The debut novel by Amelia Gray, entitled THREATS (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is an unsettling and hypnotic story of loss, disintegration and the ways that love both builds and destroys us, anchors us, and alternately, lets us drift away. This is not conventional storytelling, but if you’ve read Gray’s work already (Museum of the Weird and AM/PM) then this will come as no surprise. To call this a detective story would be limiting. You have to jump in with both feet into the freezing waters, no easing a toe beneath the surface to see if the water is indeed water, to see if everything is safe. Nothing is safe, or reliable, and often others don’t have our best interests at heart.
David and Franny are not your typical couple. Franny is a large presence, a woman who does her own thing, often keeping secrets from her husband, wandering behind their house into the woods on a regular basis. David is a former dentist who has slowly fractured in the wake of his family’s demise and the loss of his practice. The domestic life seems normal on the surface—reading the newspaper, filling out the crossword puzzles—but from the beginning, Franny has had to take care of David, accustomed to his wandering mind:
“FRANNY had never faulted him his confusions. Once, a group of squabbling jays stopped them on a walk. Two of the birds were circling each other, ducking and weaving, thrusting beak to wing, falling back. The group around that central pair collectively made a noise like rushing water. They spread their blue wings. It looked like someone had dropped a scarf on the ground. They moved in a unified line around the fighters in the center.
She took his hand. ‘You’re in the road,’ she said.”
It’s not clear at what point David started to fall apart. Maybe it was the death of his sister, who drowned in five inches of water. Or maybe it was the death of his father and subsequent institutionalization of his mother. But wherever he is mentally when the novel starts, it is the death of Franny that unhinges him completely. Take this early exchange with Detective Chico:
“David knew he would enjoy very much the feeling of a woman placing her palms on his face. ‘Someone altered my clocks,’ he said.
‘We don’t want to alter your clocks, sir.’
The paranoia that David carries with him slowly creates an aura of mental instability, and we learn early on that whatever surreal passages Gray throws at us, reality and truth are merely shadows and hints. Is the man down the street who looks exactly like David a figment of his imagination, or just a strange coincidence? Have people really been seeing Franny on buses, or are these just reflections of grief? Are his neighbors really out to get him? Are they watching him with stolen glances, normal behavior when witnessing a man mumbling to himself while boarding up his windows in a robe and slippers?
We don’t know for sure what is happening, or if Franny is even dead, in the beginning. And when the threats start appearing, things only get more sinister. These scraps of paper are scattered all over the house, buried in bags of sugar, and hidden behind old wallpaper. These notes are witnessed by Detective Chico, another unreliable character. And there is also the eccentric therapist, Marie, who inhabits David’s garage, sharing her space with wasps, stinging her hands into swollen, red manacles, her contract with Marie to rent the space another strange and unbelievable act. Where are these threats coming from—Franny, Marie, Detective Chico, David or the house itself? A sense of unease permeates the pages, creating an atmosphere of doom, at the hands of some sinister love:
“YOUR FATE IS SEALED WITH GLUE I HAVE BOILED IN A VAT. I SLOPPED IT ON AN ENVELOPE AND MAILED IT TO YOUR MOTHER’S WOMB.”
The surreal world that Gray creates, her use of language which both unhinges and confuses us, is only further developed by these seemingly omniscient messages. These are the threats for which the book is titled. And yet, at times they seem to be caring gestures, if only misguided. What would an evil stepmother say to a child who she secretly wished would disappear? What would an abusive father say to a son who was nothing but a reminder of his own failings? There are often hints of caring at the center of these threats, which only addto the depth and complexity of the situation. Take this example from late in the novel:
“I WILL STAPLE MY ADDRESS TO YOUR WINTER COAT, LITTLE ONE. THEY WILL SEND YOU TO ME NO MATTER WHAT YOU CLAIM.”
If you swapped the word “staple” with “pinned” couldn’t this be the kind gesture of a doting grandmother? If you replaced the words “ you claim” with “trouble finds you” aren’t we seeing this note in a different light? Gray chooses her words carefully, for an effect that is haunting, frightening, and, at times, oddly touching.
Another element that adds to the overall mood of this book, and David’s state of mind are a series of phone messages. What was most disturbing to me when reading this is that the voice mail that Gray recites on the page is the exact same one that I have at home. It must be a nearly universal message that is utilized by millions of AT&T customers across the United States. I’m sure her choice of this message was not a random decision. And even down to the punctuation of the message, the way it pauses, I can hear the slightly robotic female voice that emanates from my phone on a nearly daily basis:
“ONE NEW MESSAGE. Three saved messages. First new message. From, phone number three three zero, three two three, seven four nine eight. Received, November eleventh at two thirty-two p.m.”
Having this on the page invaded my personal space—in a good way. I can’t even say how many times I’ve heard that message. Even the tiny detail of the comma after the word “From” allows me to hear that voice so clear and monotone—and the effect is creepy and brilliant.
David listens to the latter part of this phone message over and over again. It is a simple message, but who hasn’t done that? Gone back to the last message a lover or spouse left on our voice mail, a previous time when things were better, or the last bits of venom to remind us of why a relationship failed. David carries a torch for Franny, and in the end it may engulf him in flames.
Gray also adds many elements of the surreal to her novel in order to fully show us the mental breakdown of David. Here we see David witness something very strange when talking to Detective Chico:
“Chico opened his mouth. Inside his mouth was a nest, and inside the nest there were three blue pills huddled up against one another like eggs. David leaned close to examine the pills. They jostled, alive on the man’s tongue.”
It’s moments like these that keep you on your toes and force you to pay close attention. Are these the hallucinations of a mind that is struggling to stay focused and get healthy, or are these visions the last sparks of mental exhaustion before the failing gears grind to a halt?
How do we represent loss, and how do we deal with the ghost of a love as it dissipates. How do we remain grounded when our dependency is ripped from our hands even as we lean on its pillars, not realizing we are doing so, unaware of our need for something so familiar and constant? What Gray has shown us in THREATS is a dysfunctional relationship wrapped in the mysteries of buried socks and golem wives, dentists that see worms in teeth, and the slowly crumbling infrastructure of common failures and uncertain desires. With surreal, layered prose and an unsettling ability to climb inside your head and hold a mirror up to our universal fears and secret pasts, Gray has created a captivating story that will certainly haunt readers for many years to come.