The Wild, Rangy, Unclassifiable Delights of Joy Williams’s Fiction

If the vanity of writers is originality, the vice of critics is classification. Novelists and poets show off their bright plumage and emit their unique trills and warbles while scholars and journalists peer through the foliage, identifying the specimens and sorting them into categories. Look: a regional realist! A flock of autofictionists! Was that a postmodernist? I’ve never seen one in the wild.

If I have birds (and bird metaphors) on the brain it’s because I’ve spent much of the past few months reading and rereading Joy Williams, whose books (four novels and five volumes of stories since 1973) abound with avian life. As I tracked the mutilated pelicans and the wounded heron from “Breaking and Entering,” the “pet peahen named Atilla” in “The Quick and the Dead,” the old woman whose body appears grotesquely birdlike to the heroine of “The Changeling,” and the artificial and natural flamingos that pop up everywhere, I wondered if Williams, now 76 and a practiced observer of wildlife in her own right, might be the rarest of literary birds — one who defies guidebook taxonomies altogether.

It’s easy enough to say that, but Williams’s individuality isn’t just a matter of idiosyncrasy, of plots and characters willfully torqued away from the ordinary. What she practices is more like camouflage, except that instead of adapting to its environment, Williams’s imagination, by remaining true to itself, reveals new colorations in the ecology around her. You can place her books on a shelf alongside, say, Raymond Carver or Karen Russell, Lauren Groff or Harry Crews, Kate Chopin or Nathaniel Hawthorne, and your ideas about them will change as tendrils of affinity snake from Williams’s pages into theirs.

This isn’t influence or coincidence, though Williams shares geographical, generational and genre markings with those and many other writers. Russell wrote the introduction to a recent edition of Williams’s 1978 novel “The Changeling” (grouping its author alongside “Ovid, Shakespeare, Morrison, God”), and you could make a case that they are, with Crews and Groff, leading exponents of the kind of contemporary literary Floridiana that focuses on the sometimes comic, sometimes grotesque, sometimes sad doings of wayward white people in the Sunshine State. Florida comes up a lot in Williams’s work (she has written a nonfiction book about Key West). It’s a landscape of vacation homes and cut-rate amusements with a complicated gravity that expels some characters, attracts others and causes still others to sink into fragrant, hazy torpor.

But she’s equally at home in — she has in fact lived in — Arizona and Maine. She’s not really a Western or a New England writer, though. Or maybe she is, insofar as the flat, dry heat of the desert affects the restless young women in “The Quick and the Dead” as much as the humidity of Florida afflicts the listless young women in “State of Grace” and “Breaking and Entering,” and the deep, lonesome dark of a Maine winter shadows the mother-and-child odyssey in the short story “Escapes.” Her sense of place is acute, but her places aren’t steeped in history or tradition. People pass through or stop in them without always understanding or caring where they are. “It was one of those rugged American places,” a minor character in “The Quick and the Dead” muses, recalling his hometown in Washington State, “a remote, sad-ass, but plucky downwind town whose citizens were flawed and brave. He would never go back there, of course.”

What kind of writer is Joy Williams? If you put that question to me under torture — you might! I don’t know — I would probably blurt out “a Vintage Contemporaries author.” That’s the imprint that has published most of her books, and while I know that a corporate brand isn’t necessarily a meaningful literary identity, I want to insist that, for some of us whose tastes and sensibilities were formed in the 1980s, this particular brand kind of is.

In the decades since, Vintage Contemporaries paperbacks issued between, say, 1984 and 1994 — with their super-glossy covers and bright white spines, their Philip Johnsonesque colophon, the too-bright color illustrations that at once give away everything inside the book and miss the point entirely — have become collectors’ items and fetish objects. They are ugly and beautiful and distinctive in a way that can only start to convey, to those who weren’t around, how weird it was to be alive back then. The covers sometimes more than the contents, since the collection was notably eclectic, inclusive rather than programmatic in its choices. It’s preposterous to suggest that “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,”“Bright Lights, Big City,” “From Rockaway” and “Clea and Zeus Divorce” — eye-catching flagships in the vintage Vintage fleet as I remember it — were all examples of the same thing. But they could nonetheless feel that way to an obsessive young reader in the days before recommendation algorithms. And for this obsessive young reader, the author who most consistently embodied whatever that thing might have been was absolutely Joy Williams.

