When the cover image for Amelia Gray’s third story collection, Gutshot, was released, Gray’s fans observed that the precise line drawing of a woman with her neck craned and vivisected, tendons and inner mechanics on display, was a perfect complement to Gray’s surreal, visceral, and often grotesque work. With an impressive range of styles, voices, and preoccupations all vying for priority, Gutshot is a difficult collection to discuss as a whole; it would be a disservice to Gray’s carefully curated chaos to wrestle the collection into a mold or to generalize unifying themes. Some stories operate as dopplegangers of each other, others as perverse love stories, others as parables with fuzzy morals. While the creative leaps in Gray’s micro-fictions are impressive, Gutshot’s strongest stories are those where Gray’s attention lingers, where characters and communities are pushed to their limits in uncomfortable and uncanny situations.
In these stories, love and violence are frequently linked in a deadly double helix. “Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover” is just that: a list of inventive and increasingly gruesome responses to a lover’s proposal, his infidelity, his gestures both considerate and malicious. In the following story, “The Moment of Conception,” a couple goes to extreme and bloody lengths to conceive a child. Gutshot is full of these bizarre diptychs, in which the thrust of one story is negated or intensified in the one that follows.
Divided into four sections with a total of thirty seven stories, Gutshot is most interesting not as the sum of its parts, but rather as a frenetic experiment in imagination, in planting the seeds of a narrative only to crush whatever grows. Gray is especially daring as she takes on allegorical-seeming premises only to reject the notion of a moral. In “Monument,” for example, a group of townspeople shift their collective mission from one of restoration to the rampant destruction of the village graveyard. In “These Are the Fables,” a woman tells her boyfriend she’s pregnant in the parking lot of a Dunkin’ Donuts that abruptly goes up in flames. The couple goes on the run, and their mundane antics become the mythology their child will inherit. Gray throws no lifelines to the reader, shirking both sentimentality and heavy-handed symbolism.
In the fantastic “House Heart,” one of the collection’s strongest stories, a husband and wife play an erotic and dangerous game with a woman paid to live in the ducts of their home. Another standout is “Labyrinth,” which recently appeared in The New Yorker. But perhaps the most characteristic Gray stories is Gutshot’s title story, a disorienting, circular, and strange account of a wounded man seeking solace from his doctor, mother, and finally Jesus Christ. Gray doesn’t offer easy answers to readers looking for symbolic meaning; instead she offers riddles, eerie moments, and fragile revelations. In the title story, the bleeding man is afforded only an uneasy, temporary reprieve:
“Jesus Christ, I’m gutshot,” the man said… “Will you help me?”
“Oh, sure. Do you see that airplane up there?”
Jesus Christ pointed until the man saw a silver glint in the sky.
“The people in that plane are flying to Dallas,” Jesus Christ said. “There is an old woman who feeds stray cats in her neighborhood, and a dentist, and a little baby who will grow up to be in asset management. There is a pilot who loves the smell of masking tape and a woman who doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life and will eventually stop wondering.”
“And they’re all going to Dallas.”
“Does that help?”
The man leaned against the tree trunk. His vision flared and blurred. “I think so,” he said.
In his 2010 review of Gray’s collection Museum of the Weird, J. Robert Lennon pinpointed a common pitfall of contemporary surrealist stories: that they can “succumb to randomness” or “collapse into nonsensical events or long, bland verbal exchanges between indistinguishable characters.” Indeed, in a collection where most stories are very short, characters aren’t named, and the reader is plunged into a new off-kilter reality every few pages, the cumulative effect can be jarring or superficial. But Gutshot finds Gray at her most vicious and powerful. In these stories, Gray’s characters generate their own chaos; not only do their attempts at good manners fail, they typically crash and burn, devolving into scenes of cathartic violence or complete dissolution of social norms. Gutshot is a testament not only to Gray’s powers, but also to her trust in readers to follow the frenetic pinball momentum of her imagination.