Gutshot by Amelia Gray

Gutshot is a collection of short-short stories (also known as flash fiction) by Amelia Gray. Previously, I’d read and loved the collections Museum of the Weird and AM/PM, but wasn’t as enamored with her first novel, Threats. The author’s odd plots and characters seem to follow a rabbit hole in Gray’s brain, and I gather her brain is wild place. I met her for a hot second at a literary conference in 2011, where she said she felt like “a ball of chickens taped together.” Yes, I can quote that. Yes, because it’s so abnormal.

Threats didn’t work for me because Gray’s strange stories have a magic in their brevity, almost like you’re scrolling through innovative images and videos on r/funny. To have a Gray story go on into novel length is like finding an r/funny video with a run time is over two minutes. My reaction: Oh, no thank you. Apparently, Gray’s historical novel Isadora is just as unconventional has the rest of her writing, and I hope it works for me when I read it. All that to say, there is no writer like Amelia Gray.

Emily @ Literary Elephant and I did a buddy read of Gray’s newest collection, Gutshot (check out Emily’s review). Broken into five sections, the collection’s stories are often only about one to ten pages long. It’s hard to say one length works better over another. “Labyrinth” comes in at eight pages and captured my imagination when a local farmer who hosts a pumpkin jamboree each year decides to change his corn maze into a corn labyrinth based on Hellenic myth. Who will be brave enough to enter? And will they escape?

One of my favorite lean stories, “Christmas House,” is only two pages yet details the rules of Christmas House, lays out a distinct setting, and includes actors and visitors in future scenarios:

Christmas House sits and the far end of a firing range. . . . Christmas House is not responsible for injury. If a guest is caught by a stray round, he or she must be carried to a location off-site and allowed to seek medical attention independent of Christmas House. Cast members are permitted to treat wounds in the spirit of Christmas, for example by compressing a blood-soaked trouser with holly leaves while singing “Silent Night.”

If that quote leaves you thinking, “Wait, what?” then I should provide more examples of Gray’s work. She tackles common situations and makes them unfamiliar. “Date Night” begins innocently enough with a nervous man and woman, but almost immediately catapults into the absurd. He excuses himself to the restroom, and when he returns his face is misaligned because he washed it in the sink too hard. She’s been picking at her skin while waiting for his return and now has a bit of flayed flesh curled up on her arm. Nervous at first, to ease their tension the man and woman replicate the other’s wounds and then go so far as to make more. My favorite made me nose laugh:

He grasps his thumb and twists it hard. It pops into his palm and he overhands it into the kitchen. The woman bares her breasts and flicks her nipples off her body like flies on a summer day. They land on the floor and a waiter catches one under his heel and slips across the tile.

Buster Keaton and Marceline Day in The Camerman (1928)

It’s almost like Gray sees past all the pageantry of life and thinks what if we all just . . . ? That’s where her stories land.

I admit, I wasn’t enjoying myself for a while. Sections one and two of Gutshot didn’t have much that stood out or spoke to me, but once I got to section three I was book-marking so many stories and passages for the sheer enjoyment of Gray’s imagination and phrasing. What if your parents’ ghosts came back as skin problems? What if someone sends you a thank you card for sending them a thank you card and it turns into a weird “thank you” war? What if the gods craft a week-long competition to see who can grieve the hardest, and the winner gets the person they grieve back? What if a giant snake divides a town in half and won’t move? All of these “what ifs?” are addressed in Gutshot, though none of them straightforwardly.

Beware that there is also some horrifying stuff in Gutshot, such as every line of “Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover.” You know, eat him literally, a bit at a time in response to all the normal things he does over the course of a long marriage. Sturdy your stomach just a bit of you want to read Amelia Gray. Overall, the collection was hit and miss, but I always read Gray’s work to participate in how she sees the absurdity of life.

20 comments

  1. I thought, that sounds like really interesting writing. I wonder if she writes just once, shooting from the hip, or if she rewrites. From her website I found a story, The Hostage, which appeared in the New Yorker. The story took a funny path but the writing itself was less experimental than I expected.

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    • I think the writing isn’t so much experimental in the way I think Gertrude Stein is, but her stories go in stranger directions that don’t craft your traditional plot. I think he work can be a lot of fun, even when it’s serious, but few of the stories really stick in my head. Images get caught in there, though, such as one guy getting sucked into the earth in a corn labyrinth by a Minotaur.

      Have you started The slap? I’m about 25% through and feel as though I’m being chased by a penis.

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    • The part that drove me nuts about Threats is that she’s purporting this to be a novel, but there are parts where things slid around and lost track of what was even going on. I don’t like that in books, and I don’t find it clever. If she had written a bunch of her flash fiction pieces around the story of the dead wife in the back yard,I would have forgiven gaps.

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  2. I really enjoyed reading your take on Gray’s work! This collection doesn’t appeal to me right away (especially because I can be squeamish), but I love what you said about the book allowing you to participate in the way Gray sees life.

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    • She’s one of those people whom I think would be so fun to have a weekly coffee date with. It would be an adventure. Her writing is *shudders* enough that you should skip Gutshot if you’re squeamish. If I remember correctly, Gray is one of those people who definitely see us all as animals trying to play civil, so she gets into the grosser stuff of life.

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  3. Although writing like this doesn’t appeal to me directly, I’m so in awe of people’s imaginations like this. What it must be like in this woman’s head! I loved that quote from the conference, ball of chickens taped together. She certainly has a way with words, no wonder she’s a writer 🙂

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