Her covers could be provocative and enigmatic, like the Modiglianiesque woman caressing her own armpit as she reclined above a blurb from Harold Brodkey for “State of Grace,” or the woman (was it the same one?) seen from the back as she hugged herself next to a virtually identical Brodkey quote for “Escapes.” (“To put it simply,” said Brodkey, who was famous for not putting anything simply, “Joy Williams is the most gifted writer of her generation.”)

But for me the epitome of Williams, Vintage contemporaneity and everything I didn’t understand about Reagan-era America was “Breaking and Entering,” her 1988 novel about a young Florida couple who squat in other people’s houses and bump up against other human flotsam. That cover is almost absurdly literal: A woman in a blue bikini peeks through brass-handled French doors. In their panes you see reflections of a beach, a palm tree and a pelican in flight. A dog crouches in front of the woman. These are Liberty and Clem, “a big white Alsatian with pale eyes,” and their inscrutable gazes — wary? teasing? hostile? bereft? — hint at the novel’s shifting, enigmatic emotional weather.

That bluntly figurative illustration — it reads as a highly specific picture, stylized and slightly fantastical but in no way abstract — implies a tone and a subject matter associated with other well-known writers of the time, who rendered fragments of American life with deadpan diction and hard empirical detail. It was called minimalism or (after a special issue of the literary magazine Granta) dirty realism, rubrics that have long faded from critical discourse.

Those old labels can be suggestive, though, in the way that old paperbacks are. And Liberty and her husband, Willie, display some kinship with the unmoored, numbed characters who amble through the pages of Ann Beattie and Raymond Carver. This is partly a matter of the absences that define the minimalized fictional terrain of the 1970s and ’80s. There is a general air of discontent, of alienation, but this feeling doesn’t have a social cause or a political effect. It’s just the way people are. There are richer and poorer people — fancy villas and ratty apartments, childhoods of pampered leisure and first-class schooling as well as back stories of deprivation and precarity — but class is more often a source of atmospheric detail than an explanatory principle. Economics is tangential to eros and subsumed by ecology:

Six dwellings. Nine. The swimming pools were lit. The sprinklers cast their slow, soft arcs. Thousands of dollars of lighting and millions of kilowatts of electricity were used to make green plants red and blue. Thousands of gallons of water from the sulfurous, shrinking aquifer were pumped up to make thousands of bags of cypress shreddings dark against the pale trunks of palms.

Inside, on a white bamboo table, were a dish of peanuts, two empty martini glasses and a ceramic dildo.

It may be that explanation as such — the assumption that things in fiction happen for a reason, and that the writer’s job is to supply or at least imply that reason — is the most important absence in the Williams cosmos. Her characters, the women in particular, often occupy psychological states and exhibit behavioral patterns that might elicit a diagnosis of some kind. But it wouldn’t just be reductive to say that Liberty suffers from depression, or that Pearl and the other heavy drinkers struggle with addiction or that the countless orphans, widows and parents of lost children — nearly everybody in “The Quick and the Dead” and half of the population of the stories in the omnibus collection “The Visiting Privilege” — are processing their grief. Phrases like those are clichés, examples of the kind of banal, flattened language Williams avoids the way her characters avoid permanence — temperamentally and also programmatically. A lazy, secondhand phrase will sometimes turn up in quotation marks, but always flagged as a moral error, a sign of bad faith or bad taste, a category mistake.

More often, people say remarkable things. You hear — and characters overhear — crazy stories, cracked bits of wisdom, fragments of longer conversations that threaten to distract you from the main action, like this:

Kant said our senses were like the nightclub doorkeeper who only let people in who were sensibly dressed, and the criteria for being properly dressed or respectably dressed, whatever, was that things had to be covered up in space and time.

