Reading Like a Writer: Amelia Gray's Threats and Avoiding Cliché through the Fabulous
Amelia Gray's Threats chronicles the horrific reaction that David, an eccentric ex-dentist, has to the sudden, mysterious death of his wife. The entire novel is peculiar and fantastic. But it's David's first experience of shock that I want to examine.
David's wife has blood on her legs and she asks David to call for help. Then she says, no, he doesn't need to call. David sits beside her for three days until the firefighters come. As David starts to register, finally, what has happened to his wife, his mind reels. Instead of observing that David feels outside of his body, Gray switches his body with that of a firefighter.
He felt the world shifting to the point where he was wearing her uniform. His straw-blond hair, which was hers, was pulled back into a ponytail. He had never experienced a ponytail. It felt as if his head was weighted from behind. The weight terminated at a single point, which gave him the sense that there was an opening back there that might allow fluids to escape. His lips felt thin, and he watched her, as him, sitting on the stair. His face had sunk around its bones like soft earth, and the oxygen mask protected his mouth like a clear carapace sheltering his organs.
The passage is surreal and utterly fascinating, alive with tender, sensory details. It's both frightening and heartbreaking.
It's doing story work, too. It's how the reader learns of David's wife's death. There's no melodramatic "Oh my god! She's dead," because the reader feels the awfulness through David's intense avoidance. Instead of describing her body on the floor, David observes small details and seemingly trivial sensations, such as the weight of a ponytail.
Yet the passage tells us of her death quite clearly through subtext. In the quoted passage, we get the word "terminate," as well as the image of a hole through a head. Both imply death. When David talks about fluids escaping, we wonder what other fluids have escaped and think of his wife's blood. When his face sinks "around his bones like soft earth," we ponder burial. When the oxygen "protect(s) his mouth like a clear carapace sheltering his organs," we know what other organs David wishes he could protect—his wife's.
A few lines later, it's David, in the firefighter's body, who says, "your wife is dead." Is he saying the words or hearing them? Both and neither. In this fantastical body switch, David can watch his emotions from a neutral vantage point. It makes him capable of consoling himself, of seeing himself, briefly, as strong instead of broken. "She was crying. David had never seen such emotion from a public servant… he was observing it happening in his own body." He hears the firefighter, in his body, say "I'm so confused." He hears himself, as the firefighter, say "that's normal."
This out-of-body state is a brilliant vehicle for observation, allowing Gray to present a narrative through the perspective of a character who couldn't otherwise be coherent. She can show what David looks like on the floor—his pale cold thigh, filthy robe, missing slipper—without him seeming self-absorbed. And she can describe his emotions without the obstacle of his talking through them.
The chapter also puts David, briefly, inside his wife's perspective: "He felt as if he was looking down from the position of an angel who could not get much vertical distance over the scene." Since his wife is dead, she must be the hovering angel.
But it's important to note that this shift into his wife's perspective is different from his shift into the firefighter's. "He felt as if he was looking down…" vs. "David felt the world shifting." One of these body switches is his imagination, but the other really happens. So this other shift emphasizes the realness of David's in-another-body experience with the firefighter.
I'm particularly impressed with the way Gray extends the body switch for several pages. Mechanically, it's impressive because even as Gray embraces it, she carefully reminds us, just enough, that it's the firefighter's body that David is in, not his own. She describes a female body with male pronouns and a male body with female ones. She doesn't hammer the point home, but is precise with every word.
But, after all, isn't it just a cliché? Isn't it true that, sometimes, extreme trauma can feel like an out-of-body experience? And hasn't it been noticed many times?
Absolutely. But Gray has avoided triteness in the observation by taking it to an extreme, by making it a body switch instead of a body hover and by making it physical, instead of just a mental illusion. My favorite aspect of the passage is how Gray avoids cliché by turning a common observation into something fantastic, making it fresh and also very real.
When Amelia Gray spoke at AWP this year, she mentioned using the fabulous to breathe new life into cliché. Her smart observations made me pick up this book. I was delighted to find such a clear, beautiful example of this phenomenal strategy.
How have you seen a writer breathe new life into an old cliché? Have suggestions for future book reviews? Join the bookish conversation on Twitter with hashtag #ReadingLikeAWriter.
Allison Wyss is teaching "Reading Like a Writer: The Best Book Club Ever" this summer at the Loft. She earned her MFA from the University of Maryland. She has also studied creative writing at Vanderbilt University, Breadloaf Writer's Conference, and Grub Street Independent Writing Center. Her stories have appeared or will appear in [Pank] Magazine, Metazen, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, MadHat (Mad Hatters' Review), The Golden Key, and The Southeast Review.