Joy Williams, The Visiting Privilege; Ninety-Nine Stories of God – TLS
“Was it only a dream that Literature was once dangerous, that it had the power to awaken and change us?”, Joy Williams wondered recently in an unpublished essay. Among her peers, Williams’s attempt to put language to work in this way, to make it shake us from complacency, has won the admiration of writers as various as Raymond Carver, Stephen King, Edmund White, Chuck Palahniuk, George Saunders and Don DeLillo. She has written four novels featuring oddballs and discontents, and two non-fiction works – one, a sort of anti-tourism book about the Florida Keys, the other an ecological polemic, Ill Nature (2001). But the bulk of praise has been for her oblique and acerbic short stories, and her skill in conveying something beyond or below their frame, making darkness visible, or at least tangibly felt. Many have now been collected in The Visiting Privilege, together with some new stories. Written over the last forty years, these unconsoling tales (“There is no happy ending”, one character warns) lay bare the disturbed psyche of America. Cumulatively they seem to foreworn of the derangement we are witnessing in the age of Trump, the loss of proportion and propriety, and a vast carelessness, even about the truth. Beginning in ordinary circumstances her stories often lurch into something more sinister or perverse, presenting solipsistic individuals, environmental decimation, cruelty to animals, and an uncertain sense of what constitutes reality. The ‘Visiting Privilege’ of the title story, like the ‘Honoured Guest’ of another, intimates that man’s stay on earth is temporary and on sufferance – an idea that rebukes our habit of exploitation, but also sets the limits of our freedom. The question of who or what we have exhausted – God, other species, the environment, or maybe the author herself – and what we might have to forfeit as a result, looms in them all.
The short story still has a privileged place in American literary culture, finding a home in prestigious magazines such as the New Yorker, the Paris Review or Esquire where Williams’ husband, L. Rust Hills, was literary editor for many years, and it is taught on creative writing programmes where these days a sizeable portion of American writers learn their craft. The appeal for the neophyte lies in the story’s evident constraints, which can make it a more visible ‘turn’ than the novel, a form for showing off (something George Plimpton once castigated Williams for). And its principal subject is perhaps the biggest one of all. If the novel is pre-eminently concerned with time, and what we do inside it, the short story’s subject is time ending, and how we face death. Not by accident is one of the greatest story collections called The Dead.
Perhaps it is the story’s deathly cast which makes the form resonate so strongly in America: its shifts in gear or sudden revelations alerting us to the fact that life is never stable or safe; and its brevity warning that the end is always nigh, or just around the corner – especially in a country where, as Williams observes, opportunities for death proliferate with every new six-lane highway. Williams’ mastery of the form stems in part from her understanding of this. Her epigraph to The Visiting Privilege is from Corinthians: “we shall all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye”; and her most frequent character, showing up in over half of these stories, more frequently still in the later ones, is Death. The endpapers to The Visiting Privilege show a supremely American image of a group of people in a convertible driving breezily towards their fate. While in the book’s culminating moment, in the final story, ‘Craving’, a couple, who like nothing better than to drink and drive, abandon their effort to sober up in various rented rooms and motels, and head out to the road to flirt with death, playing their favourite game of tailgating, “teasing” the car ahead, before coming to an inevitable bad end.
For Williams, death, in its infinite variety, is the great deconstructor, pulling apart the ordered reality we cling to and exposing it as a sham or delusion, or at the very least as more furtive and strange than is generally acknowledged. For instance, in ‘Marabou’ a mother’s funeral for her drug addicted son begins with a kind of benevolent comradeship as his friends turn up and share their memories, but the wake descends quickly into unsettling territory and the story ends with first one and then several of the friends returning to her house and refusing to go away. In ‘The Honoured Guest’, another mother, “condemned” with cancer finds the torment of its slow progression brings her daughter to the verge of suicide. In both, someone tells a tale about the cruel or bizarre treatment of an animal – metaphors that serve to emphasise human beastliness – and in both, speech becomes inchoate and threatening: “Words at night were feral things”, the dying mother thinks, vowing not to speak after dark. But as so often happens in Williams’ stories, communication breaks down into angry or bemused non-sequiturs, painting a vast aloneness and inadequacy, particularly in the face of death. One tale that conveys a rare degree of compassion in this astringent collection, ‘The Mother Cell’, concerns a group of women, all mothers of killers, who have come together unwittingly, as if drawn magnetically to the same spot on the map. Their talk is declamatory and disjointed, but in their shared predicament this is tolerated, expected even, as if in their situation only ruptured conversation is fitting. In the same way, there is collective agreement that seeking redemption would be tasteless. More often, though, Williams’ characters struggle to come to terms with one another and are oddly affectless and blind to the people around them. There are several stories where the death or sickness of others is treated as an occasion for self-aggrandisement, a chance to play a starring role in the proceedings, often with an underlying violence to those people the characters in question are purporting to help.
