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The genius of Joy Williams

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.

It’s not only on the stylistic level that Williams’s short fiction stands apart. At first glance, the irresolute shape of many of her stories seems familiarly postmodern — a refusal to satisfy expectations, an abjuration of conventional form. It’s true that her stories rarely conclude or resolve or climax in a dramatic sense. A different conception is at work, one that she has articulated as follows: “A story’s nature is to locate itself in that moment, that incident, where the past and the future of the participants are perceived. It gives the form a sort of heartless quality.” The goal, then, is to reach, and inhabit, the moment in which the walls of a situation dissolve and the perceptual horizon — sometimes the character’s, sometimes only the reader’s — is widened, for better or worse. At that point the story is done.

“Lu-Lu” is a one-scene story in which an aimless young woman named Heather gets roaring drunk with her elderly neighbors Don and Debbie beside their swimming pool, while they discuss what will be done with their enormous, beloved pet snake after they die. Heather puts Don and Debbie to bed, literally, and in the story’s final paragraph makes what seems at the time like a sensible move:

Already her own house looked as if it had been left for good. The nightie dangled on the clothesline. Leave it there, she thought. Ugly nightie with its yearnings. She wondered if Lu-Lu would want dirt for their trip. She found Don’s shovel and threw some earth into the backseat of the car. She didn’t know how she was going to coax Lu-Lu in. She sat on the hood of the car and stared at Lu-Lu. Dusk was growing into dark. How do you beckon to something like this, she wondered; something that can change everything, your life.

This kind of ending makes for resolution of a coolly spiritual rather than a strictly dramatic sort. It’s a different tonality, a different, less humanistic sort of satisfaction. Williams has written four novels, but a novel, she once said, “is a chummy companion, long-winded, maybe, but goodhearted. Pessimists write stories.”

It may be because of this dramatic indirection that, in contrast to the work of other, more plot-oriented masters of the form (Cheever comes instantly to mind), few Williams stories register as classics in their own right. Still, readers will have their favorites; I would clear space in any pantheon for “Honored Guest,” from her 2004 collection of the same name. The story (which first appeared in this magazine in 1994) is about Lenore, a terminally ill woman who lives alone with Helen, her teenage daughter, in Maine. All it does, really, is toggle between their perspectives as well as between the poles of terror and anger that characterize Lenore’s helpless last days. We learn that when Lenore dies, Helen will go to Florida to live with her father, and now there is nothing to do but wait:

At the beginning death was giving them the opportunity to be interesting. This was something special. There was only one crack at this. But then they lost sight of it somehow. It became a lesser thing, more terrible. Its meaning crumbled. They began waiting for it. Terrible, terrible.

The third figure in the house, the family dog (“There were only so many dogs in a person’s life,” Lenore thinks, “and this was the last one in hers”), senses that death is shadowing Lenore and has taken to growling at her when she passes too close, but he still follows her from room to room with one of her slippers in his mouth. The days go by and nothing changes. Or rather, something is changing but they can’t see it. At one point Lenore asks Helen to go outside and bring her a snowball; Helen, powerless to turn down any request, does so, and her mother hits her in the chest with it.

Because we, like the characters, know how the story will end, Williams is relieved of the obligation to end it: in fact, it doesn’t even progress. Mother and daughter struggle to get a fix on their feelings, fail, and struggle again. The story’s refusal of sentimentality makes it heartbreaking. Even when the characters say “I love you” to each other, a few paragraphs before the end, it seems like just one more thing to try; Helen gets on the school bus knowing only that today will either be the day that changes everything, or it won’t.

It was with such koanlike contradictions in mind, perhaps, that Paul Winner, in the introduction to his Paris Review interview with Williams, made the suggestion — extraordinary given the context — that her stories are “unteachable as craft.” This seems mostly true; Williams belongs on the list of one-off artists who simply are who they are. She herself has said of some of her own favorites — Christina Stead, Malcolm Lowry, Janet Frame, Jean Rhys — that their work “can teach us little about technique . . . [their] way of touching us is simply by exploding on the lintel of our minds.”

That’s not to say Williams’s influence doesn’t radiate. One hears her cadences in the work of Denis Johnson, Karen Russell, Robert Stone, Lorrie Moore. And somewhere in the midst of The Visiting Privilege I started hearing another concordance, an unlikely one on its face: Grace Paley, a fellow master of the short story whose second-generation urban milieu might seem a world away from Williams’s desert moonscapes. But they share quite a bit: a prose style in which careful, sometimes wildly idiosyncratic diction plays against a short, simple, rhythmically flat line; a flair for comic artifice in dialogue; a matter-of-factness about radical politics; and a deep sense of outrage over the havoc that their century, their species, has wreaked on the world.

