Joy Williams, The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories (Vintage, 2015)

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.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Joy Williams, “Flour” from Paris Review #224

The driver and I got a late start. I usually decide on these excursions the night before, but it was late in the morning when I informed the friend who was coming to visit me for the weekend that I had to cancel, it was absolutely necessary for me to cancel. I had got it in my head that in her presence some calamity or another would arise and she would have to assist me in some way, rush me to a physician or something. She would be grateful she was there for me perhaps, but I would find it a terrific annoyance and embarrassment. I gave some other excuse for the disinvitation of course. Pipes. I think it was broken pipes. I should have written it down so I don’t use it again.…
By departing so late, we could not make our customary first stop. The driver and I usually spend two nights in lodgings on our route. This time three nights would be necessary. We take separate rooms, of course. If by chance we should come across one another in the restaurant or the hallways, we offer no acknowledgment.

And again, I must do something with a story I find enigmatic and impenetrable. I understand the words, the turn of events, but I don’t have a clue what the story is about. It does intrigue me, however, which is a hopeful sign. As I have said many times, I love nothing more than a story that teaches me something, and I did learn some things from this, though they may or may not have much to do with understanding the story. Still, it’s a foothold. And it was fun. I love research.

I have also looked at what some other more erudite people have said about Williams’ other work, and that, too, provides at least an approach. An approach to what is uncertain at this time, but I do have a hypothesis. Because I am somewhat at a loss, this is going to be one of my more muddled posts. It may not go anywhere interesting or significant; it will be horrible to read, particularly if you haven’t read the story. But it will go somewhere, and that may have to suffice. Someday I may come back to it with better ideas.

Let’s start with what Williams has said about herself, and what others have said about her work.

In a 2016 Vice interview with Lincoln Michel (another writer who often leaves me stumped), Williams provided a list of “8 Essential Attributes of the Short Story (and one way it differs from a novel).”

1) There should be a clean clear surface with much disturbance below
2) An anagogical level
3) Sentences that can stand strikingly alone
4) An animal within to give its blessing
5) Interior voices which are or become wildly erratically exterior
6) Control throughout is absolutely necessary
7) The story’s effect should transcend the naturalness and accessibility of its situation and language
8) A certain coldness is required in execution. It is not a form that gives itself to consolation but if consolation is offered it should come from an unexpected quarter.

I can see a few of these clearly in the story at hand. There is a clear surface with underlying disturbance, which I have rendered as “I know all the words and the plot but I don’t know what it’s about.” There are many sentences that stand strikingly alone, such as when a description of a bright yellow truck with smoke billowing from its tailpipe is interrupted by the paragraph “When a little baby dies you think, If they can do it with such wonderment, so can I.” That’s striking, all right. There is an animal, the narrator’s dog, who is only mentioned and seems to have no role; perhaps the role is to give its blessing. I can’t really say if the story is controlled; it seems to be, but my perception of it is so weak, I might not notice if it weren’t. The effect definitely transcends the naturalness of the plot, and again, I know all the words blah blah.

The others are more elusive. “An anagogical level”: Medieval Christian scriptural analysis divided texts into four levels, one of which was anagogical, or relating to eschatology; the end times, judgment day. In a more modern, general sense, anagoge refers to a spiritual interpretation of text.

“Interior voices… wildly erratically exterior”. Again, there was a medieval sense of this, described by Augustine relating to visions, but I’m going to assume we’re looking at the more modern version, of what we say in our heads and what we say with our mouths. I see it as somewhat the reverse: the narrator says very little out loud, but in her head she’s mean and cranky. She’s dismissive of the driver’s efforts at translating Coptic, though out loud she only clarifies one point about the flour. At the end, she does argue with him a bit, about the translation, in fact, and whether his rendering is correct. This may be significant when I put it together. As for the driver, we have no idea what’s going on in his head; we only have his words, and limited actions.

Consolation may or may not be there. I don’t see it, but since it isn’t necessary, it’s not an issue. The point of the story is not consolation, that’s for sure.

Numerous other writers have pointed out various enigmatic qualities to Williams’ work. At Lit Hub, Vincent Scarpa analyzes a single paragraph of one of her stories that deals with grief, beginning with an acknowledgment of the impossibility of the task:

How haughty, how criminal the endeavor to break down what it is about the work of Joy Williams that’s remarkable and astounding and utterly singular when the what it is—I know, as anyone who reads Joy knows—is fundamentally and immaculately irreducible. To write about her work in an academic mode could be seen as an effort toward taming its innate wildness; its masterful ungovernability.

“Dangerous” never rests on the laurels of the perfect metaphor that serves as the story’s conceit.

She is playing with the story’s rate of revelation…. 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?

And here I am, attempting this haughty, criminal endeavor to analyze this story, to tame its wildness. I won’t flatter myself by calling my notes here academic, but I do use academic materials, and my approach is more cognitive than emotional. It may be that I need the cognitive approach to get to the emotional core.

In any case, something to consider is how the story makes the reader experience the effects of the story’s center (such as grief, in Scarpa’s case). Don’t show, don’t tell, create an experience that illuminates.

