Hard to imagine a brisker, bleaker opening than this one from the title story of Joy Williams’s 2004 collection, Honoured Guest:
She had been having a rough time of it and thought about suicide sometimes, but suicide was so corny in the eleventh grade and you had to be careful about this because two of her classmates had committed suicide the year before and between them they left 24 suicide notes and had become just a joke. They had left the notes everywhere and they were full of misspellings and pretensions.
Helen’s mother has a terminal illness – no wonder Helen is ‘having a rough time of it’. Mother and daughter alternate between considerateness and bickering, confrontation with what is happening and evasion of it.
The mother’s dog gets the mourning for his mistress in early:
The dog had begun growling at her. It was a secret growl; he never did it in front of anyone else. He had taken to carrying one of her slippers around with him. He was almost never without it. He cherished her slipper …
There were only so many dogs in a person’s life and this was the last one in hers. She’d like to kick him. But he had changed when she’d gotten sick, he hadn’t been like this before. He was bewildered. He didn’t like it – death – either. She felt sorry for him. She went back into her bedroom and he followed her with the slipper.
There’s any amount of exact notation here of the way death, as it approaches, changes everything and nothing. Helen sends off for recordings of the music that will be needed for the funeral service – Verdi, Scriabin. Her mother nags her to have her hair cut, something Helen dislikes, but it’s hard to oppose the blackmail of ‘Can’t you do anything for me?’ The dying woman feels time as an active force: ‘It seemed more expectant than ever. One couldn’t satisfy it, one could never do enough for it.’ She lets one of her carers take the dog, a less traumatic move in her lifetime than the same change made posthumously. Less traumatic for the dog but not perhaps for the daughter. She loves Helen but can be vague about her – a daring touch – though she has no difficulty in remembering the dog’s birthday: ‘It was the girl who loved to iron. She’d iron anything. What’s-her-name.’ Yet there’s also a complex undermining going on, very characteristic of Williams, of the story she seems to have chosen to tell. She’s an unusually conflicted Penelope, fingers itching to set about the unweaving of her web.
The mother’s name, for a start, is Lenore, and therefore, thanks to two famous poems by Edgar Allan Poe (the name features in ‘The Raven’ as well as ‘Lenore’ itself), steeped in death as a set of literary conventions, something that happens in books. The associations are all the stronger for not being commented on – there’s no weary acknowledgment of her parents’ love of Edgar Allen Poe. The arbitrarily invoked Gothic strain is taken fairly far: ‘Sometimes in the night she would call out this name, her own, “Lenore!” in a strong urgent voice, and Helen in her own room would shudder and cry a little.’ Then there are heightened coincidences, with Lenore dreaming of getting a full-body tattoo, and Helen dreaming that her mother wants to be tattooed all over, ‘but no one would do it’. In waking life Lenore suggests they both have tattoos, small ones (‘I think you’ll be glad later’), but the plan founders when it turns out the only tattooist willing to make house calls won’t work on drunks or the dying. It doesn’t occur to Lenore to lie.
When Helen reluctantly goes to the hairdresser she finds herself in the hands of Mickey, a crimper who proclaims herself one-18th Ainu (how ‘one-18th?’), and launches into a set speech, ten lines long, about the Ainu tradition of treating a bear as an ‘honoured guest’, according it human status and then ritually slaughtering it. Texturally this is at odds with the rest of the story; thematically it fits almost too well. What to make of such an interposition? The short story form is well suited to provocation and extremity: Shirley Jackson’s horror story ‘The Lottery’, published in the New Yorker in 1948, got the biggest postal response in the magazine’s history, while readers of Flannery O’Connor’s short fiction – whose Catholic agenda could hardly be fiercer – are familiar with the feeling of being tied to the tracks while the Redemption Express thunders round the bend. What makes Williams unusual is that she plays a double game, giving precise directions – then rolling boulders down onto you as you follow them.
