The opening of Joy Williams’s most recent novel, Harrow, welcomes the reader into a place somewhere between our world and the next. This is familiar territory to Williams, whose fiction has never shied away from foregrounding mortal questions. Indeed, the mortality detailed in the present case is itself questionable. Khristen, the novel’s protagonist, may or may not have momentarily died and come back to life while left with a babysitter during infancy. It’s a story to which Khristen’s mother is partial—she believes it a sign, something to the order of being born under a caul or lucky star, that her daughter is destined for a great-souled future. Khristen herself is uncertain, her father and doctors downright skeptical. If there’s prophecy here at all, its result arrives as a dead letter: either nothing happened or the ineffable did, which amounts to hardly more. Anyway, it’s not as though secular people are at all equipped to take omens seriously on their terms in the first place.
The archetypical Joy Williams book is set somewhere in Florida, New England or the American desert. In the case of 1973’s State of Grace and 1978’s The Changeling, we bounce between the first two of these locations, while Breaking and Entering’s principal action keeps strictly to the Keys. The later fiction charts a course west following Williams’s own move to Tucson, where she now spends part of the year. These landscapes—and Harrow is no exception—are populated regularly from a steady cast of gin drinkers, latter-day mystics, elderly couples, young mothers and most especially animals both wild and domestic, live and taxidermized. What results is a compositional logic that lives on the strength of alternate combination and recombination of these unchanging basic elements. Her worlds themselves careen between rule-bound mimesis and a sagacious, King James-beholden register which would seem more fitting to parable. But where the stories are most parable-like in form, whatever lesson they’re meant to illustrate has been long forgotten even before the telling.
Harrow treats of abortive allegory directly, not least in the person of Khristen. Around her, incomprehensible portents abound. The sacred and profane stand to one another in muddled admixture. Throughout her childhood, Khristen’s mother subjects her to instruction under a series of ostensibly academic tutors who seem instead to prefer popping oral quizzes of penetrating psychospiritual depth. “Do you have any idea why you’re here?” asks one. The answer, which Khristen fails to give: “You are here on this earth to prepare a report on it. What will be the nature of your report?”
Williams’s own report heralds catastrophe. The novel is far from sanguine on the ecological fate of the planet. Here all animals have disappeared, some time before or after an unspecified tragedy in which one-third of the once-familiar world has been destroyed. (“A third of the whole. The remainder was still manageable, it was rumored; in fact things had to be managed more than ever. The two thirds left couldn’t be a whole, strangely enough.”) It is never made clear when the disaster occurred, nor what form it took. We know only that the state of emergency is ongoing and has been for some time, so long as to become itself the rule and its inaugurating occasion a matter of indifference.
The real subject of Harrow’s report, then, becomes the strategies of disavowal and half-measure that consign the novelty of total disaster to familiar terms by an all-too-human force of habit. Many characters lead close to normal lives. Some even go bowling. Events are now pre- and then post-apocalyptic without the distinction effecting much difference. Or might it instead be the case that the apocalypse has always been thoroughly contemporary?
Williams’s talent has always been to produce within fiction something at the tenor of prophetic witness. And like prophecy, the contents of her work are more than suggestive. Reading her, I can never shake the impression of an oracularly sunglasses-clad Williams recording her vision faithfully, as John the Evangelist is depicted in Hans Memling’s Triptych of the Two Saints John, writing down the Book of Revelation from his rocky sitting place on the island of Patmos. In form and perspective, too, the novel bears a patent resemblance to a painted altarpiece. The novel is divided into three sections, each figuring scenes out of the brimstone-strewn Last Days, with a composition arranged and distended around multiple, incompatible vanishing points.
The first of these panels sees Khristen sent to a mysterious boarding school where the annual induction ceremony ends in a reading from Nietzsche’s aphorism on eternal recurrence, with the last line omitted, by institutional custom. The upperclassmen know to supply it, in enthusiastic chorus: “The eternal sandglass of existence will be turned again and thou with it, thou speck of dust!!!”