Who said this?


Or this:

Alice heard a woman say, “Before I start writing I feel affectionate, interested and frustrated. In that order. Afterwards I feel relieved, disgusted and confused. Sometimes I don’t think it’s worth it.”

I’ve often wondered if Williams invented these tidbits or collected them, or both — or if having a fertile imagination and a finely tuned ear finally amount to the same thing.

There is a plain everydayness to most of Williams’s settings. An exception is the island estate in “The Changeling,” which evokes both the spooky mansions of Gothic romance and the mad-scientist research facilities of dystopian science fiction, but even that novel begins, like “Breaking and Entering,” in a drab stretch of Florida. A woman is drinking alone in a bar — hardly a remarkable sight. But this woman, named Pearl, is, like Liberty — and also like the less evocatively named Helens, Glorias, Donnas and Alices who circulate through the other books — embedded in, surrounded by and granted the power to utter sentences that are outrageous, disturbing and loaded with surprise.

Williams’s beginnings feint toward the usual introductory business — offering names, setting scenes — and invariably swerve into a sinuous motion that repeats until the last page, when the prose stops short and the reader keeps moving, like a passenger without a seatbelt. Here are a pair of beginnings, both from the 2004 collection “Honored Guest”:

Walter got the silk pajamas clearly worn. Dianne got the candlesticks. Tim got the two lilac bushes, one French purple, the other white — an alarming gift, lilacs being so evocative of the depth and dumbness of death’s kingdom that they made Tim cry.

Miriam was living with a man named Jack Dewayne who taught a course in forensic anthropology at the state’s university. It was the only program in the country that offered a certificate in forensic anthropology, as far as anyone knew, and his students adored him.

You won’t believe what happens next. Someone named Louise, a late-arriving protagonist, gets her dead friend’s dog, which she renames Broom, and finds her life disrupted. Miriam, for her part, falls in love with a lamp with a stag’s hoof for feet, and embarks on a road trip with the lamp, Jack and one of his students. Here’s where things end up in one of the stories:

She herself could only think — and she was sure she was like many others in this regard, it was her connection with others, really — that life would have been far different under other circumstances, and yet here it wasn’t after all.

Is that Miriam or Louise? I’d rather not say. Maybe you can guess? There’s no danger of spoiling anything, and no shame in being wrong. The anticipation of just how you will be wrong — just how wrong you will be — if you try to predict what will happen, is one of the keenest and most consistent pleasures of reading Williams. And also, as the passage above suggests, a philosophical insight, a universal principle of alteration and sameness.

Her inventiveness is both linguistic and narrative. Her people don’t behave in the expected ways, and neither do her words. Reality itself can seem to bend in her grasp, in subtle and also in florid ways. There is that strong-and-silent, oddly passionate lamp. A literal ghost appears in “The Quick and the Dead” — too voluble and abrasive to be an alcoholic hallucination, though she may also be that. The island in “The Changeling” is full of weird enchantments that erupt, in the novel’s harrowing and beautiful climax, into full-blown wizardry. There are dark, fairy-tale overtones in the parts of “Breaking and Entering” that recount Willie and Liberty’s meeting as children, and a feverish magic infuses the dreamy, chronologically splintered coming-of-age story buried in “State of Grace,” Williams’s first novel.

This lush, insistent and elusive strangeness might push Williams out of the realist camp altogether, and land her in the once-overrun, now underpopulated zone of experimental fiction, the convention-smashing avant-gardism that the reticent realists of the ’80s were often seen as reacting against. The hothouse fabulism of “State of Grace” and “The Changeling” might put Williams in the company of John Hawkes and John Barth, as the cryptic games and surreal humor of her stories (including the very short ones assembled in her most recent book, from 2013, “99 Stories of God”) might reshelve them closer to Donald Barthelme or Lydia Davis than to Raymond Carver.

