Review: Museum of the Weird by Amelia Gray
Reviewed by: BookPerson Jenn S.
Welcome to the first installment of Experimental Summer! Brian and I will be taking you along as we boldly explore books that test or bend or destroy some typical aspect of fiction. My first pick is Amelia Gray’s Museum of the Weird. You know it’s experimental when it has “weird” right there in the title.
When you call a book experimental, people nearby tend to make finger x’s and back away shaking their heads. This is because most experimental books, or at least the most well known ones, are difficult. And they’re demanding. And—let’s just face it—they can be phenomenally unfun to read. (Think Finnegan’s Wake, or Gravity’s Rainbow, or any book that requires a secret decoder ring, as a fellow BookPerson put it.) Experimental writing often makes readers actually angry; it can lead to violence, usually the book-throwing kind.
That’s why I’m happy to kick things off with Museum of the Weird. Amelia Gray’s most recent book is a collection of flash fictions (i.e. extremely short stories) about, well, weird things. It’s also the most fun I’ve had reading in a long time, folks. I read it in two days and immediately picked up her older book, AM/PM. Then I read everything she’s published online, including her entire blog. You get the point. Experimental fiction, that thing I’m trying to define this summer, is a whole lot more fun than I thought.
The stories in Museum of the Weird reckon with the uncanny. Each one takes our ordinary little twenty-first century world and brings unthinkably strange situations to life in it—including, but not limited to, a highball sipping penguin and a neighbor who tries to cook and eat her own toes. One of the two main ways this book is experimental is in its use of the unusual and the unexpected. In her response to HTMLGiant’s ongoing “What Is Experimental Literature” series, Gray compares experimental fiction (EF) to a form of protest, reaction, or response to something. Museum of the Weird showcases a variety of reactions to the typical. Each story has something familiar as background—say, a hostage situation like the hundreds you’ve seen on tv—but each one subverts reader expectations and changes course unpredictably. What the hostages think are cops coming to their rescue turn out to be a pack of snuffling javelinas. That’s “A Javelina Story.” While these stories tend to rely on the fantastic and the absurd, they take the consequences of the absurd pretty seriously.
At a certain point, after weird things happen in story after story, the reader might start to smell a gimmick. If you think about it, there’s a gimmick behind pretty much all experimental fiction. That’s probably what makes people so mad! But even though Gray’s stories offer up gag after gag (a boyfriend in a suitcase, a vulture infestation, a woman who keeps having babies in her sleep), she transforms each one into a substantial, deeply felt piece of real life. Her catalogue of oddities is carefully linked, so that strange objects reappear like old friends. Why, you’ll say, I know that plate of human hair!
The second way these stories experiment is their length. Or their shortness. The longest story in the collection is fourteen pages. The shortest is two. While some writers on our list experiment with form, punctuation, or genre, Gray’s project is one of condensation, compression. (She also experiments with form, including a code of operations for a snake farm and a phenomenal two-paged run-on sentence called “The Cottage Cheese Diet.”) The depth her stories achieve in a page rivals many hundred-page novels I’ve read. They’ll make you laugh, cry, and stamp your feet in a matter of two pages.
Others have made the comparison before me, but Amelia Gray’s stories have something profound in common with Lydia Davis’s. After I read both of Gray’s books, I had a craving to go back and reread some stories from Davis’s Collected Fictions. What I discovered is that both writers experiment with brevity, density, and concision to an extreme, but they do so with completely different ways of looking at the world. Reading the two together makes for a great combination—you get many quick views of the same world through two distinct imaginations.
The truth is, despite its dabblings in the weird, Gray’s Museum reaches beyond its gimmicks to show what is real and human with astonishing precision. You think that a story about a guy who marries a bag of frozen tilapia and carries her around in a cooler has gone too far, but the end of that story left me stunned. The brevity and the oddity, the experiments themselves, are what make this book so fun. Frankly, there’s not a lot of EF out there that you want to read out loud to your friends, or your coworkers, or your brother over the phone. There’s not a lot of EF that makes you shout to yourself, “This is a riot!” I mean, that’s not even something people say anymore. But these stories pack a punch that hits you somewhere between gut and mid-chest. They are the work of an amazingly innovative writer. And they reminded me that experimental fiction can be just plain fun.
I’m glad I got to tell you about Museum of the Weird this week, because Amelia Gray will read live and in person at BookPeople this Friday night. Like I said, these stories are made to be read aloud, and if you’ve made it out to any installments of Austin reading series like 5 Things or the Encyclopedia Show, you already know that being read aloud to by Amelia Gray is pretty fantastic. If you can’t wait till then, here’s a clip of her reading some threats (possibly from her new novel):