The school’s teaching philosophy is decidedly opaque. All the more mysterious are the rules Khristen is expected to follow. Here even teenaged students are made to wear clothing meant obviously for much younger children. The schoolhouse itself is an old sanatorium. In the absence of books or paper, “one was simply supposed to remember the gnomic things the instructors uttered.” It is in this monkish isolation from the outside world that Khristen and her cohort first hear intimations of large-scale trouble. Students begin to debate whether it’s gunfire that they hear in the night. Situations and priorities, they are told, have changed. There’s much rumor; the number of incoming students dwindles until, finally, everyone is sent home. Their education has ended at last, to no fanfare.
The world into which Khristen has been brought up is a late one, wherein modernity’s influence is waning and hard to parse. It’s natural, then, that Williams should want to make so much of received wisdom—in particular, its status in a period of protracted end times. The wealth of humanistic knowledge seems attractive and authoritative at first classroom blush, though reflection soon shows it to have been discredited by circumstance in the meantime. So what’s the value of schooling? On arrival, she’s made to know: “Most schools told their captives many things without teaching them anything, filling them not with wisdom but the conceit of wisdom. This was wrong … Things would be different here.” The difference remains unspecified. At the school, as with her tutors, the same questions are asked, “but more unrelentingly. Why are you here? Why are you here? What is the purpose of human life on this earth?”
Williams’s instinct for the inscrutable is precise. It’s the trait I like best about her writing. Everywhere in her work, we’re met with the face of the equivocal, too-significant symbol. In the short stories, a hunted deer’s leg is stuffed and fashioned into a reading lamp, by the light of which one young woman protagonist absorbs Kierkegaard; elsewhere (Nantucket), the homeliest of ten daughters interrupts her dinner of maraschino cherries to sing a haunting English hymn; even the yard boy has taken up Buddhism and become concerned to free himself from the karmic chain. It’s clear that there’s a commitment to burning religious pathos, to esoteric disclosure, to the eruption of the fatidic within the everyday. Williams has always been most adroit where it comes to matters of fate, but under her treatment, the augurs through which that fate is figured become increasingly hard to grasp at the same instant they’re most full of suggestion. When she’s at her best in this, what’s achieved looks something like a Zen koan—formally perfect in the way it frames a paradox. (Early on in Harrow, Khristen’s mother attempts to comfort a friend who has lost her son by reciting a koan involving a master and a novitiate and a flock of geese. She fumbles the telling. And anyway, the comfort offered is so cold that it marks an end to the relationship.)
In his essay on the tenth anniversary of Franz Kafka’s death, Walter Benjamin characterized Kafka’s body of work as “a code of gestures which surely had no definite symbolic meaning for the author from the outset; rather, the author tried to derive such a meaning from them in ever-changing contexts and experimental groupings.” This might as easily be adopted as a productive and plausible account of Williams, whose own code of gestures has something of the insistence and necessity of a recurrent dream. And, just as in Kafka as much as dreams, her writing simultaneously invites and frustrates the never-ending work of interpretation. It can be no accident, then, that Williams should have produced a reading of her antecedent and interlocutor with Harrow.1
The alternate solicitation and undermining of neatly coded allegories remains one of Williams’s enduring strategies, and accounts, at least in part, for the thrill of reading her. There is an unmistakable hermeneutic interest in her fiction—introducing constant questions of literality and elucidation, the status of commentary, the relation between latent and manifest. It helps that so many of her most memorable characters are preachers, or at least given to sermonizing, and that the address becomes at times quite direct. So much so that her works always feel less properly immersive than inclusive of the reader by damning implication. They’re ethical exercises. To read them is to become involved.
The athletic suspension between sense and non-sense is also the occasion for a great deal of Harrow’s fun, coincident with its moments of greatest seriousness. The oblique asides through which Khristen’s education has been meted out are a part of this. (“We knew nothing of the outside world’s affairs, nor could we imagine what we were being groomed for. Perhaps the ruthless and painful requirements of nothing.”) So too the increasing syncretism of her mother’s religiosity. By the end of her faith journey, the character has so ill-treated her own spiritual vocation as to land in the camp of New Age pablum. She tells Khristen: “I’m going to a visionary conference… There’s going to be some new thinking at this conference. Pathways opening up to new solutions. There’ll be scholars, scientists, lyricists, religious leaders there, the occasional party to keep our spirits up.” This is where she is caught when the catastrophe comes—Harrow’s precipitating event—leaving Khristen presumably orphaned. All Khristen can do now is wander the still-two-thirds-manageable but stubbornly never whole world. As to how far her education has taken her: “I had learned nothing and could not recognize an illusion from my left hand.”