Williams’s stories, which have been published since the early 1970s, have always contained an element of refusal, but in the work reprinted here from her first collection, Taking Care (1982), the refusal comes early and in a way that rules out much emotional involvement. Motivation is attenuated or omitted. In ‘Preparation for a Collie’, for instance, a young family seems resolved to dispose of their dog, for no particular reason except to ‘simplify their life’. The boy, David, of kindergarten age, can hardly share this hope but makes no plea in the animal’s favour: ‘The dog has crammed itself behind the pipes beneath the kitchen sink. David squats before him, blowing gently on his nose. The dog thumps his tail on the linoleum. “We’re getting rid of you, you know,” David says.’ Perhaps he thinks it’s a game his parents are playing, and perhaps it is, since they reject all applicants, including a woman who gets her little daughter to display an injury in the hope of changing their mind: ‘The girl rolls up the sleeve of her shirt. Her arm is a mess, complexly rearranged, a yellow matted wrinkle of scar tissue.’ They claim to want a good home for the dog, but this desire is expressed rather sardonically: ‘Where will he inspire the most contentment and where will he find canine fulfilment?’ There is certainly some resentment being projected on the dog (drain cleaner is added to his hamburger at one point), possibly because the wife ‘brought him with her into this marriage, along with her Mexican bowls and something blue’ – but that was years ago, and there’s a forced quality to the story’s mystery.
The protagonists of the early stories can seem to have had their characters blurred or hollowed out, so that experiences conventionally regarded as unforgettable make no impression. The main character of ‘The Lover’ (unnamed like a number of others in the early stories – including that collie) is only 25, and not long divorced, but she ‘cannot remember the man who used to be her husband. He was probably nice. She will tell the child this, at any rate.’ Her amnesia isn’t straightforwardly self-protective, since one of the things she does remember is her husband saying, when she was in hospital to give birth: ‘Now you are going to have to learn to love something, you wicked woman.’
The unnamed ‘yard boy’ who gives another story its title is described as ‘a spiritual materialist. He lived in the Now. He was free from the karmic chain. Being enlightened wasn’t easy. It was very hard work. It was manual labour, actually.’ The satirical note carries over into the description of his love life, with a girl who eventually breaks off with him leaving a wonderfully New Age note of rejection: ‘My ego is too healthy for real involvement with you. I don’t like you. Good-bye. Alyce.’ She acquires a name just as she rejects him – just when, from the reader’s point of view, a name is something she no longer needs. The yard boy never gets a name, but the undemanding satire is ballasted with a little psychology towards the end: ‘His parents had another son, whom they loved too. One morning this son had fallen out of a tree onto the driveway and played with nothing but a spoon and a saucepan for the next 25 years.’ Strong enough inducement to live in the Now.
Williams doesn’t just use subtraction to experiment with form, she also adds characters compulsively in series or clusters: ‘There were five weekends that August, and for each one of them Steven invited a different woman up – Tracy, India, Yvette, Aster and Bronwyn.’ The impulse seems less to show off a remarkable ability to particularise character than almost to burlesque it, notably when in another story she dips below the surface of consciousness:
That evening everyone drank too much and later dreamed vivid dreams. The twins dreamed they were in the middle of a highway, trying to cross, trying to cross. Angus dreamed he was in a coffee shop where a kindly but inefficient waitress who looked like his mother was directing him to a table that wasn’t there. Lucretia dreamed that she was carving Kindertotenlieder as sung by Kathleen Ferrier out of a block of wood with a chainsaw. That’s quite good, someone was saying. It’s only a copy, Lucretia demurred. Walter dreamed that he was kneeling at the communion rail in … silk pajamas. The cup was coming towards him but had become a thermometer to be placed beneath the tongues of the devout, and by the time it reached him it was a dipstick from a car’s engine that a mechanic was wiping with a filthy cloth.
This tour de force has a hovering element of self-parody: it also displays Williams’s liking for telling stories in a decentred way, using a chorus to dispense with the expected focus on a single knot of relationships.
