When I started writing weird Florida tales in graduate school, more than one person was appalled that I hadn’t read any Joy Williams. And they were so correct—I had been deeply remiss. More than the setting of her work—some of which does indeed take place in the queer light of Florida, as well as New Mexico and Arizona and Maine—I was amazed by the emotional states Joy Williams could imprint so fluidly on the page. Unlike any other writer I know, she can render the interior slide from grief to strange cravings to jokey observation to superstitious fears, all in the span of a single paragraph, or even sentence. Her leaps floor me: she sails with a freakish grace from poignancy to sarcasm, or from one character’s fantasy to another’s nightmare, or from a kitschy deer-foot lamp to a disagreement with Kierkegaard. Nobody in her stories behaves the way you expect and yet somehow even their craziest actions feel inevitable, preordained. When I read her, I feel like I’m in direct contact with the deep irrationality of our species.Karen Russell at LOA, 2011
I confess that I, too, have been remiss; I’d never heard of Joy Williams until I encountered her last March via her story “Flour” in Pushcart 2020 (her appearances in BASS predated my annual reads which began in 2010). “I understand the words, the turn of events, but I don’t have a clue what the story is about,” I wrote in my post. I did what I do in those cases: I researched it to death, both the story which hinged on a parable from the gnostic Gospel of Thomas, and Williams herself. I had a blast with the former – I love mucking around in religious arcania – and as for the latter, was chastised to discover I was reading what many would call one of the best American short story writers around. “I don’t understand this story. But the journey was a lot of fun,” I wrote, and that’s how I came to choose this book for my In-Between Reading this year, as a comfort-zone-stretcher.
It was a rough start. The first story went smoothly enough, but then I was befuddled by the next several. I took a Twitter break (oh, yeah, like you don’t) and saw Robert Long Foreman doing something with the “books no one wants on their bookshelves” meme that was going around last week (I always thought Infinite Jest was a sign of literary potency, color me surprised) and realized he might be helpful, since, while his stories and essays make perfect sense to me, I rarely understand what he’s talking about on Twitter:
Me: You might be able to educate me: have you read Joy Williams?
RLF: Oh yeah. She’s amazing.
Me: I thought you’d think so. I have no idea what to do with her.
RLF: Yeah me neither! But I’m drawn to that.
Me: lol, ok, that makes me feel a little better.
(Yes, I still lol, go ahead, laugh. And by the way, Rob’s first novel Weird Pig was just published and everyone should be reading it)
So relieved of the need to make sense of things (as relieved as I can be; by nature I have that tendency Billy Collins described in “Introduction to Poetry” as “beating it with a hose to find out what it really means” and to search for the authorial intent that anyone who’s taken litcrit will tell you is irrelevant), but this is comfort-zone-stretching time, so I read on.
The stories in this collection are taken from three prior collections, with thirteen new stories appended. That’s forty-six stories. Granted, most of them are fairly short – 490 pages total – but these are not stories you finish and turn the page to read the next one. I realized this wasn’t going to be a four- or five-day read when, at four days, I was still less than a quarter through. So I started skipping. As a result, I ended up reading most of her first and third collections, and all of the new stories.
Although there’s really no such thing as a spoiler to most of Williams’ stories, the final paragraphs tend to require what preceded them, and as they are often the most powerful I’ve quoted several below; use discretion. And, by the way, there is one story that has a clear spoiler; to point it out would be to spoil it already. Life’s tough, y’know?
I found a lot of help scattered around the interwebs. One particular moment came from Vincent Scarpa, writing about the story “Dangerous” featuring, among other things, a woman building a tortoise enclosure following the death of her husband. That was interesting enough, but there’s a moment that tripped me up, as our narrator, the woman’s also-bereaved daughter, is talking about a group of survivalists who lived in a nearby house:
They did have an ingenious water-collection system and I was given a tour of all the tanks and tubes and purifiers and washers and chambers that provided them with such good water and made them happy. They also kept bees and had an obese cat. The cat, or rather its alarming weight, seemed out of character for their way of life but I didn’t mention it. Instead, I asked them if his name was spelled with an ew or an ou. They found this wildly amusing and later told my mother they’d liked me very much. That and a dollar fifty will get me an organic peach, I said.Dangerous
I must’ve spent ten minutes scouring that paragraph, and a couple before it, looking for the name of the cat that might be spelled one of two ways, literally reading word by word, I was so sure I’d missed it. Eventually I went on, and, a few paragraphs later: “It was Lewis with an ew that kept bringing diseased rodents into the house, is my suspicion.”
