Gray is deconstructing the weight-bearing walls of the Western canon, subverting its appeal, questioning its meaning. Homer and Joyce and Christ himself are fair game, because in many ways, we remain trapped by these myths. Using an uncanny narrative, Gray reminds us that great stories can never be fully told or defined. We have wandered into the wonderful, swirling stew of entropy, where Gray challenges the very expectation of what a short story can do. —Richard Farrell
The principle of entropy quantifies disorder in a system. The study of entropy is an attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible, to express the ineffable, to measure the un-measurable. Entropy isn’t chaos per se, but rather is an interrogation of the forces where chaos reigns, where ordered intentions and organized actions hold less sway. Much like dreams or poetry or love, entropy dwells in numinous spaces, pressing beyond the workaday din, spreading into territories where mystery and possibility still exist. Outside the well-ordered, rational world we often mistake as reality, another more resplendent, magnificent world exits. What a wonderful place for a talented writer to cast his net.
“The bodies of fishermen all wash up on this beach eventually,” R.W. Gray writes, an apt image for the ten stories in Entropic. Inside, Gray explores characters, ideas, and emotions all washed up on various strange shores. A massage therapist’s magical touch causes her clients to burst into tears. A son searches for his missing father on the grainy images of a VHS porn tape. A woman edits her flaws by erasing them from videos. Two former lovers stalk and then seduce a younger version of themselves. Gray’s characters occupy liminal spaces, teetering on the brink of transformation, or salvation, or damnation.
This is Gray’s second story collection, just out with Edmonton’s NeWest Press. Gray—a Canadian author, filmmaker, professor, and poet—leans on these varied disciplines to craft his work. The resulting stories are cinematic, lyrical, tightly structured affairs, carefully infused with intelligence, imagination, and meaning. Gray often repurposes myths, or re-imagines canonical texts with archetypal characters to tell his tales. And yet his characters are thoroughly original. They are recognizable men and women trapped in modern dilemmas, filled with desires and longings. Under Gray’s steady hand, we penetrate the unsteady scrim of ordinary reality and emerge far better for the journey.
In “The Beautiful Drowned,” two ostracized women, Lilly and Cora, wander the remote shores of a British Columbia fishing village. Lilly is searching for her inveterate, philandering, drunkard excuse of a husband. She dodges the stares and bitter gossip of the cannery women, the very same women who once burned Cora’s home and drove her to the grisly beach. The mixed-race progeny of a Japanese father and Tlingit mother, “Cora, they say, like all monstrous woman, had been a threatening beauty once.” Now she is a ghoulish shadow of her former self. Nightly she gathers the jetsam and flotsam on the shore, along with the dead bodies of local fisherman thrown back from the ruthless sea.
After a week of searching, Lilly finally stumbles upon her husband with a local girl, in flagrante delicto. Lilly reaches for a rock while the lovers reach for their britches.
And there he is, his white naked ass a grotesque mushroom in among the tree roots, rising and thrusting, a woman’s legs spread awkward shaking branches either side of him. Scramble of legs, her bare feet on gravel as she pushes out from under him and stumbles, falls to grab clothes, covering herself before the second rock hits the gravel next to them, Lilly reaching down for a larger one. She’d so expected she was going to be a widow, but instead she’s just a stupid girl with this skinny white assed, stray dog, poor lay of a man wailing, blurry drunk with his little erection, angry red rhubarb nub in spring.
Gray tempers the shock of the moment with a pastoral beauty. His flirtatious and fecund metaphors—coupling a naked ass with a mushroom, an erection with a spring rhubarb—simultaneously conjure high drama, humor, and ecstasy. By the story’s end, Cora and Lilly have ascended into mythical status, latter-day versions of Demeter and Persephone.
The story works by pitting these two women in parallel but reversed narratives. A wonderful inevitability guides to their twinned fates, laden with powerful sexual overtones and themes of exclusion. Through shifts in point of view, Lilly’s story moves forward in chronological time, while Cora’s story is told mostly in flashback. The effect is a dazzling meander, with the two plot lines winding their way toward a dramatic intersection.
In “Sinai,” a much longer story at forty pages, three travelers break down on the road into Cairo. The protagonist, Eric, clambers up a nearby hill to take a piss and then spots “a red cloth billowing in the wind.” Inexplicably, he sets out across the open desert. Cut off from the road and his companions, he loses his way back. The red cloth turns out to be a mysterious woman, who lures him further from the road.
The flag is not a flag at all. He stops in his tracks, face white, as the woman turns, wraps the billowing venous red cloth around her shoulder once and then again, drawing in the slack, then ascends the ridge and falls away from him. She must have stood there, still as a caryatid in the desert, for half an hour. She must have seen him. So why did she quit him now? And what could she be doing out here in the desert?