When she writes a classic, disciplined story, a display of craftsmanship like ‘Escapes’ with plausible aspirations to anthology status, the results are perversely disappointing – an indication that waywardness isn’t a flaw in her talent but at the heart of it. The young narrator of ‘Escapes’ (one of Williams’s relatively few departures from third-person narrative) is being brought up by her mother, erratic and a drinker, after her father leaves. The mother, as a young girl, had seen Houdini on stage and remembered how he had made an elephant disappear, and picked oranges from a tree he had grown from a seed in front of the audience’s eyes. Naturally the narrator wants to see Houdini:
‘Oh, Houdini’s dead, Lizzie … he died a long time ago. A man punched him in the stomach three times and he died.’
Dead. I asked if he couldn’t get out of being dead.
‘He met his match there,’ my mother said.
Mother and daughter set out to see a magic show in a neighbouring town, but the mother has cocktails on the way and they arrive late. After the interval she makes an unscheduled appearance on stage. Normally Williams is a great disrupter of tone, but this story is a rather solemn study of alcoholism and codependence: ‘She was having a little drink, I knew, and she was where she went when she drank without me, somewhere in herself. It was not the place where words could take you but another place even.’ The little parcels of insight are laid out as neatly as sushi on a conveyor belt.
The most accomplished story in the first half of the book is ‘The Excursion’, an enigmatic and upsetting narrative about a girl, Jenny, of nursery age, who has an impossibly detailed carnal fantasy life:
She is propelled by sidereal energies. Loving, for her, will not be a free choosing of her destiny. It will be the discovery of the most fateful part of herself. She is with a man. When he kisses her, he covers her throat with his hand. He rubs his fingers lightly down the tendons of her neck. He holds her neck in his big hand as he kisses her over and over again.
‘Raisin bran or Cheerios,’ Jenny’s mother asks. ‘Cheddar or Swiss?’
The double perspective is maintained through the whole story, with the parents never suspecting that their daughter is like a child in a Balthus painting or a Lorca poem. This is transgression at a high pitch, so uncomfortable though so unarguable as a literary performance that the temptation is to declare it unforgettable then forget it. This isn’t quite Surrealism, since the emphasis is on an impossible continuity rather than disruption by the irrational, or confrontational postmodernism à la Kathy Acker.
Surrealistic effects , nevertheless – not easy to control in prose – are part of Williams’s repertoire. She sometimes resorts to dream logic as a way of finishing a story, so that the newlyweds of ‘The Wedding’ levitate Chagall-style: ‘Together, in their animistic embrace, they float out the window and circle the house, gazing down at all those who have not found true love, below.’ The yard boy’s beloved rabbit’s-foot fern ends his story by sending messages of retribution to some Spanish bayonet plants (‘harsh and green with spikes that end up in black tips like stilettos’), which uproot themselves to move against the woman who has left him.
Later narratives take on a deeper tinge of the irrational. The title character, or title creature, of ‘Lu-Lu’ isn’t described in any detail as she drinks milk from a bowl in the kitchen of her elderly owners, Debbie and Don. They’re worried, as they confide to their young neighbour Heather, about who will look after her when they are no longer able to manage. From the ‘half a dozen chevron-patterned grey and papery skins’ attached to the mildewed ceiling of the lanai, ‘rustling and clicking in the breeze’, it’s clear that Lu-Lu is a snake of considerable size, but her actual dimensions are only hinted at in a nightmare vision of Debbie’s (she’s psychic). Lu-Lu is in the San Diego zoo, and Debbie can see a ‘big fat guy holding an ice-cream sandwich in one hand and a little girl by the other and he’s saying: “Why that thing weighs fifteen pounds more than Daddy!”’
The old people retire to bed, though it’s still light, having indulged too freely in gin and grapefruit juice (pink fruit from their own tree). ‘Even my hair feels drunk,’ Don says. They’re still wearing their bathing suits. Spontaneously Heather makes an announcement: ‘I would like to take Lu-Lu and make a new life for myself.’ There’s no argument from Don or Debbie, though they offer some mild cautions:
‘If you go off with Lu-Lu,’ Debbie said, ‘you’ve got to love her good, because Lu-Lu can’t show she loves you back.’
‘Snakes ain’t demonstrative as a rule,’ Don added. ‘They’ve got no obvious way of showing attachment.’
‘She’ll be able to recognise your footsteps after a while,’ Debbie said.
