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I have read before, and thought too, that the characters in Joy Williams’s work don’t quite act like people. They behave strangely, and by strangely I mean inexplicably. They tend to couple and uncouple spontaneously, break into houses and blurt gnomic wisdom with equal abandon. They steal pets, cars, children, erupt into intense emotion without apparent reason. They are often misfits and outcasts of sorts: erratic, marginal and occasionally absurd.

But the strangest and most characteristic feature of these people is not what they do but the way they talk, and the way they talk about what they do. This talk, an odd mixture of deadpan assertion and quasi-philosophical pronouncement, forms the backdrop against which both the dramatic and quotidian resolve into scenes of a regular and uncanny familiarity, as in an off-kilter fairytale.

Williams’s first general collection, The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories, came out in September. Her dialogue, like the DeLillo of White Noise, is at once glib and profound, morose and, especially in the early work, desperately cheerful. She is highly sensitive to absurdity, her sensibility fixated on the unhappy, mutant marriages America has made between fantasy and loss. Sometimes Williams’s prose seems unsure whether it wants to sell you salvation or berate you for thinking you could buy it.

In the story “Anodyne,” from Honored Guest (2002), a young girl is put into therapy to deal with the abrupt death of her father. We learn nothing about him besides the fact that he weighed as much when he died as one foot of a saguaro cactus. Her mother gives up yoga for shooting lessons, trading the urge to transcend this world for the urge to violate it. The mother’s shooting instructor is obsessed with violence, calamity and spectacle. His warning to the girl—“people have lost their interest in reality”—lays the groundwork for the final exchange. Her psychiatrist says:

“You’re a smart girl, so tell me, what’s your preference, the manifest world or the unmanifest one?”

It was like he was asking me which flavor of ice cream I liked. I thought for a moment, then went to the dictionary he kept on a stand and looked the word up.

“The manifest one,” I said, and there was not much he could do about that.

In another story, a five-year-old girl—so precocious!—imagines writing the principle “The claims of love and self-preservation are opposed” on the monogrammed stationary of the Hotel Principal. The cheapness of the pun does good work. Congealed into catchphrases, even the words of so-called high philosophical culture slip and slide across the stubborn lubricity of this world’s objects in a series of pratfalls. Even—or maybe especially, in the case of fiction—the psychiatrist is selling something, and the best way to frustrate him is to stake a claim to what you do in fact see.

But where, in Williams, do we find ourselves? Usually partial, at a loss, aggrieved and/or grieving. As with another great artist of the slanted sentence, Emerson, what comes between each particular pair of periods often seems irreducible in a way that makes you despair of ever getting a clear view of the whole. In the same way, it’s possible to feel, especially in the midst of all the fetishization of quirk in contemporary literature, that the specificity and oddities of Williams’s plots and characters are the whole point—that it’s all a kind of particularity gimmick, a flat existential angst with a dab of local color.

A common platitude about Williams is that she is a “writer’s writer.” This is a mostly useless phrase, interesting here only for how wrong it is as a description of the energetic, ornery, radically cynical body of work Williams has produced in the last forty-odd years. If fiction like hers is marginal, that is the fault of all the writers, and the writers who write about them, who have made a fetish of “craft” as an excuse to produce only precious trinkets of self-regard.

The claims Williams makes for and of language are too intense for that, as is her permanent rage at the degradation of our world, and her not-unrelated sense of deep alienation from it. Every minor incursion of nonexistence in her work calls back to the possibility, quickly approaching fact, of the natural world’s imminent extinction.

“Rot,” a story first collected in Escapes in 1990, registers both the complete toxicity of the social and economic order created by the Reaganite right—then still settling into its ascendance—and its grim, unrelenting, mechanistic drive. Lucy’s husband Dwight brings home a T-bird rotted through with rust. Upon learning that it won’t last long outside, he insists on installing it in their living room. The conspicuous consumption of the past weighs like a nightmare on the present.

Lucy, who has noted “a new determination in the world to keep things going,” sits in the car at her husband’s request. She then reports back to him: “‘I had the tiniest feeling in there that the point was being made that something has robbed this world of its promise.”