Who is this mysterious woman? What is her allure? Why does he keep going? Gray sprinkles in a few clues. Eric has been reading The Odyssey. The story’s epigraph comes from Joyce’s “The Dead.” And so we think we are onto the gist of the plot: Eric recast as the latter-day Ulysses.
But then this strange story descends (or ascends) into the surreal when a first-person narrator interrupts the on-going scene. The narrator, we soon learn, is no less than Lazarus himself, brought back from the dead but condemned to an eternal, sand-blasted decay, a hardening of body and soul but not consciousness. “A delirium of days passes over my face like flies.”
The two points of view continue to alternate, but eventually the Lazarus story takes over, as Eric wanders further into oblivion. The mysterious and elusive woman appears to be Mary Magdalene. “She is ellipses too, like me, an open-ended story, bleeding.”
For Lazarus, resurrection represents a cruel and unending fate, a story with a hell of a beginning but no ending. “It seems I can’t die. There isn’t even that to wait for.” But this story turns out to be about ancient grudges, when Gray creates one of the most compelling love triangles ever. Lazarus and Mary both harbored romantic feelings for the unnamed savior (the Christ figure is only referred to as ‘he’ and ‘him’ throughout). And two millennia do little to heal broken hearts.
The man we loved, his hands were soft, tiny. You wouldn’t know he worked with them. I remember his hands in his lap as he sat across from me in my mother’s yard. He was not disgusted, not sickened by my rotted flesh, the disease about me, and this somehow made my condition worse. I could have borne him not looking at me, eyes averted, but he looked right at me, right into my eyes, so I averted mine.
Gray is deconstructing the weight-bearing walls of the Western canon, subverting its appeal, questioning its meaning. Homer and Joyce and Christ himself are fair game, because in many ways, we remain trapped by these myths. Using an uncanny narrative, Gray reminds us that great stories can never be fully told or defined. We have wandered into the wonderful, swirling stew of entropy, where Gray challenges the very expectation of what a short story can do. He reexamines form, whether taking the conventional love story and twisting it into a macabre meditation on Christ, or turning the Odyssey into a journey with no end. You will walk away shaken, unsteady, but absolutely enthralled.
In the title story, “Entropic,” a man, M, is cursed with great beauty. “Strangers passing on sidewalks gaze up the length of him, in cafés and grocery stores they caress his back, his forearms, press into him on buses, the sighs of women inhaling against him on the subway and in elevators.”
M enlists the help of his more ordinary friend, the story’s narrator, to challenge notions of what beauty means. M has conceived a plan. He will rent a warehouse. The narrator will drug M unconscious. Guests have been invited. They will have forty minutes exactly to come and do as they wish while he sleeps. The narrator’s job is to wait outside the room and ensure that the guests are never alone. When their time is up, the narrator will wash M’s skin, check his pulse, and prepare for the next visitor.
There are echoes of Marina Ambrović here, and Matthew Akers’ award-winning documentary, The Artist is Present. In the film, Ambrović waits at an empty table in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, while patrons arrive and sit across from her. Subject and object begin to merge, opening a strangely intimate, disturbing, mesmerizing space. A similar transference occurs in Gray’s story as well, as one guest after another arrives to gain a tangible experience of beauty.
They are allowed to touch him. To even hit him if they need to. But nothing that will damage or alter his body. I police this. A baseball bat leans in the corner in case I need it. But he’s asked me to hang back, appear invisible if I can. He wants each of these people to feel alone with him.
Gray has mined deeply into the human psyche. Our fascination with beauty. Our covetous nature. Our objectification of the flesh. Behind this story stands a rhetorical inquiry—what would you do? Some cry, some masturbate, some sit frozen in awe. The implication is that the gap between our dreams and our reality remains forever unbridgeable, the finger of God eternally reaching toward the finger of man. Such longing, such indescribable curiosity, has plagued man forever.
In Gray’s stories beauty, hope, and possibility are set in opposition to a backdrop of modern life, hidebound by conventional thinking. Gray refuses the shackles of the ordinary. He privileges imagination over verisimilitude, wonderment over banality, entropy over order. He destabilizes the form just enough to leave us pondering, yearning, and forever searching for the lingering pulse that reminds—there must be something more out there. And through it all, Gray still tells a damn good tale.
Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and an Associate Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, New Plains Review, upstreet, Descant, Contrary, Connotation Press and Numéro Cinq. He teaches at Words Alive and the River Pretty Writers Retreat in the Ozarks. He lives in San Diego.