A New York Times article declared her “one of the greatest chroniclers of humanity’s insignificance” and credits her with “misanthropic genius.” And in the contributor note to her story, “Honored Guest” in the 1995 edition of BASS, she wrote:

All art is about nothingness: our apprehension of it, our fear of it, its approach. We’re on the same trail here, we hurry along, soon we’ll meet. There are details along the way, of course. Even here there are tattoos and hairdressers and ice cream and dogs with slippers. But these are just details, which protect us as long they can from nothingness, the dear things.

Not all of these attributes need to apply to this particular story at hand, of course. But in reading them, in combination with some of the elements of the story that required some research, I came up with a hypothesis – which I will get to, I promise, but first, the story elements.

The driver is translating Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language. I happen to have read Youssef Ziedan’s novel Azazeel, last year, about a fifth-century Coptic monk’s journey from southern Egypt to Alexandria to Jerusalem to Antioch, and this detail made me smile and recall Hypa and his struggle to figure out Christianity in that era.

When the driver and I first met – when I was interviewing him, you might say – he told me that he was studying Coptic.
Naturally, I did not believe this for one moment.
Without any encouragement from me he said, “The verb forms and tenses of Coptic are interesting. For example, some tenses that we English speakers do not have are the circumstantial, the habitual, the third future, the fourth future, the optative, and tenses of unfulfilled action signifying until and not yet. I am working now on translating and interpreting the story about the woman carrying flour to her home in a jar that is broken.”
“The flour all pours out?” I said.
“Why, yes.” He seemed pleased.
Everyone knows the story of the woman and the flour. Who did he think he was kidding? Still, you are never drawn to a person for the reasons you think.

This is where I had the most fun. I first wanted to know if we were dealing with real things here – real tenses, a real story – or if this was something the driver was making up, or we were in fantasy land. Both the tenses and the story are real. Coptic has a wide variety of interesting tenses, so I’m going to think it might be significant that Williams chose these particular ones for the driver to name, rather than others. I’m not concerned with the actual form or translation of these tenses – that would be too much – but with what the word “optative” suggests (choice) to the English speaker. So many futures! One dictionary definition of circumstantial declares it “incidental, not essential”. Anyone who’s watched a courtroom drama knows circumstantial evidence isn’t enough to convict without a witness or motive. Unfulfilled action, again we’re so concerned with time and the future. We don’t seem to care about past tenses at all, although there are quite a few.

The story is also real. It’s from the Gospel of Thomas, a gnostic gospel considered non-canonical. It was discovered in modern times, and presumed hidden because early Christians objected to its teachings. I’m not comfortable going into more detail – it’s complicated – but it involves truths revealed by God.

I found a wonderful site that offers various translations of the story, plus scholarly (and lay) interpretations (I have no standing to determine the scholastic quality of the site, so I am going by faith; if someone knows of a more academic resource, please let me know). I find two different interpretations, and have to admit to being a bit confused. The story:

All three refer to the woman as analogous to the Kingdom of the Father. At first, I thought, that makes Heaven sound pretty careless. Then I came across a wonderful article – a book, really, in manuscript form online – dealing with the Gospel of Thomas in depth, and discovered several interesting things.

First, the Kingdom of the Father is not Heaven, it’s not a place at all in Gnostic thought:

The Kingdom is thus not something absolute that exists in some localized place and that we need only to see. It is a state of mind and consciousness that slowly begins to manifest as we do spiritual work. As we are caught in the everyday “flour” of life, we need to remember that there is a powerful life energy that brought us into being, the colostrum, and we need to stay in touch with that energy in order to shape ourselves into “large loaves”, like the large branch of Saying 20, i.e. a person who stands out and is noticeable for their inner radiance, peace of mind and tranquility.
….[T]he message is: do not get caught in the material world, the world of growth, decay and death, the “built” world that then becomes “unbuilt.” Fix your sights on the stable, permanent, self-generated Higher Realm of the Father’s Kingdom.

This links to an element of the story, the division of the three tiers of the car, which, by the way, seem like a very strange car, but maybe it’s like a station wagon with an extra row, or some kind of minivan. I don’t understand minivans, they came along after my period of car ownership. In any case, the arrangement of the car, interesting just on the face of it, becomes loaded with subtlety in light of the passage above:

The car is a big one, encompassing three rows, three tiers behind the driver. It amuses me to think of them as the celestial, the terrestrial, and the ­chthonic. In fact, I quite believe that all things—every moment, every ­vision, ­every ­departure and arrival—possess the celestial, the terrestrial, and the chthonic.
The dogs had pretty much stayed in the terrestrial section where their beds were, as well as a few empty plastic bottles. They liked to play with them, make them crackle and clatter. Sometimes I ride in the chthonic with the luggage, the boots and coats, the boxes of fruit and gin and books. It smells strangely good back there, coolly hopeful and warmly worn at once. But usually I stretch out in the seat behind the driver and watch the landscape change as we rise from the desert floor.