But despite such mordancy, nearly everything Williams’ writes is laced with comedy – for the writer, death’s silver lining. In her novel I’m Dying Laughing, Christina Stead (an author much admired by Williams) identified the character of this humour, both disturbing and disabusing, of which Williams is such an expert: “American humour is another way of seeing the truth; and what a vision!…it is homespun, godlike truth stalking in from the plains and the tall timber, coonskin and deerhide, with a gun to disturb our little home comforts.” Many of the stories in The Visiting Privilege not directly concerned with the Grim Reaper are enlivened by just such a scything humour. Williams’ narrators are experts at cutting people down to size: “Martha is a comfy woman with a nice complexion but her hair is the colour of pork”; “She had corn kernels in her teeth, but apart from that she was the very picture of an exasperated woman.” Her humour can suggest aberration: “I saw an odd thing there in the mountains. I saw my father pretending to be lame”; or veer into something more sinister: “He goes at her without turning on the light. ‘I didn’t want to wake you up’, he says”. Often it turns on dehumanisation or the difficulty of acting naturally, as if we have forgotten how to behave, even in the most basic human relationships: “It is hard to know how to act when one is with the child, alone.”
This dark comedy is even more in evidence in Ninety-Nine Stories of God, a book of vignettes modelled on Thomas Bernhard’s The Voice Imitator (1997). These comprise amusing, shocking or unexpected tales, like the fait divers beloved of nineteenth century French newspapers, as well as philosophical statements or speculations, and many brief pieces in which the Lord is brought down to earth – their humour deriving from incongruity (the Lord adopting a turtle, the Lord giving a dinner party), or from mortals failing to recognise His omnipotence. In story 99, Williams distils the preoccupations of her oeuvre: inadequate human beings struggling to understand the mystery of life, death and a reclusive God. Here, the Lord is in Maine, in the messy home of a psychic who is trying, but failing, to see Him: “this can’t be that unusual”, she thinks. But then she has an epiphany. Maybe the point is not to see Him, but to “go directly to the questions most everyone had and visualise from there. What’s going to happen after I’m dead?”
From early in her career Williams was making notes about the human disinclination to take responsibility or to pay for one’s pleasure: “They loved jumping off the cliff but…but they hated the climb back up”, says the narrator of ‘Taking Care’. By the latter stages, however, inertia has turned into intransigence. So a man attending a church meeting week after week looks down at a paper-clip wedged in the cracks of the floorboards, and wonders why it hasn’t been cleared away, but never picks it up. And a woman seeing a postcard she can’t remember displaying in her kitchen, of a city she doesn’t like, decides, perversely, she has “no intention of taking it down”. It’s in these details as well as in the bigger, showier battles with death, violence and environmental harm, that Williams illuminates the darkness in America where, rather than action, selfishness and stubborn refusal have become the hallmarks of resistance. Perhaps this is what Williams means when she says “I write out of a sense of guilt…There’s not enough guilt around these days for my taste”. She has even wondered if over-attention to the self, “this obsessional looking at the human [might] bring about the death of literature”. For Williams self-absorption is inextricably linked to the contemporary shoulder shrug, the ‘whatever’ attitude she fears is not just killing the great enquiry of literature but dehumanising mankind. In the collection’s final story, ‘Craving’, the car crash finale is brought about by something the drunk, careless couple seem to have conjured from their own squandering destructiveness. Another car smashes into them, a deliberate act by a driver who seems, terrifyingly, to be less than human: “Then whatever was driving it slammed on the brakes.”
“I believe that God is (and must be) a transcendent presence in any work of art”, Williams has said, but exasperated by her fellow Americans, wreckless and profligate, driven by death wish, she seems to doubt whether a work of art can accommodate them. She is now working on a novel set in the desert which will depict “species unknown, species never seen”.
This review appeared in the TLS, titled ‘Death Driven, on 16.12.2016.