Heather is delighted by this anticipated intimacy. She prepares to leave without setting foot inside her rented house again, not even retrieving the diaphanous nightie that hangs on the clothesline. Unsure about how to encourage Lu-Lu into her car, she shovels some dirt onto the back seat in token of welcome, and there the story leaves her: ‘How do you beckon to something like this, she wondered, something that can change everything, your life.’
In the disorienting game of additions and subtractions one procedure disguises another, and here the encrusting of oddity masks a dismantling of infrastructure. The real subversiveness of ‘Lu-Lu’ isn’t the grotesqueness of the details – the story would survive the substitution of a less unusual pet – but the hollowing-out of Heather’s psychology. The short story as a form is very attached to the pivot moment, the decision that changes everything, but here the narrative coasts through it apparently without noticing. Heather is ‘young and desperate’. Love has ‘eluded’ her, apparently, no details given. Seeing the bareness of the old people’s fridge, she thinks she should do something for them, make a quiche or something, but helps herself instead to a biscuit of shredded wheat. She sees her nightie on the line and thinks, ‘time to go’, and it seems to be the nightie as much as anything that she is leaving, the ‘ugly nightie with its yearnings’. Barely a hundred words of ‘Lu-Lu’ delineate her ‘character arc’. If this is the spine of the story, shouldn’t it amount to more than a few shards of narrative bone?
It can also happen that a character arc is pulled so far out of shape that it snaps. Miriam, in the story ‘Congress’, is living with Jack, a forensic anthropologist who identifies fragments of bodies so as to be able to inform the relatives of missing persons of the fate of those they love. A sombre and morbid line of work, you’d think, except that the bereaved are buoyed up by the knowledge he can provide: ‘That’s her, that’s them. No need to worry anymore, it is finished, you are free. No one could help these people who were weary of waiting and sick of hope like Jack could.’ It’s Miriam who strikes people – even Jack sometimes – as gloomy. She passes on to him Beckett’s description of tears as ‘liquefied brain’, and he snaps at her: ‘God, Miriam, why are you sharing that with me? Look at this day, it’s a beautiful day! Stop pumping out the cesspit! Leave the cesspit alone!’
One of Jack’s students, a keen hunter, brings along four cured deer feet, suggesting that Jack might like to turn them into a lamp. Jack is enthusiastic, Miriam horrified: ‘The thought of a lamp made of animal legs in her life and turned on caused a violent feeling of panic within her.’ Still, when the object is made she is captivated by it. It becomes a sort of companion. ‘The lamp had eclectic reading tastes. It would cast its light on anything, actually. It liked the stories of Poe.’ One night, though, the two of them read
a little book in which animals offered their prayers to God – the mouse, the bear, the turtle and so on – and this is perhaps where the lamp and Miriam had their first disagreement. Miriam liked the little verses. But the lamp felt that though the author clearly meant well, the prayers were cloying and confused thought with existence. The lamp had witnessed a smattering of Kierkegaard and felt strongly that thought should never be confused with existence.
At this point there is still two-thirds of the story to go, and any amount of flagrant oddity to come.
Oddity in itself isn’t a reliable basis for rewarding writing, and Williams has learned to rein in the wild improvisation. Violations of plausibility are largely confined to the dialogue, with characters speaking in an outrageously enhanced register of eloquence and knowledgeability. In early stories Williams showed a susceptibility to the charms of precociousness, particularly in young or adolescent girls, to the point where such characters derail the narrative – one story, ‘Train’, has an incongruous flavour of Salinger’s tales of the prodigious Glass family. Now this fascination with disproportionately assured speech is deployed more strategically, to tug at the moorings of realism without ever quite severing them. So a woman who has been wrangling about money with her partner remarks without transition: ‘Kant said our senses were like the nightclub doorman who only let people in who were sensibly dressed.’ Later in the same story, ‘The Other Week’, her gardener reveals a lot of knowledge about the Mayans, who ‘practised frontal deplanation in newborn children so their heads would look like a rattlesnake’s head’ – and expresses the wish that someone had done the same for him ‘because I wouldn’t mind having a deeply ridged, crenellated head’.