In the 1980s — around the time of her first story collection, Taking Care — Williams developed something of a sideline as a journalist and essayist. It’s through her non-fiction pieces — many of them collected in a slim volume titled Ill Nature, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award in 2001 — that the reading public became acquainted with her fierce advocacy for ecological causes, in particular the rights of animals. In Esquire she delivered a condemnation of the “sport” of hunting that prompted a coordinated letter-writing campaign from the N.R.A. Elsewhere she wrote with sympathetic interest about Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber, and his supposedly deranged conviction that “technology is the vehicle by which people are destroying themselves and the world.” (She worked around her inability to obtain an interview with Kaczynski by narrating the article from the point of view of his log cabin, which now resides in a museum.) Many organizations one might think of as environmentally friendly — the Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society, Greenpeace — are, in her judgment, insufficiently radical sellouts and collaborators. Her fearlessness was never more evident than in an essay about fertility treatments and the fetishization of human motherhood called “The Case Against Babies.”

As Williams has acknowledged, maintaining a non-fiction outlet for her beliefs makes it easier for her to keep any such sense of conviction out of her fiction, where she is wise enough to know that certainties don’t belong. In Escapes (1990) and Honored Guest, her sentences are longer, looser, her conceits more puckishly daring. In “Congress,” a woman forms a two-way intellectual attachment to the lamp that her partner has made out of the taxidermied feet of a deer; “The Little Winter” ends with a houseguest giving in to her hostess’s teenage daughter’s repeated entreaties to kidnap her. “In a work of rhetoric you can take a stand,” Williams told an interviewer in 2008, “make a case, inform and inspire, scream and demean. You can’t be angry in fiction — it’s all about control. You create worlds in order to accept them.”

But to say merely that Ill Nature had a tonic effect on her fiction would be to shortchange a magnificently angry book about mankind’s blithe destruction of the earth. “The ecological crisis cannot be resolved by politics,” she writes:

It cannot be resolved by science or technology. It is a crisis caused by culture and character, and a deep change in personal consciousness is needed. Your fundamental attitudes toward the earth have become twisted. You have made only brutal contact with Nature; you cannot comprehend its grace. You must change.

What energizes the book, frees it, is its own lack of ego, which is to say that Williams recognizes the smallness of her own voice, the smallness of what she is doing: you can’t sermonize if you have no real expectation of being heard. Nor does she seem to take any particular pleasure in being right. As for animals, it’s not that she loves them in some sentimental or self-righteous way, but simply that she sees them, whereas most of us work hard not to. Her fiction, too, is full of animals, but they are never employed as symbols or mirrors. They are what they are: the characters share the space with them. The most human value you might assign to them would be to say that, like the dog in “Honored Guest,” they are incapable of denial.

The image of the earth as a place that we have ravaged through a willed corruption of our ability to see it suffuses The Visiting Privilege without dominating it — more and more, as the collection progresses. The stories’ settings, for instance, move from the social hubs of the East Coast to extreme landscapes, the edges of the continent (Arizona, New Mexico, Maine, Florida), and from comfortably anthropocentric lives to a plainer interface with the natural world. The smaller, situational settings within these landscapes — parties, hotel rooms, the guest rooms of houses — frequently suggest a sense of transience, of being welcome but not indefinitely. Many of her characters are parents estranged from their children. (Oddly, two of the thirteen new stories are about being the parent of a murderer.) Within a given piece this estrangement might come off as simply a bit of domestic characterization, but in the aggregate the portrait is of a world of discontinuity, a world concerned only with the needs of its moment, in which nothing is bequeathed.

Though Williams has never shied away from the spiritual, her new stories are even more interested in eternity and in modes of unreality than her previous work was. In “The Country,” a man’s son speaks to him in the voices of his dead parents: “We are here to prepare for not being here,” the nine-year-old says to him in his mother’s soft voice. The final scene of “In the Park” features an Everglades ranger named Preyman — the child of a preacher, as is Williams — who happens upon his dead father illegally digging up a hand fern, an extinct plant. In “Another Season,” an island community dependent on the summer-tourist trade enlists the custodial services of a year-rounder when birds and animals start dying off in droves:

They sought out Nicodemus and presented a proposition. They would provide him with a truck, a gasoline card at the dock’s pumps and two thousand dollars a year to make the island appear as though death on the minor plane were unknown to it.

“On the minor plane,” Nicodemus said.

“Well, yeah, we can’t do anything about the big stuff,” Brock said, thinking irritably about the prep school boy suiciding by his daddy’s basement table saw in June just as the season was starting, or the stockbroker all over the news who was found with an anchor line tied around his ankle. “But we can maintain a certain look that sets this place apart. Dead animals are disturbing to many people. There’s also the ick factor.”

It all amounts to a scalding, darkly funny, clear-eyed portrait of a world whose denizens must work increasingly hard to remain blind to crisis. “Real avant-garde writing today,” Williams told The Paris Review, “would frame and reflect our misuse of the world, our destruction of its beauties and wonders. Nobody seems to be taking this on in the literary covens. We are all just messing with ourselves, cherishing ourselves.” The Visiting Privilege lets us be immersed in, rather than periodically exposed to, the profound, lonely defiance of conventional thought that has always shaped Williams’s art, in content and in execution. Perhaps it will finally bring her the kind of popularity her work deserves. And if it doesn’t? She will still be great, and her greatness will still not be for everyone. Williams’s non-fiction paradoxically draws much of its authority from its awareness that it is not being heeded; maybe something related is true of the fiction as well. Her extravagantly original artistic gifts aside, Williams has never seemed more in accord with the needs of her time.

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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