That missing name tormented me until I found Scarpa’s commentary:
It has everything to do with the delay. The delay between our being made aware of that which we do not know—in this case, simply the cat’s name—and then the unexpected revelation of it. It doesn’t take so long that we forget something has been withheld from us, but it is long enough for us to consider—indeed, to believe—that we may never be told. And what I’ve just described there—this coexistence of knowledge and confusion and incomprehension, the lag time between a given moment and our understanding of it—does it not have a certain resonance with the way grief so often operates? That deferment of detail, that defying of narrative expectation, that disinterest in clarifying in a timely manner that which one has been made to see as concealed but knowable—these movements simulate the very essence of grief: its unwieldiness, its errancy, its total disregard for the yearnings of the grieving person.Vincent Scarpa for Lithub
Then I could throw in, among the other interesting things in the story (like survivalists possibly killed by disease brought in by the cat, and the refrain “Grief is dangerous,” and the mother discovering she’d built the enclosure on the wrong land) how distracted I was from everything else by one little detail I couldn’t line up neatly, which also fits with grief. Just ask a funeral director how that fits with grief.
I have to say I found the new stories, like “Dangerous,” to be more comprehensible than the older ones. Jason DeYoung, writing in Numéro Cinq, finds a difference, citing “thematic or temporal iterations” creating density in her earlier stories, versus “longer, looser” style in her later ones, and they do seem more like typical stories to me, but I have to wonder if I just got better acclimated and stopped worrying so much as I read. By the way, that DeYoung article is, like Scarpa’s, great. So is Karen Russell’s, which opens this post and served as a kind of mast for this ship. And while I’m citing sources, Lincoln Michel’s article at Vice (I discovered it when I was working on “Flour”) and James Wood for TNY are both fundamental Williamsology.
The first story, “Taking Care,” was, as I said above, a good place for me to start; it seemed one of the most coherent of the early stories. The title tells it all: it’s a tour of the ways we take care of each other, of the world. Jones, a preacher, takes in his daughter’s baby and dog as his wife becomes ill and is hospitalized. On the day he baptizes the baby, his wife’s blood count is perilously low, and two sentences from the sermon predominate: We are not saved because we are worthy. We are saved because we are loved and There is nothing wrong in what one does but there is something w4rong in what one becomes. At one point he plays some records, including Kindertotenlieder. “He makes no attempt to seek the words’ translation. The music is enough.” The translation, which he must on some level realize, is some version of “Songs for dead children.” Ignorance is sometimes the best defense.
The final paragraph is a mixture of reality and fantasy. At first I thought it was simple realism, but then I read Williams’s interview in Paris Review where she recalls she was advised to cut the last line. “Of course I will not cut the line. It carries the story into the celestial, where it longs to go.” Maybe this isn’t about actual dying, but at the very least it evokes the dying that will eventually occur for these two people connected by caring, and I am so happy that they will together enter shining rooms.
By the way, in that interview Williams also tells how TNY rejected the story, calling it “insincere, inorganic, labored.” Of course, this was one of her first stories, she wasn’t Joy Williams yet.
Then there are stories I don’t claim to understand at all, but they stick with me. Like “Yard Boy,” about the “spiritual materialist…free from the karmic chain” who, after two months of enlightenment, realizes it isn’t easy. “He feels the sorrow and sadness of those around him but does not necessarily feel his own.” I’d believe that if it didn’t come down to the rabbit’s foot fern and the Spanish bayonet fighting it out after he loses everything he owns and his girlfriend walks out on him. Then again, he said “not necessarily” which allows some wiggle room. Again, the final paragraph makes the preceding, however confusing, work:
The rabbit’s-foot-fern brightens at the yard boy’s true annoyance. Its fuzzy long-haired rhizomes clutch its pot tightly. The space around it simmers, it bubbles. Each cell mobilizes its intent of skillful and creative action. It turns its leaves toward the Spanish bayonet. It straightens and sways. Straightens and sways. A moment passes. The message of retribution is received along the heated air. The yard boy sees the Spanish bayonet uproot itself and move out.Yard Boy
“Anodyne” presents us with a diabetic mother and daughter, recently bereaved by the loss of their husband/father. We see Mother through Daughter’s eyes, which is funny or horrifying, but more likely funny. Mother quits yoga and takes up shooting – “Be aware of who can do unto you” reads a sign at the door of the Pistol Institute – then takes up the Marksman, the owner of the Institute and instructor. Daughter kind of figures this out – “I knew my mother did not exactly want him in our life… but she wanted him somehow.” Mother arranged for Daughter to see a psychiatrist, which I’m thinking is more for Mother’s sake (so many anodynes in this story) since Daughter doesn’t seem to be in any pain. Then again, maybe that’s the problem. Again, I find the end of the story justifies it all, though I still can’t define exactly why:
When my time was almost up he said, “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.Anodyne
That last line makes me want to see what this kid’s like when she’s twenty-five.
Death, animals (especially dogs, but also cats and birds and elephants etc), and religion run through these stories, and in the later ones, the environment becomes a prominent theme. Sometimes these themes are subtle. In “Another Season,” the death and animals are evident, but the religion comes in through the name of the main character, Nicodemus. He lives on an island mostly populated in the summer by the well-to-do. He starts out as a handyman but after many years he ends up asked to pick up road kill to keep the island looking nice for the rich. “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.” Though it sounds grotesque, it’s the most realistic scenario in the book; this is exactly what such an island would do, and I’m willing to bet most have some kind of arrangements just like this, maybe with public works employees instead of individuals, but the motivation is recognizable.
