Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Amelia Gray’s “Labyrinth” was originally published in the February 16, 2015 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.

Click for a larger image.

Amelia Gray’s Gutshot, a collection of short stories, is coming out later this spring, and I’ve been eying that collection, hoping it lives up to the promise I’ve assigned it based on what little I’ve heard about her work. I was anxious, then, to see her story “Labyrinth,”  one of the stories in Gutshot, in The New Yorker. I’m not sure where I stand now. I want to hold on to the anticipation I felt prior to reading “Labyrinth,” but I’m afraid this piece doesn’t measure up to the many other pieces we’ve got over the last several years that place an ancient myth in a contemporary setting.

That’s not to say I disliked it. On the contrary. But let me step back a bit before I go there.

“Labyrinth” has a rather simple premise: it’s community fair time, and the man who creates the annual corn maze has been reading a lot of Hellenic myth. Consequently, this year’s maze isn’t actually a maze at all: it’s going to be a labyrinth. The story quickly and naturally explains the difference to us, if we don’t know, and to the confused crowd lined up to pay their fare: “It’s largely the fact that the path is unicursal, not multicursal. There’s only one road, and it leads to only one place.” Naturally, the communal excitement dies down substantially. What’s the point of a corn maze if you cannot get lost. The proprietor further alienates the crowd when he tells them each has to go in alone. Even the promise that “the labyrinth is known to possess magic” and that at the center “you discover the one thing you most desire in the world,” does little to entice.

But our narrator, Jim, feels bad for the proprietor, who has done a lot of work, and, besides, is looking for a bit of adventure because “it was lonely at home, where the TV had been broken for a week, and the tap water had begun to taste oddly of blood.”

Gray makes sure we understand that Jim’s is a bit of a known loser. Last year, he high-tailed it away from a fire, leaving everyone else to put it out. So he’s a coward, and now he’s going into the labyrinth to find whatever it is in the center that his heart most desires. Based on Jim’s shame, and the whole premise of the piece, we know well before we get to the end of the story what Jim is going to find.

I enjoyed the journey, somewhat. I think Gray has some gems in there — like the water tasting like blood — that kept me interested, kept my mind on the issues she’s exploring (like cowardice and heroism), and yet I walk away feeling that it is very much fable-lite. I walk away, and see my interest in thinking about the story waning quickly, as if the story is more an exercise for Gray, a trifle. Is there anything in the story to chew on?

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By |2015-02-09T13:25:11-04:00February 9th, 2015|Categories: Amelia Gray, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Joe February 10, 2015 at 4:49 am

    I’ve been trying her for years, wondering if i’m missing something, wanting to like her, but she outclevers herself and becomes a one trick pony of The Odd Girl. Some sentences are delicious, but ultimately she falls so so flat in the end. She’s known for good readings and i’m sure her stuff is much better acted out a bit, but this story was just workshop quality. When finished, i sighed, sad that my guess when I saw her byline was right – like eating a hot donut in two bites – the anticipation was better than the digestion.

  2. Joe February 10, 2015 at 4:59 am

    As a followup – I just can’t believe out the 1000+ stories that TNY looks at each month, there wasn’t a single one that warranted publication more than this. Gray is a bit of hipster darling, the writer you simply MUST like, but when TNY publishes pieces that are clearly so meh, it just brings up a credibility issue with why they choose to publish particular stories in the first place. Gray has a book coming out and there is no doubt whatsoever that this one was pushed through by Claudia Ballard at WME, an agency of such epic proportions that I suspect a kind request to TNY fiction editors from them sounds like an unsavory thing you’d do for your mother-in-law because you could count on her making your life hell forever if you even thought “Nope.”

  3. Archer February 11, 2015 at 10:56 pm

    I’ve also been interested in reading more of Amelia Gray’s work, since she’s a writer with good buzz around her. But I found this story glib and inconsequential. Despite some decent turns of phrase, she doesn’t do much with the tired trope of updating ancient myths.

    Like Joe, I occasionally find myself wondering at the quality of TNY fiction, considering the amount of submissions they must receive. Last week’s Toni Morrison excerpt struck me as a very cynical choice. Morrison’s an important writer, but she’d never before had fiction published in the magazine, and she doesn’t even write short stories. It seemed like a selection based on name alone.

    That said, one might want to check out this video, which is a discussion between Deborah Treisman (the current fiction editor) and Daniel Menakar (a former editor). They talk about the magazine, publishing, etc. In the video, Treisman says that it’s actually difficult to find 50 good stories a year, and that there’s often disagreement among the other editors. I’m not sure to what this can be attributed. Back in the day, TNY used to publish two fiction pieces per issue. Was short fiction writing simply better back then, with the Updikes, Cheevers and Nabokovs of the world? Has MFA culture had a detrimental effect on the kind of fiction-writing that’s being done in America today? I really don’t know. I do know that there are still stories that I read and get excited about, but there’s a lot of stuff that’s pretty forgettable, and based more on hype and marketing than anything meaningful.

  4. Trevor Berrett February 12, 2015 at 12:27 am

    Thanks for thoughts and for the link to the video.

    My own thoughts on the fiction The New Yorker publishes are varied. I think it’s an important magazine, but I’ve considered giving up on it, especially since regular stories from Alice Munro and William Trevor have cease (though I always hope just one more one will slip in). Honestly, I keep it up because I love this community here that forces me to think about these things. And I do think they print the occasional gem (like the Harrower a few weeks ago). I’m excited to keep going.

  5. lotusgreen February 12, 2015 at 7:12 pm

    Well what do you know! I pretty much agree with everyone here! So I finished the story, and went and Wikipedia’d ‘Minotaur,” which did nothing to assuage my sense of having missed something important. Maybe this time, I think, I should go over to Mookse before writing about this story and have my knowledge filled-in over there. Well, reading what y’all have said so far, I think maybe I should just start trusting my own reactions even more than I already do!

