31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 22: “Labyrinth” by Amelia Gray

May 22, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Gutshot

Gutshot_Amelia_Gray“Disorienting” is perhaps the best word to describe the fiction of Amelia Gray. It’s a word novelist and story writer Lindsay Hunter uses to characterize Gray’s work, which Hunter says “makes you feel like you’ve been shot out of a cannon.” Indeed, there is an abiding strangeness to Gray’s stories that is not easily sloughed off or reckoned with; no matter the reader’s background or predilections, the territory Gray traverses will almost certainly appear unfamiliar and weird.

In part this is due to her subject matter. “House Heart,” for example, features a couple who essentially kidnap a prostitute and imprison her in the ductwork of their house. The brief story “Date Night” features a bizarrely Grand Guignol scene in a restaurant that includes a woman ripping off her own breasts and another emasculating a man and tossing his severed penis into a bowl of soup. “Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover” provides a catalogue of exactly what its title suggests: “When he asks you to marry him, panfry his foreskin.”

The story “Labyrinth,” which first appeared in The New Yorker, is less extreme than these, but no less strange in its own way, and representative of one of Gray’s key tactics: it leaves its reader alone, without context or explanation for the events that transpire. We know the basics of what happens, but have few hints as to why. “Labyrinth” provides a bit more in the way of character motivation than, say, “House Heart,” in which the couple’s impetus for locking up the prostitute remains dizzyingly obscure. Here, the first person narrator, Jim, is provided with a sketchy backstory that offers a rationale for his actions and serves to situate him in a kind of mock-heroic mode.

The story takes place at a country jamboree somewhere in the U.S. Every year, Dale, one of the town residents, puts on a fair to raise money for the local fire department. The central feature of this fair is always the elaborate corn maze that Dale carves into his field, an attraction complex enough to entice teenagers and “hardcore maze-runners.”

On this particular occasion, Dale tells his guests he has created not a maze, but a labyrinth, the difference being in “the fact that the path is unicursal, not multicursal. There’s only one road, and it leads to one place.” The other distinction, according to Dale, is that the labyrinth “is known to possess magic.” He elaborates on precisely what he means by this: “Some say that once you find the center, you discover the one thing you desire most in the world. Others claim that God sits beyond the last bend. Individuals must learn for themselves.”

What Jim finds at the centre of the labyrinth extends his association with classical heroism, specifically with Theseus in Greek mythology, who entered the labyrinth and slew the Minotaur. Jim’s need to establish his bravery stems from an incident the previous year in which an errant cigarette lit a hayride on fire and Jim, like a crazed George Costanza, fled the scene, eventually to be discovered cowering and (we are led to believe) having pissed his pants, a source of huge amusement for the townspeople. What Jim most desires, that is, what he expects to find at the centre of the labyrinth, is a demonstration of courage for the people who have mocked him – proof that, in the words of one of fairgoer, “He’s got balls.”

Doing this will, of course, necessitate a confrontation with the monster, something that occurs at the very end of the story. Here Gray pulls back, disallowing access to what transpires; we do not know whether Jim survives or emerges from the labyrinth victorious, though the fact that he narrates the story in the first person (and the implied association with the hero of Greek myth) suggests that perhaps he does.

What is clear is that Gray is adapting and incorporating elements of classical mythology into a contemporary story while giving them a modern spin. Jim is required to carry an unwieldy trivet with him into the labyrinth; Dale tells him that the trivet is the Phaistos Disk, a disputed Bronze Age archeological relic. “According to mythology,” says the website World Mysteries.com, “Phaistos was the seat of king Radamanthis, brother of king Minos.” It was Minos who angered the gods by refusing to sacrifice a majestic bull, resulting in the birth of the Minotaur – the progeny of the bull and Minos’s wife. The Minotaur was held captive in a labyrinth created by Daedalus and fed the blood of victims who were sacrificed to the monster.

Gray layers mythological resonance onto her tale, explicitly with the Phaistos Disk and the presence of the labyrinth itself, and implicitly through allusive details scattered throughout the story. Toward the end, one of the townspeople breaks out a guitar and sings the “origin story” of Jim: “Born to a rancher just a little west of here / Jim raised his head and never cowered out of fear.” This is a clear comic debasement of the Greek chorus. It also flies in the face of what we know about Jim, who was subject to ridicule precisely because he did cower in fear following the incident on the hayride. At one point as Jim navigates the labyrinth, he overhears the townspeople talking outside: “They were telling stories of my heroism and bravery, of underwater rescue and diplomacy – tales I couldn’t remember being a part of, though surely I was involved in some way, if so many recalled them so fondly.”

As is typical with Gray, the disconnect here is not fully explicated; the author prefers a kind of impressionistic approach that leaves the reader to make the important connections for herself. The labyrinth is an apt metaphor for the author’s own fictional approach: there is one road, leading to one place, and the edifice contains a kind of magic – surprising and finally inexplicable.

Comments are closed.