The name Nicodemus is not random. In the Gospel of John, Jesus and Nicodemus have a long talk about the means of salvation. It’s one of those passages that gets quoted a lot, all about light and dark and that famous one John 3:16 that someone’s always holding up on a big sign at baseball games. But what really makes it interesting is that Nicodemus provides the spices and other materials needed to care for Jesus’ body after death. He that hath an ear, let him hear who it is the animals are symbolizing. Uh oh, I’m beating it with a hose again, aren’t I.
Two stories feature mothers of murderers. “The Mother Cell” consists of seven such mothers who end up, coincidentally, in the same town for no apparent reason. Then one dies and there are only six. And again I get out my rubber hose: why seven? What does it mean that there are then only six? There’s this organic moment of suspense in which we wait to see if a replacement will show up, but is that enough of a reason? But I’ll put that away and instead enjoy the biological sense evoked by the title, the sense in which all of these women were a mother cell.
Fathers don’t look very good in this story. Not only are all the mothers now single, but the fathers seem to have gone on with their lives as if nothing happened, while the mothers huddle to defend themselves against the world’s blame. God doesn’t fare so well, either. After telling a story about Jupiter, a featherless bird, and a hairless goat (the story has a hilarious tag line about a Russian philosophy professor) they start to wonder if something like that could happen to the current God.
Then Barbara said, “Well, I don’t know why you told that story about the old god, but the nice thing about it was that he wasn’t alone at the end.”
“What about the one we got now,” Emily asked.
“The one what?”
“The god we got now. Do you think somebody in the future will be telling a story about finding him exiled to some desolate island and crying when he learns that everything he had fashioned and understood has vanished and that he is subject to the same miserable destiny as any created thing?”The Mother Cell
One detail I love about that is the lack of capitalization. I wonder if Williams had to fight about that. Forgive me, I know it’s sacrilege to have me and Williams in the same sentence, but I once had the line “they called him god” in a story, and the editor insisted on capitalizing it or inserting a “the.” Whenever I see something like this, I wish I’d fought harder. Then again, I’m not Joy Williams.
But, again, the power comes at the end, here in the last two paragraphs:
“We’ve settled nothing,” the eldest mother said. “We cannot make amends for the sins of our children. We gave birth to mayhem and therefore history. Oh, ladies, oh, my friends, we have resolved nothing and the earth is no more beautiful.”
She struggled to her feet and was helped inside. Her old knees creaked like doors. She always liked to end these evenings on an uncompromising note. Of course it was all just whistling in the dark, but sometimes she would conclude by saying that despite their clumsy grief and all the lost and puzzling years that still lay ahead of them, the earth was no less beautiful.The Mother Cell
I go back and forth on whether these two paragraphs, taken together, are an expression of hope, or hopelessness. Or both at once. Or either, as the day requires.
The other offspring-murderer story – and here I run into the spoiler that, simply by saying it’s a spoiler, spoils – is “Brass.” Until the last few sentences, it seems to be a father describing family life with his outspoken son. There’s some discussion of neurodiversity, and the kid can be pretty harsh, but he also takes poetry at the community college. The title is based on a passage in one of Rimbaud’s letters:
For I is someone else. If brass wakes up a trumpet, it isn’t to blame. To me this is evident: I give a stroke of the bow: the Symphony begins to stir in the depths. ”
“That ain’t even grammatical,” I say.
“For I is someone else, ” he says somberly. “If brass wakes up a trumpet it isn’t to blame. ” Then he smirks at me. He’s been working on this smirk.
“Now that’s the translation,” he says. “But for class I’m going to translate the translation.”
“Somebody should translate you,” I say.
“No one’s going to be able to translate me,” he says.Brass
At this point I could use a translation of the translation myself. But then, as with so many other stories, in the final sentences the focus shifts into tragedy and the rest of the story becomes relevant. Not comprehensible, but I know now why we’re looking at this kid and how he interacts with his family. The trumpet’s awake and trying to figure out how the hell it all happened.
So maybe this was, for me, a successful failure, to borrow from NASA. Yes, I skipped almost a quarter of the stories. It was too much book for me, for one reading. I saw some comments while webcrawling that made me very interested in reading “Honored Guest”, “Congress”, and “Marabou”, and I’m very curious to see why “Bromeliads” got separated from the other Escape stories and was moved to the end of the Collected Stories section, but I realized I was Done and little of value was to be accomplished by forcing myself forward. I needed to read something… easier. Something more eager to give itself up, sans hose.
I wonder if I’d have had a different experience if the nine new stories had been released on their own, or if I’d read them first. This seems more like a reference work, a Complete Works you take down and read a bit of once in a while or when something reminds you of it, not something you sit down and plow through in a week. But it did push on the boundaries of my comfort zone, and I will go back for another look. And I’m glad I now know something about Joy Williams; I look forward to seeing her again.