This three-part division of existence was predominant in Greco-Roman theology (and has indications in various Eastern religions as well) but, as we’ve seen before, it’s changed over time. While today we might think of it as heaven, earth, and hell, to the ancients it was more about the realm of the gods, the surface of the living earth, and the underworld or realm of the dead. A place of divinity, a place of life, and a place of death. Note that the driver is on the other side of the celestial realm. Could this make him a divinity? Or place him outside the three realms, in the Kingdom of the Father? Also note that, throughout the story, the narrator restlessly moves from one compartment to the other, even sitting with the driver for a while, “but find I can gain no perspective.” I again want to think of her as searching for the Kingdom of Heaven, but being unable to find it since it isn’t a place but a state of mind she is not, at least yet, capable of.

As for the parable the driver is translating, there are at least two interpretations. Again, the Koepke document is very helpful:

Read one way, the empty jar describes the spiritual emptiness of being too caught up in the outside world and of not cultivating one’s inner self. The woman lost her essence of life by letting it flow out of the jar; she
was too unaware even to notice and not until she got home did she even discover that the jar, her inner self, was empty.
But the problem with this reading is that the whole story is a parable of the Kingdom and that is only used for higher spiritual states. In addition,the unrealistic nature of the handle of the jar breaking, which would not cause the flour to pour out, is a deliberate clue to alert us that the surface meaning of the story doesn’t add up.
So there is also a higher state of emptiness of letting go of mental concepts, categories and endless inner chatter to attain true consciousness. When the woman comes to the end of her road (her life), she attains serenity (being beyond toil), she reaches into her house (her inner self) and finds emptiness (readiness for a higher spiritual state).

So we have one case in which it’s bad the flour – the essence of life, awareness of higher things – is leaking due to preoccupation with the trappings of the world, and the emptiness of the self that results is terrible; and another case in which it’s good that the flour – preoccupation with the unimportant – is being discarded and the resultant emptiness is preparation for a higher spirituality.

And what of the brokenness of the jar? Is it the brokenness of our souls that lets the life force out – or the blessing of enlightenment that lets us let go of the trivial? “There is a crack, a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in,” per Leonard Cohen. The light can’t get in if it’s all full of flour.

Now, here’s the hypothesis for the story, the hypothesis I promised many words ago: It’s a story about spirituality, enlightenment, a higher consciousness. The narrator’s journey echoes the journey of the woman with the jar. The driver is a kind of guide: the Dao, as Lao Tse or Zhuang Zi might put it. As the narrator says, “Still, you’re never drawn to a person for the reasons you think. Besides, he was the only one who had applied for the position…” Koepke sees the Gnostic Jesus in a similar vein as the Daoists, as a philosopher (Saying 28), hoping to get people to view themselves more clearly so that they can achieve spiritual growth.

The narrator chooses to take her journey, as she has chosen to take it before. Yet she resists it every step of the way, dismissing the comments of the driver. At one point they stop for a picnic, bread and water. It evokes many ideas: prison, “thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies,” and the Eucharist (would wine be too on-the-nose?). On one former journey she made the bread, but it was terrible, so the driver now provides it, underlining the Eucharist. She’s uncomfortable no matter what car row she sits in.

The ending provides a crucial moment, as the driver tells her:

“What is important is the quality of the emptiness she eventually discovers,” he agrees. “And that is what is so difficult to suggest.”

The ending paragraph has them arriving at their destination, a destination that was never defined for us. She sees it as “utterly foreign.” He sees it as “much the same as always.” Is this the emptiness she has discovered? Has she, in fact, reached a more advanced state of emptiness than ever before, so things look different? Whether the difference is good or bad, we don’t know. This is in keeping with the two interpretations of the parable. Has she been drained of worldliness and is now open to spiritual growth, or has she been drained of spirituality and is now bereft? I would tend towards the first.

I have an alternative hypothesis: it’s a parable about death, evoked by the line about the baby dying with wonderment. But the repetitive nature of the journey makes me think that isn’t quite right. Maybe the wonderment attaches to every experience in which the spiritual consciousness is engaged, not just dying. But it is something to keep in mind.

Many comments in the story seem important, for that matter, and I’ve skipped over them. The yellow trucks. The bedraggled blanket used for the roadside picnic. The journey rising from the desert. The art in the second hotel. The bathrobes in the last hotel. In a five-page story, every line is important, every image, every thought, but I’m having enough trouble with the major moments.

I go back to something Vincent Scarpa said about the story creating for the reader the experience it was intending to describe. Spirituality is a difficult path. With religion, you can learn a creed and some prayers and follow some rules and participate in some rituals and call yourself a Catholic or Jew or Buddhist or whatever. But the path to enlightenment, to spiritual growth, is less defined. You can look up a bunch of references on the internet and quote philosophy professors and literary icons, but how do you know when you’ve got it right?

In one of the many philosophy moocs I’ve taken, the professor indicated that Kierkegaard felt Christianity should be confusing, that the existence of God should not be something that can be proven. This is the leap to faith he advocated: you don’t believe in salvation because you find evidence, you just believe. I don’t really understand that. I don’t understand this story. But the journey was a lot of fun, even if I’m not sure the empty vessel at the end is a good thing, or a bad thing.