The Short Version: David’s wife has died – or at least he’s pretty sure she has. But when he starts finding vaguely ominous threats around his house, he begins to wonder what actually happened. As his fragile grip on reality weakens, the circumstances of his life get hazier and more confusing until no one can be sure what’s real and what’s in David’s mind.
The Review: Someone’s review of this book (I think it was the LA Times) described it as a bit Lynchian – and they’re so right. That’s absolutely the best way to describe the surreal weirdness of this novel. It is, as the title would have you believe, a novel of danger and fear – but the thing to be afraid of, the thing putting you in danger, is your own mind. Or, in this case, David’s mind.
Things get weird pretty much right away here. The circumstances surrounding David’s wife’s death are… we feel like we’re missing something. Some crucial piece of information has been either withheld or never discovered or something. Something is wrong here. It’d be easy enough to write this off as a problem not with the world, but with David – grief can do strange, terrible things to a person. To have a psychotic break like David’s (if I may be so bold as to call it that) is completely understandable, especially considering his already-shaky hold on life. But it quickly becomes apparent that it’s not just David who’s a bit… off… in the world of this novel. Even the most ordinary things take on an almost hallucinatory appearance as the pages dwindle – a post office, a bus stop, other seemingly ordinary things quickly become twisted and strange. Not in a garish or over the top way, though – they just become strange. Like when you repeat a word over and over and suddenly it starts to feel wrong somehow, even though nothing has actually changed. It’s that sort of weird.
As a result, there are some truly wild images that loom forward out of the novel. The wasps in the garage, the image of David holding his decomposing wife on the stairs (not a spoiler, it happens within the first few pages), the doppelgängers, the oddly hidden and oddly worded threats… these things rise up like the memory of a bad trip or the sense of a half-remembered dream. Coupled with Gray’s sharp prose and short chapters, you’re propelled through the novel without a chance to really find your footing. You never get to figure out what’s real and what’s not – nor, I realize, does that actually matter all that much.
See, the whole “grief” thing seems to be a major factor here (this novel is like a strange cross between In the House upon the Dirt… and Fellow Mortals) and as a result, you can’t discredit or discount anything experienced by David – even in the face of the other weird things happening around him. Who can say what is real for someone else? Yes, it seems strange to us that David lets his life go to shit in such a way – but Franny seemed to be rather his whole world. Sure, there was his dental practice (fondly remembered, hazily dispatched with) but really… Franny is his thing. Except at the same time, Franny is also something of a cipher. We only know as much about her as David does… and it seems like David didn’t know much. Which is why, perhaps, his grief is so great.
All of this having been said, I’m struggling to say that I truly liked this book. I’m not like this guy, whose letter to Ms. Gray has become a nerd-viral-internet-thing. He calls it “nothing more than conversations among insane people.” Gray’s response, in good humor, tells him he’s absolutely correct and the thing is… the dude is correct. So then your opinion on this book depends, of course, on how you feel about conversations between insane people.
Except there are books that are conversations between insane people that also hold together a little better, in terms of plot and action. It has (and I recognize this personal distaste and I am attempting to steer clear of this… genre? when I can) become a trend for writers to write vague, odd stories – In the House upon the Dirt, There is No Year, etc etc – and these stories have a massive following. But I’m coming to realize that I am not a member of that particular tribe. I do not need a plot, I do not need anything really from my literature other than a pleasant diversion – and the thing about this genre (again, broadly speaking) is that I can never quite find my way in. I read the words and conjure the images and even sometimes feel some feelings… but I never feel as though I’ve actually gotten into the book. And as a result, I don’t feel as though I’ve derived any particular pleasure from it. As such:
Rating: 3 out of 5. There is something about this book that feels empty – like the empty threats that come to David. But there’s also something about it that is strangely moving. Or, if not moving, touching. I feel so bad for David, mainly. He’s a deeply troubled, thoroughly heartbroken man – and watching his slide into insanity is nothing to take pleasure in. Such feelings being evoked, I find myself believing I enjoyed the book… but then I wonder why it had to be told this way. Why authors feel the need to be strange, elliptical, odd, etc as a thing. It’s like how I sometimes don’t understand why a particular poem is a poem and not just a couple of sentences. But then I see a poem like that that could only have been a poem and I understand. This book, for me, falls somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. If that makes sense.