would spill the beans (imagine if Jack Nicholson never learned his “sister” was in actual fact his mother, for example). Some secrets are kept. The novel also conveys the sense of finality perhaps known only to a murder victim. Someone who does not see death coming and will never know who, exactly, their killer was. The actors who remain, in the wake of Franny’s death, are sent on myriad wild goose chases, none of course bearing any geese. (In all seriousness, it’s amazing just how the clues make the totality of the story, the narrative, of THREATS.)
THREATS seems to run contrary to a reader’s expectations in that way, too. All we’re left to do is draw our own conclusions, speculate about who or what is leaving threats in random places, ostensibly for David (but who really knows?). Again, is it his own guilty conscience? If that’s so, how come other characters can see the threats? Is it the physical manifestation of guilt just generally felt, then? And why, exactly, is there a therapist operating her practice out of David’s garage? There’s a feeling of paranoia to the text not unlike literary forebears such as Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and, of course, Kafka, but there’s something significantly different here, too. In so much of the paranoia of those other authors there seems a tactile cause is just inches away, a real and present threat. Whereas with THREATS you never quite get a sense of anything more than abstraction at root, which lends itself to the idea that we ought to be looking inwardly, inside each individual character, for a solution or resolution (again, if such outcomes are even attainable).
Semi-explanations. Characters’ walking around with sordid pasts, lots of skeletons in lots of closets. Curiosities appearing at regular intervals, such as an actual doppelganger revealing his similar (to David’s) face. Questions aroused of whether Franny is actually dead. A cop trying to get to the bottom of mysteries of his own. And, not to be forgotten, a house regularly dispensing its own charged words. To be sure, this is not the stuff of being wrapped up neatly in a nice, narrative-loose-end tying conclusion. Don’t expect that from THREATS. Don’t do that to THREATS and don’t do that to yourself. THREATS has dissonance, predictably unreliable but fascinating dissonance.
There’s also plenty of the humor I’ve long enjoyed in Gray’s shorter works. I’ll admit I was a little worried that some of her arch techniques wouldn’t play well in a novel-length story, but my fears were happily assuaged. I offer conversations like the following between Detective Chico, investigating Franny’s death, and David (on page 57) as particularly consistent and interesting while likewise achieving a humorous effect.
Chico turned to his notepad. “Did you love your wife?”
“I love my wife.”
“Did you two ever have any big arguments? Fights? Shouting, throwing objects at one another? Physical contact?”
“Not really, no.”
“It’s a common phenomenon.”
“She threw a newspaper at me once, but she apologized.”
Chico turned the page and kept writing. “Did Franny enjoy her job?”
“It was really half a newspaper, really. Less than half. Just the sports section.”
“Did she have many friends?”
“Of the Saturday paper, you know. We’re talking eight sheets of paper here.”
“That sounds very minor, David.”
David’s constant qualifying works not only from a humor standpoint but serves David, the character, well in further solidifying who he is, more and more to the reader a man who could never murder anyone, much less the woman he loves. And it’s in his constant qualifying that we get a really good look at the canny compositional eye of Amelia Gray. There’s certainly much about Chico that reads “straight man” loud and clear. But even he, at the end of this exchange, says something that got my attention. His impulse to acknowledge David, and the ensuing meaning to be drawn from this impulse, might be — with the exception of a scene involving David and Franny’s former business partner, Aileen, and another involving David and his mother near the end — the most intimate exchange of the story. It could be interpreted that way, at least. Since in so saying, he both acknowledges David’s obsession with the topic, actually hearing him, and adds something to merit David’s qualifiers, agreeing that it does sound “very minor.” It might also be worth noting this ends David’s attention to the topic of his wife’s one small instance of domestic abuse. David moves on, ostensibly feeling heard in some small way.
For my own self and desire to categorize within the greater world of books I’ve recently read, I’d cautiously bundle THREATS with Michael Kimball’s Us, Shane Jones’ Light Boxes, and Mel Bosworth’s Freight. These books share a certain affinity for something that’s undeniably dark about humanity and our inner / outer selves, certainly, but also for an emphasis on a lack of connection through understanding — on the lack of ties that can truly bind. And resistance to relational understanding seems to create the kinds of fear, skepticism and hatred that defines’ people and places darker aspects. I’ve heard it said Hell is merely the absence of God, which to me seems a fitting metaphor for life and the absence of people who give a damn about you or anyone else, really. Amelia Gray has harnessed the negative essence of that human divide in the most paradoxically moving way.