Sometimes there are paradoxical emotional responses thrown into the mix – though none as extreme as Miriam’s U-turn about the deer-hoof reading lamp. Angela, the mother in ‘Hammer’, warily prepares to welcome her ferocious 16-year-old daughter Darleen home for a visit. Hopes for a reconciliation seem vanishingly small, to judge from their pre-visit phone conversation (‘I’m hanging up, Mummy. You can continue with your inanities if you wish’). Even Angela considers the possibility that a softening of mother-daughter antagonism might have a cost, fearing that ‘something would break then in Darleen, never to be made good again.’ Darleen turns up accompanied by someone called Deke whom she introduces as her assistant and guide, ‘a man with greying, slicked-back hair. He wore a leather shirt and extremely tight-fitting leather pants that suggested no knob.’ Soon Darleen is saying: ‘I want to marry him, Mummy. I’ll spend years if necessary nursing him back to health.’ Everything seems prepared for intense drama, either an explosion or sustained Pinteresque simmering, but Williams chooses instead a topsy-turvy register of social comedy. Deke’s history isn’t reassuring, quite apart from the ‘unfortunate erotic crisis’, undergone recently, that may account for the exemplary snugness of his leather trousers. ‘“Deke used to be an art critic,” Darleen said. He waved one hand dismissively. “Just for the prison newsletter.”’
Deke criticises everything in the house – no steaks or ice cream in the freezer, inadequate sound system, bed lumpy, recycling practices poor, fire extinguishers out of date – and Angela mounts no defence (‘It was all true. He was in no way exaggerating’). When Deke says he’s going out to get more wine, having exhausted the domestic supplies, you’d expect his hostess to be relieved, but no: ‘“Don’t leave!”’ Angela and Darleen exclaimed together.’
If the point is that nothing can make a hellish family relationship worse, then it could have been made in other registers. At the story’s conclusion, years later, Angela, dying in a hospice, still remembers that evening with pleasure – she ‘wanted to laugh, even now’. The nurses hear her say to a visitor no one else can see: ‘Did you bring the hammer?’ She’s referring to a speech in a Chekhov story paraphrased by Deke: ‘There should be a man with a hammer reminding every happy, contented individual that they’re not going to be happy for ever.’ A powerful ending in its way, but an almost ostentatiously bad fit with the story the writer has chosen to tell.
One thing in these stories that is immune to metamorphosis or mutation is the sense of place (Florida provokes a particularly intense love-hatred), with settings ranging from the desert of ‘Dangerous’ to the snowbound landscape of ‘Winter Chemistry’. An exception is the cheerfully unconvincing Cornwall of ‘Souvenir’, with its headless dogs and two old men, Paul and Paul, playing a traditional Lenten prank, putting on a sort of lugubrious cabaret turn for the tourists who drink elaborate cocktails – Sheep Dip, Blimlets, Blue Skies – in a hotel bar.
The American edition of The Visiting Privilege is subtitled ‘New and Collected Stories’, though understandably the material appears in the book the other way round. It’s slightly awkward that the ‘collected’ section should be bookended by two stories, ‘Taking Care’ and ‘Bromeliads’, that share characters and a basic situation. They overlap too much to seem free-standing: they’re more like alternative edits of something intractable, two attempts to carve a short story from a larger stretch of narrative. The ‘new’ stories (whose newness may be a matter of publication rather than composition) are generally shorter and tighter, though there are still multiple infringements of surface probability and refusals of neat construction. With ‘The Mother Cell’ Williams achieves her ambition (if such a thing can be deduced from a persistent earlier tendency) to write a decentred but coherent story. The mothers in the story are the mothers of murderers, not a consciously created support group but a confluence of people with a particular compatibility: ‘These things happen, like when highly allergic people, practically allergic to life itself, all gravitate to some mountain in Arizona, or when a bayside town in Maine becomes the locus for lipstick lesbians overnight.’