It’s while being chaperoned from her finally closed boarding school to the nearest train station that Khristen first encounters the title’s harrow in the form of a large painting on the wall. “That’s new,” Khristen’s instructor comments. “Sure looks official, doesn’t it.”
Literary precedent for the harrow can of course be easiest supplied from (who else?) Kafka, whose “In the Penal Colony” figures a harrow as the ghastliest and most mysterious part of a complex apparatus used to execute prisoners. An unnamed explorer observes as, under its teeth, gagged and strapped, this victim is tortured and the sentence of which he has been found guilty printed onto his body, in a gesture both pronouncement and punishment at once. In its common language use, a harrow is a farming implement used to break up and smooth soil—but under Kafka’s treatment, this technology borrowed from agriculture becomes a vector of persecution under the blades of which Man confesses to his true, criminal name.
In Williams’s hands, the harrow has become the name of human culture’s last vestige. All art, we’re eventually told, now takes it as the only legitimate subject matter: “Some of it’s pretty abstract but if people can be assured it’s a harrow it will find acceptance. … No one gives thanks to it of course, just respect. It’s a unifying symbol. Says, We will not be overcome.” At first enabling humanity’s extractive relationship to nature, the harrow can only be a hollow symbol of unity in this near-future Anthropocene. The reassurance it offers is to affirm our place in the universe as central, as though everything imaginable might be refitted toward human ends. What would it mean then to create an art that doesn’t take the harrow as its subject? The rest of the book will be spent working out a provisional answer.
Harrow’s second—and longest—section finds Khristen rendered in third person and fallen in with a cell of geriatric ecoterrorists. In a wink from the cosmos, they’ve made their headquarters at the very same hotel to which Khristen’s mom once trekked for her visionary conference. Their own reasons for each showing up there, at this late date and with the will to commit political violence, vary. Most are terminally ill. All agree to draw their personal assignment randomly from a basket of paper slips, to be accomplished in the form of suicide attack against, for instance, scientists who work on animal subjects. It’s the targets that are subject to lottery. Admittedly, the group’s charter is a little hazy: “The Institute was not a suicide academy or a terrorist hospice. Or not exactly. Possibly the authorities would consider it so if they knew of its existence but they did not know of its existence. Its purpose was on another plane of comprehension entirely.”
However, when Khristen arrives, the place’s upper brass have been finding it hard to convince residents to get on with their missions. “Ideally, elderly people of purpose arrived, trained, meditated and were inspired, then went off to do their holy havoc but a logjam had gradually been building,” the narrator explains. “The integrity of the Institute was at risk.” Harrow is pessimistic on institutions generally, and the book relishes depicting them late in their decadence, surviving well beyond any spirit of the founders, adrift in mission, soon to dissolve in membership. It’s natural that a terrorist group would be no different. And it’s natural, too, that there’s no one more fit than Khristen—who may herself once have died and has even been told she’s supposed to know what happens after—to help usher these hopeless cases through the stations of each meeting their own dignified, intentional end. The Institute’s apparent leader Lola employs her as errand girl.
Lola’s concern becomes teaching these residents how to die with purpose. This last of life’s learning objectives is, however, downstream from the group’s more primary, civilizational resentments: “These oldsters, if not exactly a force majeure, were a baffling and bitter anomaly, characterized and dismissed as senile mavericks, lone termites or perfect examples of why the aged mind was not in the interests of society.” It’s guerilla war organized on a generational basis, marshalled against all consumers and leaders of industry. The planet is poisoned. The Institute’s members each hope to lend their deaths meaning through an act of expiatory refusal. In this respect, they’re compared to the desert anchorites of early Christianity, who, “by denying it with vicious certitude,” saved a civilization “pretty much reduced to empty ceremony, execution and bell ringing at a very crucial time.”
