Thursday, February 28, 2013
Conduits of Emotion: Amelia Gray's "AM/PM"
With all due respect to Amelia Gray, I stumbled upon her writings in my usual fashion: while researching literary magazines, I read and loved several of her flash pieces, and I've seen her name promoted through the usual mentions on social media sites. I was very curious to read one of her published collections, so I made a point to snag AM/PM, Gray's 2009 story collection (or is it a novella? Perhaps a novella-in-stories?), based on its publication by Featherproof Books, one of the most impressive independent publishers in Chicago. It's one of the more deceptive books I've read in awhile. It's a very slim volume that could almost be mistaken for a chapbook, and it can be read fairly quickly in one sitting, as I did a few weeks ago. However, I kept thinking about its characters and careful mix of keen relationship observations and explorations of personal identities, and I found it necessary to read again. Upon this second reading, I found myself torn between classifying it as a story collection or a novella, and I also found myself drawn to different passages than the ones that initially jumped out at me. I wish I had the time to re-read longer works, but a small gem like AM/PM can be read dozens of times and still manage to reveal some great passages. It's a great sign when a small work can evoke just as many feelings and questions as a long form novel and demands constant attention.
Also, I believe it's the kind of book that can't be explicitly "reviewed," since it's such an aesthetic experience with no concrete plots or inherent climaxes. It is set in alternating chapters ("AM" and "PM") and focuses on the lives and relationships of characters the reader only knows on a first named basis. I'll start with citations of the first two chapters. This will give you an idea of the layout, as well as the kinds of themes and actions that are presented throughout. The beauty of these pieces is that a potential reader will get a feel for Gray's style, but still have no clue what else is in store throughout.
"AM 1: Terrence cannot think of a job position with more weight in the title than lifeguard. 'Firefighter' simply describes. 'Pastor' makes little sense, outside of a treatment for meat in Mexico. Usually pork. However, 'lifeguard' carries with it a great deal of gravity which many might consider unearned by the lanky youths typically found atop most lifeguard stands. Terrence offers himself as a humble exception to the rule: out of shape and in full awareness of the importance of his position.
Three bathers prepare to enter the water. Terrence watches very closely from his stand, his red rescue buoy strapped across his lap. They are three women in thick one-piece suits. The pocked texture on their upper thighs is visible from fifty feet. They hold hands like girls and jump, shrieking, and Terrence holds his breath with them until all three surface, blissfully unaware of the risks they take when they place their blind faith in that water (Gray)."
"2 PM: There is a poetry to the wasted life, but little beauty. The poetry to an empty bed is beauty, Charles recognizes, and there is a poetry to the second hand of the clock, which is a kind of beauty, but the only beauty in the wasted life is of efficiency, and grace, and a complete knowledge of a small portion of the world. Charles recognizes the grace of a trip to the store. He feels the efficiency in slipping the same type of milk into the same place in the refrigerator door, between the pickles and the mayonnaise. Charles accepts the knowledge of the second hand (Gray)."
The ideas presented in these sentences--identity, work, routines--are just a small sample. Further into AM/PM, there are explorations of sexuality, relationships, and friendship. These might seem like typical fodder for pieces of flash fiction (or really, any kind of story), but Gray does a lot of digging to present minute details, and sometimes the pieces are surreal. Some of the chapters present conversations between Charles and Terrence (it's merely coincidental that they appear in the chapters I cited above), while they sit together in a box. Gray writes these chapters in such a way that the box could be metaphorical or strangely literal. Even after my two readings, it wasn't until I started writing this piece that I gave concrete thought to the box. I was caught up in the chapters to the point that the box was just there and can be read both ways. This might seem like I'm reading far too much into such a small aspect, but the dual natures of the box are excellent metaphors in themselves for the rest of AM/PM. Even in Gray's most surreal prose, the reader can be forgiven for not questioning the shifts.
"AM 17: It was still dark, but Terrence's eyes adjusted enough that he could sense the movement of his hand before his face. 'Charles,' he said. 'I believe we are in a small box.'
'Indeed,' Charles said, from the darkness. Terrence judged him to be about five feet away, but when he reached his arm out, he touched Charles's knee, which startled them both. The knee was cold and hairy. Charles's knee made Terrence more nervous than the existence of the small box.
He leaned back and startled again when he touched the soft walls of the box. The thick velvet felt deep enough to sing his fingers into, but he didn't want to know what was down there and instead let his hand rest on the surface.
Terrence considered the letter he would write to his girlfriend when he was free. He thought fondly of the time they ate cotton candy until she vomited (Gray)."
Gray's writing does so much in such small confines, but she never delivers any concrete answers to the questions raised by the text. The characters make small developments, and there's a sense of drastic, looming changes and revelations, but as they break down, fall apart, and gain better sense of themselves, there's still no real closure, but the point isn't a tidy collection with fully rounded people ambling toward a happy ending. The reader discovers more and more about the people, but at the end, they are still just as mysterious and flawed. With all of these understandings piling up, Gray takes pleasure in unleashing moments of great humor. While I've stressed the complex character studies, there are more than a few moments of funny happenings and dialogues.
"108 PM: Carla stepped out of the dressing room and took a modest turn. 'How do I look?' she asked.
Hazel looked at her mother with a critical eye. The knot halter cut of the gown revealed her slender shoulders. The vibrant pink, which had looked a little young on the rack, added color to the woman's face. Carla looked in the mirror, put one bare foot forward, wiggled her hips a little.
'Mom,' Hazel said. 'you look like a brand new bitch.'
'Well, that's fine,' her mother said. 'I somewhat feel like a brand new bitch (Gray).'"
I'm very tempted to cite passages at random in addition to presenting them with analysis and context. There's such a variety in Gray's work, and rarely have I read one that practically begs to be read out loud to people in the vicinity. For everything the characters represent and go through, the reader can't lose sight of Gray's abilities as an artist as well as a storyteller. Quite a few of these pieces were published as flash fiction, and I'm constantly amazed by writers who have mastered the form. There are links between the characters' multiple chapters, but some of them stand alone as nearly perfect examples of standalone stories.
"AM 19: By then, the cats were used to the sound of construction next door. Carla hoped it would make the move easier for them, though she anticipated the startled cat noises, the wide eyes and that low groan like the sound a machine makes. This didn't help the prospect of the big move, of course. There were boxes that needed to be opened and checked for contents, and still more boxes that had to be created and filled with the last of it, including perishables, spillables, and the last of the glassware. Packing glassware in secret sounds more stressful than it is. With the newspaper softened by the humid air, it would be easy to wrap and pack her wine glasses without waking Andrew at all (Gray)."
As I've said so many times before, I'm adding Amelia Gray to an ever-growing list of writers whom I need to follow closely. She has other publications, including the 2012 novel Threats, and my feelings upon my two readings of AM/PM are akin to how I felt upon my first book-length readings of Matt Bell, Lindsay Hunter, and Amber Sparks. Gray is a serious artist who has done an amazing array of compact fictions, and I can only imagine what her novel-length writing accomplishes. To close on a painfully obvious, repetitive note, the chapters I've cited are only a sample of the remaining stories and ideas presented. The citations are the full chapters, so sharing more would take away from the full reading experience. For anyone who claims they don't have time to read, I present AM/PM: not only can it be consumed quickly, it provides an experience and selection that demands further attention. I'm absolutely positive that my future third reading will reveal even more sentences and ideas that I missed, and I'm thankful for Gray's work and its accomplishments.
Gray, Amelia. AM/PM. Copyright 2009 by Amelia Gray.