There’s a lot of death in these stories – ‘the incomprehensible refuge’ as it’s described at one point. Death is accompanied not just by grief and guilt but by shame, as much of an affliction for the parents of suicides as of killers, but the stories themselves aren’t morbid. The eldest mother in the ‘mother cell’ ends the evening with the words: ‘Oh, ladies, oh, my friends, we have resolved nothing and the earth is no more beautiful.’ We’re told she likes to finish on an uncompromising note of this sort, but on other evenings she takes a different tack, saying instead that ‘despite their clumsy grief and all the lost and puzzling years that still lay ahead of them, the earth was no less beautiful.’
It comes as a surprise to the other mothers when one of them suggests that they have been ‘talking about God’ all evening – ‘“That’s a stretch,” Barbara said’ – and even habitual readers of Williams may find her new book of miniature fictions, Ninety-Nine Stories of God, disconcerting. It’s true that The Visiting Privilege has a biblical quotation as its epigraph, but it’s an extract from Corinthians (‘We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed’) that is easily diluted into metaphor. Only one of the miniatures, the 49th, could be characterised as explicit mystical sermonette – ‘We must push our minds to the limit of what we could know, descending ever deeper into the darkness of unknowing’ – but there is a wealth of contradictory religious references. ‘The Lord’ is a recurrent figure, sometimes omniscient, sometimes baffled, in these capricious and often prickly little pieces. To judge by his aversion to meat-eating, this isn’t the God of the Old Testament, that demander of animal sacrifice, or the tender extremist of the New. On the only occasion when a Christ figure might be manifesting himself in one of these pieces, he is an unknown old man with ‘long, grey, undistinguished hair’ attending a wedding. Asked if he was invited, he replies: ‘I’m not here to nibble on your fucking salmon.’
Though the pieces are extremely short they aren’t necessarily compressed, if compression implies the forging of wholeness. Williams prefers a sense of fracture and ambush. There’s no sense, as there is with Lydia Davis, whose taste for brevity amounts almost to obsession, that there is a moral hygiene involved in removing the superfluous, except perhaps in the piece numbered 61, which might almost be a homage to Davis; it reads: ‘We were not interested the way we thought we would be interested’ and is entitled ‘Museum’.
The titles in Ninety-Nine Stories of God come at the end of each story, a practice that is sometimes used, as it was by Debussy in his piano Preludes, to weaken the authority of titles, giving them the status of an afterthought, but here the effect is almost the opposite. The title, in full caps and only separated from the text by a single line, seems to surge up towards the reading eye like a depth charge in reverse. The detonation often seems excessive, when the title is a formula like ‘SATAN’S LEATHERY WING’ or does duty as the punchline of a joke (‘PRETTY MUCH THE SAME, THEN’ or ‘PERHAPS A KIND OF CAKE?’). Even when there is no obvious connection with the story, as in the case of ‘NO’ or ‘THIS IS THE WAY THAT NIGHT PASSES BY’, there’s still an effect of sledgehammer irony. It would have been subtler to list the titles separately at the end of the book, so that the reader could be granted an illusion of free will in bringing together a story and its title. It may be that these stories approximate to Buddhist koans and are intended to provoke insight by way of bewilderment, so as to shortcircuit the intellect, but that would require the bouquet of thorns to be thrust towards the reader with less purposeful an air of aggression.
Not that thorns are an optional extra even in Williams’s longer stories. Miriam in ‘Congress’ learned, from a book that she and the deer-hoof lamp read together, the fact (if it is a fact) that cacti are descended from roses. They’re late arrivals, adapters, part of a new climate, and she feels an affinity with this condition. Jack, on the other hand, loved to grow roses – but this wouldn’t be a Joy Williams story if the opposition of rose and cactus were clear-cut. Miriam suspects that the appeal of roses to a forensic anthropologist lies in the fact that ‘the inside of a rose does not at all correspond to its exterior beauty’: in fact, if one tears off all the petals of the corolla, ‘all that remains is a sordid-looking tuft.’ This may be the essential limitation on the readership of The Visiting Privilege, despite the fact that most of the stories are successful and perhaps a dozen are superb. People would rather be offered a bunch of roses, though tatty and bearing only the perfume of a garage forecourt, than a cactus protecting a secret succulence.