This post is one of several about my experiences in the Finger Lakes District in upstate New York while serving as the Trias writer-in-residence at Hobart and William Smith Colleges (Geneva).
Hobart and William Smith was lucky to have Amelia Gray as a guest as part of the 2016-2017 Trias Reading Series, which I’m curating. Gray gave one of the best readings I’ve ever seen and also spoke frankly to the students in my class about variety of writing-related issues. Below you’ll find the transcript of my introduction to the event, which is also an introduction to the work of Amelia Gray. The next guest in the series will be Ottessa Moshfegh in the spring. – Jeff V.
I first encountered Amelia Gray’s fiction when I saw her collection Gutshot in the Yale University bookstore—at the front counter, as a staff recommendation. Despite this, the cashier tried to dissuade me from buying the book.
He asked me as I checked out, “Are you sure? Are you sure you want that? It’s really weird. Really weird.”
I thought about that for about half a second and said, “Yes. Yes. I want that. I want like five or six or seven copies of that.” Because I was pretty sure with that kind of endorsement I was getting the good stuff. The pure, undiluted stuff. No filler. Not cut with excuses or prevarication or pre-fab fabulation.
And I was right.
Amelia Gray is the real deal—an absurdist by nature who ranges from stories like “Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover” that blow up our expectations of what a short story can be while having interesting things to say about both the body and relationships…to sly dark tales like “The Year of the Snake” that mythologize science and can be taken for the delights on the surface or for deeper things lurking beneath.
The disturbing “House Heart” could be read as a deconstruction of the Gothic ghost story, but saying that is inadequate and throws too much of a bone to those who like a story to “mean” something: the story gets under the skin, resists being analyzed in the sense that the weird rituals at its core seem familiar to modern life and yet alien. We cannot quite place the story on any map and by this we know, although Gray also engages in renovations, that this is innovation.
I would also humbly position her fiction, from my readings, as a triangulation of not just the absurd, but the surreal and the weird—because the world is absurd and surreal and weird. With each of those sensibilities existing in different proportions depending on the story.
As well as a psychological element, as if she’s tapped into something in the subconscious that creates an immediate reaction in the reader. I’m reminded strongly of another iconoclastic talent, the surrealist painter and writer Leonora Carrington, whose own dark tales combine these elements and were, when she wrote them, very unconventional—striking a chord with readers while existing outside of the mainstream.
Have I said yet that Gray’s fiction, like Carrington’s, is often is sly and funny in a sideways sense—once you become normalized to the unsettling images and the unusual, unique details that—wherever you are lucky enough to find them—are always, always a gift to the reader.
Alongside that absurdist sense of humor, inhabiting all of Gray’s fiction, is the proverbial restless curiosity and a quest, never self-conscious, to find ways to subvert reader expectations, to give the reader not what they expected but what they secretly needed. A bit of a jolt to the system.
And that is at least one reason why I love Gray’s work—because of the charged images at the core of so many of these stories, the images that linger in the mind and, connected to character, make even the dying man in the title story, “Gutshot,” sympathetic or humane or oddly relatable. That make a giant snake smashing through a town and dividing it into North Snake and South Snake have no need of rational explanation. That make a person living in the airducts of a house so riveting and horrifying at the same time.
And how despite being a curmudgeonly, jaded reader of the uncanny and the surreal and the absurd, I’m thankful that there are writers lke Gray who still manage to surprise me, to make me uneasy…to wake me up.
No wonder then that Gray’s fiction has been compared to the work of David Lynch—the ultimate compliment because it’s another way of saying “we don’t know where amongst the constellations to place this writer.”
No wonder that her fiction has been praised from coast to coast, by both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times—while appearing in some of this country’s most prestigious magazines, including The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and Tin House. No wonder that Gutshot recently won the $10,000 Young Lions Prize from the New York Public Library.
I’m delighted to ask you to please join me in welcoming Amelia Gray.