Reviews — From the October 2015 issue

Residence on Earth

The genius of Joy Williams

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Discussed in this essay:

The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories, by Joy Williams. Knopf. 512 pages. $30.

It would be nice to get through this review without recourse to the term “writer’s writer,” a descriptor so broadly employed, in such disparate cases (Mavis Gallant, Clarice Lispector, Henry Green), as to risk being meaningless and condescending at the same time. The thing is, in the case of Joy Williams, I have seen the cliché made flesh. More than once, at professional gatherings where Williams was present, I have observed some of America’s leading literary lights reduced to starstruck and intimidated fans. I have beheld writers who could be fairly described as world famous daring one another, as if they had somehow snuck backstage at a concert, to introduce themselves to her.

So maybe the term still does signify something: an informed awe at the degree of difficulty not only in what a particular writer does but in the disciplined estrangement required to keep doing it despite the world’s incommensurate reward. Not that hers is some tale of undiscovered genius. Williams has been publishing superlative fiction for almost fifty years, stories and novels whose characters are jarred, by chance or loss, into lucid awareness: of death, of the provisionality of bulwarks like family and class, and of the violence that we have done to nature. Along the way, she has picked up plenty of fine prizes and official accolades to go with the esteem of her colleagues. Still, her publication history hasn’t always been the luckiest. Her second book, a novel called The Changeling (1978), was so injudiciously abused in the New York Times by Anatole Broyard, who somehow blamed her for the sins of what he deemed “avant-garde writing” as a whole, that she reputedly had to be persuaded by intimates to write again. Her 2013 collection, 99 Stories of God, can’t even be read on paper: it was published in digital format only, by a company that went out of business shortly thereafter. (This in the service of a writer who owns seven Smith Corona portable typewriters and who was only very recently prevailed upon to acquire an email address.)

Illustration by Steven Dana

Illustration by Steven Dana

Some writers’ greatness resides in their kinship with the zeitgeist; the eminence of others is that their wavelength seems entirely their own — we never quite know where to put them, what to do with them. Maybe no single book had the fortune or the timing to hit it big, or maybe the author in question simply isn’t working on the Great Book model; the story, the sentence, the word choice is the unit of achievement, so that our apprehension of the sum of that achievement comes too late. The Visiting Privilege, a bulky retrospective comprising thirteen new short stories and thirty-three selected from previous collections, gives us our first real opportunity to stand back from Williams’s particular accomplishments and to see her genius whole.

The book itself is a story, as any such retrospective should be. In part it is a story about the development of the always bracing Williams sentence. In the early work, her line is conspicuously short and sweet: sentences usually start with their subjects, and, grammatically at least, they are rarely complex. “Taking Care,” the title story of her first collection, from 1982, sums up its central figure, a married preacher, thus: “Jones’s love is much too apparent and arouses neglect.” In “The Lover,” a young single mother tries everything she can think of to hang on to an ambivalent man: “He wearies of her, really. Her moods and palpitations. The girl’s face is pale. Death is not so far, she thinks. It is easily arrived at. Love is further than death. She kisses him.” In such unfussily constructed sentences, diction itself is made to carry most of the figurative load — a trait Williams shares with the late James Salter, who might well have written a metered passage like this one from “Train,” particularly the final verb: “The dining car was almost full. The windows reflected the eaters. The countryside was dim and the train pushed through it.”

It’s a simplicity we might associate with minimalism, but what Williams is after is more like a maximum density. Short characterizations open up like fireworks, as in this corner-of-the-eye description, from “The Little Winter,” of a stranger on a public phone at an airport: “The woman spoke monotonously and without mercy. She was tall and disheveled and looked the very picture of someone who had recently ceased to be cherished.” Or this teacup-size assessment of a relationship, from “White”:

At 5:00 p.m., Joan and Bliss went upstairs to their bedroom. The room was simple and pleasant with plain wide-board floors and white furniture, a little cell of felicity. There was a single framed poster of wildflowers on the white walls. It seemed to Joan the kind of room in which someone was supposed to be getting better. Joan lay on the bed and watched Bliss change his clothes for the party. She smiled for an instant, then shut her eyes. The passion they felt for each other had turned to unease some time ago.

“A little cell of felicity”! Hard to squeeze more readerly pleasure into fewer syllables.

If there is one technical lesson in Williams’s fiction, it’s that economy and parsimony are not the same thing. What rings out in her work are not the deleted or implied sentences that we listen for in Raymond Carver, but the extra ones: as with Salter — and especially Denis Johnson, who came after her — the detail she records inside a scene, the sense of a perception speaking simply but operating on multiple planes, repeatedly stuns. Sometimes they are observational and comic, as in the final sentence of this passage from “The Little Winter”:

The monk who told her this had a beard and wore a soiled apron. His interest in her questions did not seem intense. He had appeared from a back room, a room that seemed part smokehouse, part kitchen. This was the monk who smoked chickens, hams and cheese. There was always cheese in this life.

Other times, the unexpected sentence is indicative of a willingness to step, if only for a moment, outside the literal. How many writers would have the temerity to include the penultimate sentence in this passage, in which the aforementioned Jones tries to distract his terminally ill wife from her pain by suggesting they go for a drive?

Together they ride, through the towns, for miles and miles, even into the next state. She does not want to stop driving. They buy sandwiches and milk shakes and eat in the car. Jones drives. They have to buy more gasoline. His wife sits close to him, her eyes closed, her head tipped back against the seat. He can see the veins beating on in her neck. Somewhere there is a dreadful sound, almost audible. Jones presses her cold hand to his lips.

The contrast between plain syntax and supernatural observation, between simple rhythm and extravagant diction, lifts passages like this one, from “Winter Chemistry,” into the realm of the uncanny:

There was nothing left of Christmas but the cold that slouched and pressed against the people. Their blood was full of it. And their eyes and the food that they ate. The people walked the streets wearing woolen masks as though they were gangsters, or deformed. Old ladies died of breaks and foolish wounds in houses where no one came, and fish froze in the rivers.

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is the author of A Thousand Pardons (Random House) and other books. His most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “Shhh! Socialism,” appeared in the June 2015 issue.

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