Harrow’s interest in such latter-day monastic institutions is another of the novel’s points in common with Kafka. In Kafka’s synagogue lives an animal about the size of a marten, troublesome and mysterious to the congregation. Though rabbinical opinion favors its expulsion, the animal proves impossible to drive away, remaining a strange and stubborn relic. Williams, similarly, poses the question: What’s to be made of the old forms of our sacraments during historically exigent times? We follow these desperately aging penitents promiscuously, learning something of their respective backgrounds in equal turn. There’s Foxy the addict. There’s Honey, Heart of Gold, who once accidentally struck and killed a real-estate developer with her car. Lola has cancer down to her fingertips. Tom regrets a career spent in research of germ warfare. Their voices all contribute to a litany of complaint, at the effective end of life on earth, delivered in a pique of small feeling. And as for those early Christian ascetics who were the first to wrestle with the devil? “That’s the mistake that was made from the get-go,” Lola tells us. “You can beat the devil and not hobble evil one bit. We’ve locked up the devil with his mirrors and peacocks and let the real felon free. The devil’s nothing more than evil’s colorful distraction, his myth, his clown.”
While living among these senescent zealots, Khristen meets two guests of the motel situated on the Institute’s premises. These are Barbara and Jeffrey, a mother and son, and regular readers of Joy Williams would be surprised to a find in him a ten-year-old boy without something metaphysical to occupy his mind. Luckily, Jeffrey is a precocious juridical talent whose father is in jail for patricide, having flown into a murderous rage over a quibbling family disagreement to do with legal terms. The contours of this story are recognizably ancient in scale, as though Totem and Taboo has been repurposed as a parenting manual, but just what any of that means regarding Jeffrey is unclear. He is quick to reconcile himself to the news and soon back to study of maritime law, while it’s left to his mother to fall into a middlingly functional poolside alcoholism.
Judgment and progeny are then economically introduced in the same stroke, packed into the space of a single, enigmatic character who watches the Institute from an undecidable distance. Always working within Kafka’s margins, Williams has produced another parable hinging on the dynamic tension between patricide and the law. Under Kafka’s treatment in his own story “The Judgment,” patricide becomes something like the law’s libidinal underbelly—representing both the aberrant fantasy law produces as well as the injunction which, by the end, it all but demands. For Harrow, judgment is both the condition of inheritance and generational transmission at the same time that it represents the inevitable denouement of apocalyptic narrative.
Harrow’s third and final section is appropriately that most concerned to account for itself as a work of art. The Institute has mysteriously vacated, and a wandering Khristen encounters Jeffrey once more, now ambiguously aged after a similarly gauzy elapse in narrative time. He is now a judge before whom Khristen is called, who quizzes her on “The Hunter Gracchus,” an uncompleted work attempted twice by Kafka in which this long-dead hero of the Black Forest is made to wander the earth eternally, in some confusing place between our world and that beyond. Jeffrey plans to make Khristen write her own fragment, a sequel. In either case, it’s a story that he seems set on teaching her while so many others line up in the hallway outside his chambers, clamoring in their boredom for a labyrinth to walk while they wait. What’s at work here is more than allusion or quotation. Indeed, the novel’s endgame is to position Khristen, mysteriously half-dead and survivor of nothing in particular, as the custodian of an unfinished parable in which a legendary hunter simultaneously lives and dies. Jeffrey speculates that perhaps her redrafting might lend the tale its feminine counterpart.
The ultimate effect of Harrow’s ending is one of blinding white space, an ascent into lyricism. Sentences begin increasingly to report that “the rumored pages of books deep within the earth would not allow themselves to be recovered, though the sexton beetles and their consumption of all things dead, even dead words, might have devoured them over time.” The elliptical nature of this prose is natural enough, given that Williams’s aim is to limn the increate Absolute, the unrepresentable moment of a final judgment. Here, Harrow shares a final formal resonance with Kafka’s fragmentary work. Never finished, “The Hunter Gracchus” and so many other of Kafka’s stories suggest a whole all the more perfect for remaining unrealizable. Khristen’s fate by the end is to produce variations on Kafka, out of his legacy’s provisions. Meanwhile, the harrow continues to dominate everywhere else as the principal theme for an art that has become empty decoration.
