Book Review: The Inexplicable Grey Space Called Love

The Inexplicable Grey Space Called Love, Chuck Augello. Duck Lake Books, 2020.

Here’s a conundrum: how to render a book about the grey area into black and white?

At this point, I’ve read Chuck Augello’s debut collection of short stories three times. Each trip through has been fresh and engaging, yet I’m still trying to wrestle my thoughts into a tidy review. How might I describe a book that touches on love, guilt, and grief, yet somehow manages to be both raw and hilarious?

There’s a liberated lab monkey. Alien abduction. Blueberry pie. A little magic. A lot of fire.

In “Languid,” William K. falls in love with a word he doesn’t understand, distributes unopened packages, and asks his Best Buy customers to pray to a 50-inch flat screen. In “Pizza Monks,” the main character revisits his father’s suicide, rereads Rilke, and delivers pizza to a self-immolation. Augello’s characters are flawed, frustrated, lost, fired. They stick their hands into flames. They ask a lot of unexpected questions.

“I was in the kitchen watching the Weather Channel when the girl from two floors down knocked on my door and asked if I wanted to fall in love.”

So begins “Cool City,” the longest story in the collection and the source of its title. Annabelle, a follower of the “Fast Love” movement, has given Dash 48 hours to decide whether or not to marry her. With Hurricane Denise on the horizon, they compress the process of building a relationship into a few conversations, some gazing, and a chart weighing their similarities and differences. In the “Brown Pants” column, Annabelle says “Never;” Dash says “Willing to Discard.” Frozen waffles? “Why not?” says Annabelle. Flossing? “Nagging Required,” Dash admits.

While hip and flip, the story feels prescient given our apocalyptic times. In the face of a hurricane—insert pandemic, political meltdown, or just everyday uncertainty—why not pick a stranger with whom to form a lasting bond; a little stability? After all, isn’t love mostly a decision? A commitment between two unknown entities who continue to shapeshift over time? How do we know when our prospective partner is enough, and which essentials might be compromised without losing sight of self? It’s difficult enough to answer that for our now selves, let alone for our future selves.

Perhaps what makes Grey Space especially hard to distill is the river of unknowing running underneath. It’s often unclear how much one character trusts another’s interpretation of reality. As a reader, I don’t trust anybody. Is Penny having a psychotic break, or just avoiding the emotional and relational consequences of taking responsibility for her actions? Is it really dementia that sends a naked, aging magician into someone else’s room at a cozy inn? How can a man drive a car every day without acknowledging the provenance of the bullet hole in the dashboard? So many of Augello’s characters are grieving—for their parents, freedom, potential, and anything else one could lose. But at some level, are they aware that aliens and Ouija boards might be coping strategies to make sense out of loss and chaos?

This, too, seems like a relevant question for our times. How aware are we of the underpinnings of our own beliefs and actions? While I realize it is a profound privilege to immerse myself in a book of fiction at the moment, at the same time, there is always an opportunity to find truth and resonance in others’ stories.

Like William K., I finished Augello’s book enthralled by the magic of words, potent even when I couldn’t fully understand them. Perhaps meaning cannot ever be seen in simple terms. There is always difficulty translating, and so many layers of misunderstanding and self-deception. The important thing is to continue to ask questions, to continue to dig; to grapple and play in the grey area.

Chuck Augello’s short-short story, “Hanover Park,” was published in 100 Word Story in 2018.

Beret Olsen is a writer, artist, and part-time insomniac, as well as the photo editor for 100 Word Story. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, two teens, and a grubby, gopher-munching dog.   

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