“Did you ever get the feeling that something isn’t quite right?” It’s a question asked by one character to another in passing late in Threats, Amelia Gray’s first novel, but it could also serve as the book’s epigraph. Though a rough description of the novel might make it sound like a familiar plot wrapped in kitchen-sink details — a middle-aged man wanders a small Ohio town, traumatized after the sudden and mysterious death of his wife — Gray’s approach is anything but. Characters hallucinate, speak entirely in stylized cliches, and occasionally slip out of their identities. It’s an approach that has some antecedents in a particular corner of slipstream cinema, but fused with a surreal literary sensibility recalling Joy Williams or Harry Mathews.
Alternately, you might remember Marco Roth’s essay “Rise of the Neuronovel” from its appearance in n + 1 a few years ago. It’s tempting to look upon Threats as one response to Roth’s essay: a novel in which trauma and psychological dislocation certainly exist, but where simple diagnosis and treatment will have little effect, and the inexplicable resonates far more deeply.
Threats also represents a significant shift in tone from the work found in Gray’s first two books, the collections AM/PM and Museum of the Weird. While there were certainly grim moments and scenes of devastation in each of those books, there were also moments of humor and joy. Here, for all of the quirks and stylized dialogue, it’s hard to forget the scene that opens the book — the arrival of Franny’s ashes — or the flashback to her death a few pages later:
David sat next to his wife for three days. They leaned against each other and created a powerful odor. In that way, it was like growing old together.
Much of the novel leaves the question of whether David is a victim or an aggressor hanging. Regardless of his guilt or innocence, he moves through the novel in a state of shock, sometimes half-dressed, sometimes involuntarily urinating or vomiting. He’s being investigated by one Detective Chico, a veteran officer more used to low-key disturbances than unveiling the nature of mysterious crimes. And then, a quarter of the way through the book, David begins to discover threats secreted away around his house.
I WILL CROSS-STITCH AN IMAGE OF YOUR FUTURE HOME BURNING. I WILL HANG THIS IMAGE OVER YOUR BED WHILE YOU SLEEP.
This isn’t a novel with an unreliable narrator quite so much as it’s one in which every character is their own unreliable narrator. For a time, the possibility seems to exist that Franny was never there. Early in the novel, David finds himself becoming disassociated from his own identity:
David noticed that the firefighter was a woman. He felt the world shifting to the point where he was wearing her uniform. His straw-blond hair, which was hers, was pulled back into a ponytail. He had never experienced a ponytail.
As he spends significant time with his late wife’s clothing, sifting though her things, recalling observable characteristics around her, it seems possible that his wife’s very existence might have been a fabrication, but that’s belied by other characters’ interactions with her. Some of which, it turns out, have taken places after her assumed death.
The question of where Franny is, and her relationship to the threats encountered by David, is nebulous. Is she a shared hallucination? Are her posthumous appearances actually those of a doppelgänger, much like the one of himself with whom David interacts? Is she, in fact, a vengeful revenant — or are the threats some sort of manifestation of repressed anger and anxiety? Whatever their origin, the threats do appear to be as real as anything in this novel; their presence becomes a plot point, as Detective Chico finds himself intrigued by one. And even if they are some sort of physical representation of sublimated emotions — the videotapes in Haneke’s Caché come to mind here — it’s up for debate whether they represent anxieties shared by David and Franny or the residual tension in David’s parents’ marriage. (Which, from the brief flashes of it shown to us, could probably birth a novel of trauma all its own.)
While it’s the surreal moments and stylized dialogue (recalling the “Generic greeting!” “Generic greeting returned.” of Soderbergh’s Schizopolis) that will garner the most attention here, Gray uses subtler devices as well. Her evocation of the timing of David and Franny’s courtship and marriage quietly suggests years going by, and the amassed weight of the events of those years. And in one case, David traverses a sentence much as he moves through the landscape.
There is a skewed, deadpan sensibility present at times in Threats — not moments of hilarity so much as passages that might be comedic if placed in a different context. After finding one threat wedged into his coffeemaker, David’s reaction is striking in just how numb it is:
“David considered the possibility that the threat had been included with the product from the manufacturer as a way to distract women from the amount of money they were spending on mineral oil and pencil shavings.”
Elsewhere, motifs recur: the way that certain characters repeat the phrase “It’s very possible,” for instance. Sometimes, the level of stylization in Threats works against it. In particular, there’s one moment late in the novel in which Gray feints in a metafictional direction. It’s brief, but it’s also distracting — a moment of visible cleverness in a narrative which, although populated by stylized characters, still has genuine human emotion at its center.
That emotion shouldn’t be discounted: in the end, it’s both clear and heartbreaking to see just how much David’s delusions obfuscate the horror of his condition, reeling from the violence in his life and staggering from economic troubles. Hallucinations build atop illusions, and the conclusion briefly introduces one of the few theoretically reliable passages of text in the entire book. (Though it’s followed by one of Threats’ most abstract.) As for the conclusion to the question at the heart of this novel, Gray offers a solution that fits the less-than-lucid nature of this procedural. On my first reading, I was left thinking very clearly that one interpretation of events was clear; on my second, however, I found myself more fixated on the wrenching emotion and anxieties barely sublimated throughout, and arrived at a vastly different conclusion. Certainly, Threats is a deeply stylized work, but at its core are moments of unadorned desperation and revelation. And for all that the threats of the title might seem a finely-crafted device in a novel abounding with them, they point to anxieties and terror that are very real, and ultimately wrenching.