by Amelia Gray
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Threats, Amelia Gray’s viscerally rendered debut novel, takes place in an alternate reality. Here, cryptic notes from a dead woman appear without any possible explanation, a widower’s madness becomes a media spectacle, and a stranger secretly keeps her office in a man’s garage until he’s given a business card bearing his own address. These and other phenomena are detailed by a mesmerizing but ambivalent voice, a narrator who says things like “It was clear that in a past life the detective had been a phone booth beside an empty highway,” without breaking stride.
After sitting beside his wife’s corpse for three days, David starts to discover messages from Franny hidden around his home, ranging from violent (that she’s sucking bone marrow from his live body) to bizarre (simply, “I COULD DEVOUR YOU”). Parallel to Detective Chico’s (and the reader’s) attempt to discover how Franny actually died is a bipolar story of loss. David vacillates between grief-stricken madness and plain grief, one moment pissing himself in the middle of an episode of paranoia, and the next listening repeatedly to a mundane archived voicemail from Franny.
Gray’s talent for short fiction (she has published two highly praised collections with smaller publishers) is apparent throughout the work. Succinct, walloping chapters carry an impact in two pages it takes other novelists fifteen to reach. Gray’s natural sense of economy is clear on a sentence level as well, and her descriptions of dental procedures, spa treatments and various forms of carnage are as vivid as an R. Crumb comic and just as grotesque. But Threats has far more scope than the initial layer of shock and bloody atrocities. As flashbacks slowly reveal David and Franny’s quiet life together, we learn that Franny’s mysteriousness did not begin with her death. There are always simple mysteries buried under the more dramatic ones.