Jonathan Safran Foer is right about one thing, at least: The Flame Alphabet is a necessary read. Plus, it had the unforeseen side effect of making me want to read more experimental novels.


Which brings us to Amelia Gray, 29, author of two short story collections, Museum of the Weird and AM/PM. Like Ben Marcus, she's one of the few experimental novelists to have been reviewed in the New York Times. In her first novel, Threats, she showcases her and Marcus's shared affection for the repulsive. Both write about leaky orifices and flaccid penises — both feature their protagonist grimly stuffing the aforementioned into the crevices of alienated partners — leading someone (me) ill-versed in contemporary experimental fiction to assume that these tropes are requirements of the genre.

The best way to read Threats is with patience and perseverance. Although at first I found it as off-putting at The Flame Alphabet, the novel soon yielded like an overripe fruit, or some other rancid, soft thing of which experimental fiction writers seem entirely overfond of describing.

Gray's book concerns a couple, Franny and David, who work respectively as an aesthetician and a dentist. In case you weren't aware of just how disgusting these professions can be, reading Threats will make you acutely aware, and then some.

David, the dentist, is always smearing himself with Franny's creams in inappropriate places. Unsurprisingly, they chafe and sting. Perhaps I should mention that David is crazy, that this story is refracted through his disintegrating consciousness, that some people in it do too much laundry and others are covered in wasps. Threats pulls the reader into a madman's putrescent dream, and she is happier for it.

In spite of the fact that the book begins with Franny slowly bleeding to death from an infected cut on her foot and provides a horrifying description of a worm embedded in a baby's tooth, the novel's most queasy-making scene involves Franny's colleague giving a facial:

"The woman was largely ashamed of her skin's texture and quality, as she well should be, but she had strange pride in the single blackhead. Instead of treating it with the acids Aileen prescribed, the woman layered the area with oil-based makeup, nourishing it, growing it like a seedpod covered by a warm layer of earth. When Aileen birthed it into her metal scoop, the woman sighed with the effort and release of it."

As disgusting as this scene may be, it aptly encapsulates the novel's pleasures: reading Threats, like popping a pimple, is sickening and wonderful, and wonderful because it's sickening. Moreover, it provides release.


Does your lumpen book critic have the language to evaluate experimental fiction? Does today's fractious literary landscape deny me that language? If I say Dennis Cooper, what do you say? Have I mentioned I've read only snippets of Gertrude Stein in The Norton Anthology of American Literature? Such a worthy doorstop!

The perils of exposing oneself to such novel and disgusting language are thus: I feel just like a stoned college student after her first philosophy class, brimming with the same sincerity and wonderment. You and I are staring at this orange. Is it the same color for us both?

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