Sunday, January 16, 2011

Amelia Gray's Museum is Weird, Indeed

Misapprehension is a stupid thing. You can, for instance, come across a trifling bit of an author on some literary journal or another and misapprehend its representing their entire body of work. And who wants to misapprehend? Not me, that's for true. So I'm glad that whatever it was that made me skeptical of Amelia Gray was easy enough to get past when I first heard of the content of her recent 2010 short story collection, "Museum of the Weird." It's weird, as advertised. It's like Lorrie Moore if Lorrie Moore decided she wanted to be the prefect fusion of Will Self concepts and Donald Barthelme-style abstraction and pith. It's a read you itch to get back to reading, when reading of it stops and you have to go do other things. Fortunately, the stories are all very short, so at least you get some sense of conclusion whilst you itch for more.

It's a disorienting world come to life, here, I mean. Hysterically funny and hysterically sad and hysterically difficult to pin down. But ever worth reading.

There's a nonchalance to the storytelling, as if to say, yes, this is a humorous, wry and thoughtful narrative, but we needn't get all hot and bothered about these facts. Stay cool yet emotionally plugged in. A tough balancing act but Amelia Gray succeeds pretty completely at it.

Let's break it down a bit; here are some of her stories discretely analyzed:

One of my personal favorites is "The Suitcase." I mean "The Suitcase" is about as perfectly comedic as literary fiction gets, the narrative centering on a woman's dealing with her boyfriend's preference to remain ensconced in a piece of luggage. I like to think of main character Claire's boyfriend, Alex, as emblematic of the current, generally infantalized generation -- he can't sprout like the healthy seed he is, if we're speaking of people in terms of their being like seeds.

You grow to love being kept safe and warm by the many safety nets society constructs to keep you safe, even if simultaneously -- if you're any kind of healthy, functional person -- you can't help but resent your situation. Feeling you need to be stuck in a suitcase is both succoring and stifling and you love/hate it. I think one scene that exemplifies this fairly well is when they're confronted by airport security, subsequently barred from boarding their flight, and brought to the airport chaplain (his name is Ted) for some reason. Their exchange is as follows:

"How does he live?" Ted asked. "How does he feed himself, or use the restroom? Doesn't he develop terrible sores? What of his work towards his spirit?"

The Samsonite hopped a little with rage. "We manage, guy," Alex said from within.

This segment also illustrates Alex's position for the entirety of the story, which is object and never subject (except prior to his enclosure in the suitcase). He always needs to react to the comments, is never referred to directly but only tangentially, and this produces the delightfully amusing impotence that defines his character. It's really something to behold that it's achieved with so few words, more with touch and with feel.

"Diary of a Blockage" reads to me like the study of singular obsession, a narrator ostensibly named Miss Mosely is suffering the feeling of a fleck of regurgitation caught in her throat. Yes, it's funny but why is it funny? It's funny because, geez, it's a horrible idea. Imagine if the blockage is only illusory? What a terrible, morbid thought. But from that thought emerges obsession, and obsession's thriving with the wrong -- i.e. destructive -- focus makes life difficult to live. It culminates with numerous excellent thoughts, but my favorite is in this narration:

. . . it is time for the blockage to finally emerge, the gestation period has concluded, the suffering is nearly through (though it has not been true suffering and we will never know true suffering), that which will most closely resemble joy is prepared to leave my body and move into the world

While I think the last line of that excerpt is interesting -- that the blockage will "most closely resemble joy" -- better still is, "the suffering is nearly through (though it has not been true suffering and we will never know true suffering)." Like the difference in poverty and abject poverty, human suffering can be measured on a relative scale. In another sense, you could argue true suffering is only measurable by your personal experiences, that you can never know another's experiences, not palpably, and so you're left to endure only what is worst to you. There is, however, a discriminating tendency in humans, the awareness of others, that shows itself with empathy and feeling you have experienced something similarly insufferable, so as to better understand what would be worse than that, through the perspective of another's experience. What's interesting is having that clarity of mind WHILE you are enduring something horrible, to know that this is not the worst thing that has ever befallen someone, not even close. But that's just one thing.

"Fish" seems to have been written, if for no other reason, then to illustrate the slippery slope of unusual romances. An oft-heard argument of the current political climate is that if gays are allowed to marry then soon no one will be able to present an argument for why beastiality isn't permissible, because a man or woman's having a romantic (sexual) relationship with an animal is no less logical than two members of the same sex being married. I won't bother with the speciousness of this argument. I don't think I have anything new to add to that. Amelia Gray tackles the issue, even if only indirectly, with her protagonists, Dale and Howard, and their respective marriages to a paring knife and a bag of frozen tilapia. The problem is these objects aren't spouses, can't share in anything of the nature of interpersonal interaction, and are thus rendered crutches -- helping Dale and Howard isolate themselves from other people, giving them cause to say others do not understand. I think this story wraps up particularly well, and it could be my favorite of the bunch, were I forced to pick.

All right, so there are many more stories than just the three above, but perhaps you see, they all beg to be analyzed and, really, just thought about. Because who knows if anything I've said here is true at all? What the hell is truth in that respect? I mean, these are just the things I think, so what do you think? What are the things you think on the subject of books and perhaps "Museum of the Weird," in particular? I await your reply.

Here's a link to a good interview with Amelia Gray on HTML Giant, if you would like to know more!

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