Not that she needs their company. Her protean aspect — her manner of showing both a realist and an experimental face, sometimes in the space of a single page — exposes the limitations of such sorting. The bird evades capture, even in a notebook. Capture and evasion, not incidentally, are what she writes about most.

Captivity and freedom are among the oldest and most adaptable themes in American literature. The captivity narrative, typically the ambiguously factual chronicle of a white Protestant woman’s abduction by Indians, Catholics or other designated Others, may be the foundational American prose genre, dating back to pre-Revolutionary texts like “A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson” and “The Redeemed Captive.” It proved to be a highly elastic form. Autobiographies of the enslaved, central to the Abolitionist cause before the Civil War, brought political and moral urgency to the tropes of violated innocence and daring escape. Women stifled by the demands of marriage and the conventions of middle-class propriety are fixtures of late-19th- and early-20th-century fiction. What are Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” two of the canonical works of Gilded Age literary feminism, if not captivity narratives recast as psychological dramas?

I’m tempted to say the same about Williams’s fiction, which features women grappling with various kinds of entrapment — mostly emotional, psychological and spiritual, though sometimes physical as well. Does that make Williams a feminist writer? If this means just that she’s sympathetic to the problems women face and interested in how they deal with those problems, well then of course. It’s also worth adding that her view of men tends to be critical and sometimes piercingly satiric, focused equally on their power and their impotence. Fathers, suitors, sons and husbands are variously overbearing, needy, useless, volatile and out of the picture completely, leaving their wives, exes, daughters and widows to figure things out for themselves.

But you read Williams in vain if you’re looking for fables of empowerment or inspiring visions of sisterhood. Her heroines can be funny, brave and resilient for sure, but she is just as concerned with showing them as mean, mercurial, judgmental and passive.

At the start of “The Changeling,” Pearl has escaped, along with her infant son, from her husband, Walker, and his bizarre extended family. The patriarch is Walker’s brother Thomas, an aristocratic intellectual who has conscripted the children in his household into a twisted educational experiment. But the novel isn’t about Pearl’s liberation. It flashes back to her courtship with (or capture by) Walker and her ambivalent submission to Thomas’s authority. It then chronicles her return to the island, with results that defy easy summary.

Pearl is the active underminer of her own agency, the high priestess at her own sacrifice, an icon of maternity at once selfless and monstrous. She shares her name with a singularly mercurial female character in American literature — Hester Prynne’s daughter in “The Scarlet Letter,”a “wild and flighty little elf” whose impish anarchy is both a manifestation of Hester’s sin and proof of her rebellious, independent spirit. The paradox is that this Pearl, having made the passage from daughter to mother, is in rebellion against that very independence, in flight toward a captivity that promises neither safety nor stability, but rather an intensity of feeling that freedom can’t quite deliver. It’s still horrific, but like the households that sheltered and damaged Liberty in “Breaking and Entering” and the nameless narrator in “State of Grace,” it’s home.

In “The Changeling,” Williams pushes Pearl, the reader and her own imagination to an extreme she doesn’t attempt to reach elsewhere. “The spirit inside it is not the human spirit,” Karen Russell warns in her introduction. “It is far vaster than that.” But the novel also underlines the dialectic that threads through nearly all Williams’s fiction, winding from Key West to Tucson via towns and subdivisions too generic to name, and animating the episodic sprawl of “The Quick and the Dead” and the gnomic compression of the entries in “99 Stories of God.”

Her women are simultaneously stuck and adrift, alternating between motion and stasis, impatience and resignation, fury and compassion, longing and disgust until all those states threaten to blur together. But they never do. The particulars of experience are infinitely variable, as are the words Williams uses to capture it. To live in her world can be terrifying, its grim truths eloquently summarized in the recent story “The Mother Cell” by one of a group of women whose sons have been executed for murder: “We gave birth to mayhem and therefore history. Oh, ladies, oh my friends, we have resolved nothing and the earth is no more beautiful.”

But that’s not quite the end of it, and Williams’s harsh, funny, overgrown world is not without a measure of consolation, which you might almost call grace. This is how the story ends: “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.”

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