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.
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?