It is a little troubling, or at least confusing, that a feeling about something so presumably large as the loss of the world’s promise could be tiny. It doesn’t sound pleasant—it sounds sort of sad, really—to have a tiny feeling. We prefer to have big feelings, at least now and then, that reassure us that even the largest and most awful facts of life exist basically on the human scale. There is a will to believe that what happens in the world and how people feel about it are essentially commensurable, that they comprehend one another. Joy Williams’s stories show this belief up as laughably, dangerously false.

“We are American writers absorbing the American experience,” she said once in a lecture on craft (which turned, unsurprisingly, into a tirade against the concept of craft). “We must absorb its heat, the recklessness and ruthlessness, the grotesqueries and cruelties. We must reflect the sprawl and smallness of America, its greedy optimism and dangerous sentimentality. And we must write with a pen—in Mark Twain’s phrase—warmed up in hell.”

Our belief in the bigness of our feelings, in their ability to justify our wants, figures here in relation to both the sprawl (as in this nation’s ineluctable expansion) and smallness (in the provincialism of its self-regard) of America itself. In Williams these poles are reflected by a voice that wants to atomize you so that it can sell the world back to you, and a voice that wants to absorb you into a mass so large that its promise, so it says, is conquering that same world.

I imagine Williams as not at all surprised that 9/11, the greatest tragedy America has faced in recent years, almost immediately transmuted collective grief into calls for intensified consumption and war. This is what happens, she might say, when tragedy and grief are seen as a way of affirming the bigness of humanity instead of questioning it.

In Williams, the omnipresence of animals—which die at an even higher rate than the humans in her work—is one way of posing humanness as a question. The gratuitous violence inflicted both intentionally and incidentally on nonhuman life in her stories invokes a conception of humanity that is fundamentally exclusionary, circumscribed by its claim to grand transcendence.

“The only thing language does now is separate us from the animals,” says Rockford the librarian in “Claro,” one of the few unfortunate omissions from the collected stories. “We require something that separates us from ourselves.” That is, instead of drawing boundaries between us and whatever Other, Williams posits language as an experience of self-limitedness. This is not far from Thoreau’s “With thinking, we may be beside ourselves in a sane sense”; it isn’t introspection that’s called for but a certain self-estrangement figured spatially as displacement into the world. As if you had to get outside yourself—court some sort of insanity—to be anywhere at all.

In an unpublished essay described in her recent New York Times interview, Williams writes about her desire to create a language adequate to describe the “grandeur and tragedy of the natural world.” My sense is that she’s been doing that for the last thirty years, starting with the beginning of her second novel, The Changeling.

It begins simply enough: “There was a young woman sitting in the bar.” Then it slides, almost imperceptibly at first, away from straightforward description and into something else entirely. Soon you are reading,

Outside it was Florida. Across the street was a big white shopping center full of white sedans. The heavy white air hung visibly in layers. Pearl could see the layers very clearly. The middle layer was all dream and misunderstanding and responsibility. Things moved about at the top with a little more arrogance and zip but at the bottom was the ever-moving present. It was the present, it had been the present, and it was always going to be the present.

This is great writing—the jerky rhythm cutting against the smooth, dreamy imagery, the subtle but insistent repetitions linking the sequence together, but also seeming to deny its forward movement entirely, trapping you, the reader, in an ongoing present—but there is also an irreducible oddity to the phrasing. “Outside it was Florida.” Such a simple sentence, but so deeply odd. What exactly is “it,” here? And in what sense is “it” Florida? Is “it” Florida, as the syntax suggests, in the same way “it” is sometimes hot, or cold, or rainy? No, you say? Isn’t it, though, in a way? And what is so unsettling about that thought?

The threatening, uncanny sense that there is an “it” that the world is, and that we are measured by “it” and its hugeness, is alive in Joy Williams’s stories and novels, as a tiny campfire can let you feel the vastness of the darkness all around.

Photo credit: Hector Parayuelos (flickr)

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