Gutshot by Amelia Gray
FSG, 2015; 209 pp
Reviewed by Jane Hawley
Imagine yourself waiting at the edge of a diving board, pushing your toes against the rough surface, your dead skin sloughing off and gathering onto the edge. You are fully aware of your body—from the hangnail on your left ring finger to the small intestines packed inside your abdomen. You jump. The cold water shocks you at first, but the coolness soon becomes pleasurably disorienting as you acclimate to your shifted reality. You look up through the water, watching the outside world through a fluid, liquid lens.
This is the experience of reading Amelia Gray’s Gutshot, her newest collection of short stories, most of which span no more than three pages. The characters populating the pages of the collection range from a family attempting to remove a whale heart stuck in their living room to a postal worker cursed with an unfortunate syndrome that causes him to puke after every sentence he speaks. They seem familiar yet retain an atmosphere of the strange. There’s almost always something a little bit off about her characters even though we may recognize ourselves in their idiosyncratic tics and obsessions. In “Western Passage,” the narrator, a middle-aged woman on a long distance bus ride, meets a young woman who allows herself to become charmed by a drifter. After discovering that the girl has nowhere to stay the night, the narrator invites her to her home, saving her from having to entrench herself in the unspoken and “vast system of payments and debts” of which most of us participate in every day. As the girl sleeps on a cot in the woman’s living room, the narrator lies down next to her and imagines that the girl is dreaming of the man on the bus. This fills her with “a flashing trill of grief and rage” and she pictures the girl “bloody in an alley, her gut ripped with a shard of glass” or “scattered across a public park in parts, oozing like a bisected worm.”
Each story is essential in nature, preferring not to linger on the histories of the characters or their relationships, but rather on the visceral, the instinctive, the emotional and animal—the guts of the story. Some are fables. Some shift reality so slightly that they read as if they’re taking place within a parallel universe, a funhouse world of doppelgangers and uncanny premonitions. Some are absolutely realist though Gray’s style never allows their worlds to seem quite normal. All are funny, horrifying, surreal, inventive, gross, tender, and beguiling. They’re highly detailed snapshots, stylistically plunging the reader into the story’s physical world. Modeled after Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, a collection of ninety-nine stories that repeats the same story in different styles, “Viscera” best highlights Gray’s microscopic attention to the corporal:
This page was once plant material, crushed and sluiced and pressed through a machine in a warehouse, the process overseen by a man plagued with a skin infection. The man, ankles swollen after the sixth hour on the job, would loosen his damp shoelaces for some late-day relief—the flesh pillowing over his yellowed athletic sock—and would scratch the pimpled back of his hand, his wrist, and his arm so liberally that a steady snow of flaked skin would drift onto the pages as they flew through the pressing machine. Naturally the pages, which told the story of an uneventful journey, became infected with his particulate matter…baking the genetic evidence of his future heart disease into this very page, which you are touching with your hands and which will find its way into a used bookstore, perhaps after your own death from heart disease, where it will be touched by people ill with the flu, sinus infections, the kind of solid stuff that moves out of the body like a bus pulling out of a station, the empty seat waiting.
In this passage, Gray tells the story of a body and of a book—her book, the book you’re holding with your hands, leaving their genetic evidence, as you read the story. It seems that Gray’s aim is to establish the body as worthy of as much attention as the intellectual or emotional features of her characters. The body itself tells a story. Everyone has a body. We share the same bodily functions and fluids. It is the base level on which we understand other human beings and animals. We shit. We shed. We bleed. We break. The body simultaneously repulses and fascinates. It is disgusting and curious. Yet the body has been all too absent from literary fiction. In Gutshot, Amelia Gray has mastered and exploited the language of the body—a language necessary and vital to fiction’s project of exploring the fullness of the human experience.