- A Few Well-Chewed Morsels
My sister once told me that she is allergic to coconut. I was surprised to hear this, as I have a few good memories of pounding a nail into the top of these fruits and drinking the milk with her before cracking the suckers open and feasting on the meat. When I asked her for evidence of her allergy, she told me that she had recently eaten an entire bag of miniature Mounds candy bars and then felt sick.
Maybe that is the same sort of mistake I made with Amelia Gray's AM/PM. I took what should have been a collection of diminutive delicacies and gorged myself on them. I should have shared them with my friends, or parceled them out over weeks. Perhaps 119 short shorts, however tasty, is just too many for a sitting.
Or maybe the stories of AM/PM are more like Almond Joys. They have the potential to leave one similarly queasy after a glut, and I am also never sure what the point of those single, stranded almonds is, except to distract from so much gooey coconut. My first reaction to AM/PM was akin to my quandary with the nut on the top of the chocolate: I spent much, much too long wondering why the stories in the collection are untitled but presented with sequential numbered headings ("AM:40" is followed by "41:PM" and so on). And clearly there is something wrong with a person who can extend a sweets metaphor this long and wonder for a full half hour why the numbers started with the seemingly arbitrary "AM:14" (I finally settled on the idea that the numbers were stand-ins for page numbers, which the text is also lacking, but then spent an inordinate amount of time re-counting the title and copyright pages, trying to ascertain whether these numbers should properly have started with "AM:12").
There are some delicious bites in AM/PM. These are very, very short stories. Each one fits on a single page, sometimes only occupying a quarter of the white space. The first story creates a compelling character in a tight space and has an appreciable arc. The last line, which leaves readers, along with characters, to plunge into what will come "blissfully unaware of the risks they take when they place their blind faith in that water" feels anticipatory and yet has a kind of gravity that keeps us from floating away. There are several such rich and shapely stories in the collection, and Gray has a penchant for last lines. When they are well wrought, these endings give shape and meaning to her short shorts, leaving readers aware that they have recently been in the presence of a great moment or an image that bears reexamination. When her last lines overtake the stories themselves, these conclusions can sometimes feel like the punch line to a joke, as in the story that ends with the line, "If these walls could talk, they would say, Help! There are squirrels in my brain!", or the piece about a man searching for a unique metaphor for his relationship with his partner, who returns the favor by saying, "Being with you…is like taking a sleeping pill."
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Gray is at her best when she is able to convey the long history of a character—or often a couple of characters—in a few well-chosen details. In the first such example, a wife plans a speech for her husband who she suspects of developing a mid-life crisis. Gray gets the details of life and longing exactly right: "I saw you looking at those advertisements for used bookshelves like we had in college. I saw you scanning the bottom shelf at the liquor store for scotch in a plastic jug." Some of her characters are just what we want to read about: people who view the world slightly at an angle. One such character charmed me by declaring, "There's no rule saying you...