    Even the beginning put me off; learning from Joe that “Gray is a bit of hipster darling” made perfect sense to me because that’s how she writes! Sort of an “aren’t I adorable” tone of voice. Every word felt like a set-up from the very first line, “Dale had been doing a lot of reading on Hellenic myth, so when he said he had a surprise for us at his Pumpkin Jamboree we knew he wasn’t screwing around.”

    I don’t want a story to be telescoped down into an opening paragraph like this one is; I’d prefer a roll-out, like a very long scroll, perhaps. If the ending is to be a surprise, please don’t tell me that at the beginning. If you do, it’s not a surprise!!!

    And if you do, as the author, want that surprise to matter, ground it in something. That this fellow ran from a burning hay ride — was that the thing? I’m confused.

    –Lily

    PS Yes, Trevor. I haven’t been here all that long, but I have been online for decades, and I haven’t come across a place like this. It’s you and Betsy, of course, setting a tone, but more than that too. It’s a great exercise, and a pleasure to read the “exercise” as set down by each of you smart people.

  6. Elaine Grohman February 13, 2015 at 1:15 pm

    I enjoyed Labyrinth. It’s a comment on how hard it is to get through life–and in the end nobody does.

  7. Trevor Berrett February 13, 2015 at 3:09 pm

    Could you expand on that, Elaine? I don’t see what you see, though I’d love to hear why you see it.

  8. pauldepstein February 13, 2015 at 6:55 pm

    I’m sorry that I won’t comment on the story, but I will comment on all the complaints about the New Yorker. Perhaps Harpers should be regarded as the new standard-bearer of short fiction.

    I loved Sleep by Stephen Dixon, first published in Harpers, and was delighted to see it in BASS. I told my then creative writing teacher how much I loved it, and he was completely unimpressed. He said something like “Yeah, but it’s almost formulaic.” He (my ex-teacher) was a big fan of Richard Yates’s “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness”. I concur with him on that.

    I really am rambling here, obviously. But this has a purpose. If readers unfamiliar with the works I mention are inspired to read them, I believe they will learn something, and won’t be disappointed.

    Paul

  9. Roger February 13, 2015 at 7:02 pm

    Another disappointing story makes its way into the New Yorker. I wouldn’t mind Gray’s hipsterism or her need to show off her expertise on Greek mythology if the result was an actual story with (a) a surface meaning, and (b) a meaning beyond its surface. Jim the coward goes into the labyrinth with the disk and ends up stuck there, and then supposedly confronts the Minotaur. So? And then there is random nonsense, such as one character being referred to as “the townie.” As contrasted with anyone else? What is the rest of the crowd made up of, college students?

  10. Ken February 16, 2015 at 3:58 pm

    I actually was enjoying this story until the unsatisfying end. We can assume he lives since he’s narrating, but would it kill her to talk about his meeting with the Minotaur? I didn’t really notice the ‘hipster’ tone but I also didn’t know this writer and wasn’t looking for it. I thought it was a good description of an unhappy, unstable person and rather involving. It hasn’t, though, stayed much with me.

  11. Sean H February 16, 2015 at 7:39 pm

    I usually find myself in a more contrarian stance here at Mookse but I must wholeheartedly echo the above reviews, starting with Trevor’s (“doesn’t measure up”). Archer’s point (“glib and inconsequential”) was also right on the money. This is all surface. It’s like someone who looked attractive from across the room but you talk to them at a cocktail party for a minute and a half and after listening to them speak they’re not so pretty any more. Or a really nice webpage that initially ensorcels you but then you realize that what it’s actually presenting is closer to ad copy for Apple products than to real, actual literature.
    And I also agree with Joe, in that it is incredibly hard to believe that out of all the submissions the New Yorker gets they couldn’t find something better than this weak tea. It’s not bad, it’s just mediocre. It’s competent, a nice little riff on a myth. The sentence level writing isn’t poorly constructed, the imagery isn’t stale or trite. But you’re the freakin’ New Yorker, if you want something in this vein solicit something from someone (Alissa Nutting or Tea Obreht, perhaps). Heck, there are established short story masters and major major forces in the contemporary lit scene that have never even published in their pages (Has Anthony Doerr ever had short fiction in The New Yorker? Dan Chaon?). This one by Ms. Gray feels like a watered down version of stuff Neil Gaiman was doing fifteen years ago or that Angela Carter was doing thirty years ago.
    Sorry to be harsh on a youngish writer that apparently a lot of people dig, but on the basis of this story I can’t say I’m excited to read more of her stuff.

  12. paolo February 20, 2015 at 5:51 am

    I follow Amelia Gray for some years now. I’ve loved the flash-fiction of “AM / PM” and her novel “THREATS,” and I have to say that probably in her short stories she can’t be convincing as she manages to be with the flash-fictions and (for me) with her novel. That said: I have to agree with the previous comments. The story in itself is neither bad nor good: it’s just mediocre. But I notice that even in “Museum of the Weird,” along wiht a bunch of nice stories, you may find many others that are quiet disappointing. Maybe the New Yorker wanted(/had ?) to publish a story of a short stories collection soon to be realesed, but I’m afraid this may be a mistake and that many people who have been disappointed by this story aren’t willing to read Amelia Gray again. And that’s too bad, because (at least in my opinion) Amelia Gray is much more than this mediocre story.

  13. Tredynas Days March 1, 2015 at 11:30 am

    I’m with those who’ve already commented: I found the story entertaining enough but found the ending trite. Thanks to Archer for the video link, though; I listen to TNY story podcast regularly and can now picture Ms Treisman, whose mellifluous voice I love.

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