The eschatological subject matter of the novel lends itself to interpretation as a climate-change narrative, and many reviewers have taken it as such—even if many of Williams’s most hilarious barbs are reserved for eco-critics. (One whom we meet figures herself an authority on what she calls flashily “the verge.” It’s never made clear what the verge is, except that we’re all on it.) However, it’s not primarily the material reality of ecological degradation the novel seeks to impart but rather its spiritual texture. In Williams’s account, it’s the sacral dimension that’s been stripped bare most of all. But neither is it accidental that so much of our language for the natural world should borrow from the sacred. Late in the book, Williams offers a meditation on the Greek for “sacred grove,” temenos: “It had once meant asylum and within it one was asulos—the inviolable. … The word comes from temno, to cut. Something cut from the meaningless, profane layer of life, something removed and isolated for a special purpose.” If removal is in itself a sacred operation, constitutive of meaning, what’s to be made of a world in which the sacred has been so thoroughly removed? Pollution, in Harrow’s account, is then returned to its most original anthropological sense: the violation of the inviolable. As a description of our current condition, it’s more than a metaphor.
As a missive from a sick planet, Harrow then seeks to achieve a high point of allegorical narrative that it was through reading Joy Williams I first learned to name: the anagogical. In a 2016 interview for Vice, Williams ranks the “anagogical level” as the second of a short story’s needed components (alongside my favorite, number four: “an animal within to give its blessing”—perhaps the animal is marten-sized). “Anagogy” as a practice refers to a mode of scriptural interpretation that is directed toward spiritual ends and the afterlife. It’s a bid, on the verge of esotericism, to orient readers’ speculation toward our reward. Williams’s understanding of this level as necessary to fiction provides an enormous clue as to the direction of her priorities. It’s felicitous, then, that Khristen should be wandering the sublime, eidetic halls of no defined place in particular during what seems to be an honest-to-goodness Day of Reckoning. The novel takes care to distinguish any one doomsday scenario from the event of Revelation itself. In so doing, climate change is captured sub specie aeternitatis, as seen from the perspective of eternity.
This last theological twist marks Harrow most recognizably as a product of Joy Williams’s specific intelligence. It’s also her book’s major strength. Though a superficial glance at its content would seem to place Harrow comfortably within the bounds of a growing eco-fiction canon—alongside Richard Powers’s The Overstory, Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible and all the many other climate-change books that so project their own timeliness and importance that it comes to feel they were written only to secure their week on the syllabus—by the end it’s clear that Williams is after something else. And in comparison, other artists’ mournful pastoral evocations of everything we stand to lose come to look a lot like the image of the harrow, with its feeble promises of human progress and ingenuity.
Ultimately, what’s most memorable and evocative in Harrow is the decrepitude of ritual forms in a disenchanted world. Worship is one; mourning is another. (Khristen’s father’s memorial service resembles more a burglary, as the funeralgoers ransack the departed’s home in search of his silver.) How is it possible to mourn such immense losses as that of a way of life, of a life-sustaining planet, or indeed of the original context in which violable and inviolable could be meaningfully counterposed? One matter on which Harrow is clear is that we lack even the conceptual resources to adequately pose the problem, and the illustrative advantage of story as such is to highlight precisely this.
If previously it fell to religious consciousness to tell stories of a fallen world and comment on the sins and complicities of humanity, now, in its absence, the prophetic perspective of the novel offers a kind of approximation of that same witness. It’s clear in one sense that Williams would have her book kept by its readers like a devotional, understood to be religious in its appeal and imperatives. This is what in her work is authentically anagogical—pointing not so much to the future as to the world beyond. Williams’s apocalypse is not ripped from the headlines. What her depiction of the end times displays instead is the eternal’s unendurable claim on our present.