October 2016

Arts & Letters

Language to transcend

By Barry Hill

Joy Williams. Photograph by Anne Dalton, courtesy of Tin House.

Celebrated short-story practitioner Joy Williams turns to micro fiction in ‘Ninety-Nine Stories of God’

Joy Williams writes word-perfect stories. They are often wretchedly funny; she makes you laugh even when you don’t want to. She writes out of a damaged or wild or ecstatic or even a divine madness. And she strives for a new prose for our eerie times: “We must write with a pen – in Mark Twain’s phrase – warmed up in hell,” as she recently told the Paris Review.

The daughter of a Congregational minister, Williams lives alone in Arizona for a good part of the year, on the edge of the desert where mystics dwell, along with the white trash she seems to weep for, pity and scorn. Judgements lurk in her black comedies, written as they seem to be to make malice tango with vacancy. There’s a whiff of redemption, too.

Williams, also a novelist and essayist, published her first book of short stories in 1982. Last year her collected short stories, The Visiting Privilege, came out to major acclaim. In an early story from that collection the narrator tells us, “The people in Elizabeth’s fables were always looking for truth or happiness and they were always being given mirrors or lumps of coal. Elizabeth’s stories were inhabited by wolves and cart horses and solipsists.” The story is called ‘The Wedding’, and it is as much about the haplessness of love as it is about love’s unreliable companion, parenting. Elizabeth wants to read her fables to her little girl, but the child “only wanted to hear the story about the little bird who thought a steam shovel was its mother”. “Please relax,” says Sam, Elizabeth’s partner. “Sam,” the child calls, “why do you have your hand over your heart?” “That’s my Scotch,” Sam says.

In less than a page Williams gets it all down. The yearning, the mismatches, the febrile anxieties, the drinking – as much drinking as in Raymond Carver or John Cheever, as a matter of fact, which places her in a main vein of an American tradition. Drink goes with the lethal asides: “Sam and Elizabeth met as people usually meet. Suddenly, there was a deceptive light in the darkness. A light that blackly reminded the lonely of the darkness.” We have only just reached the second page of the story, which will run briskly, hilariously and mortifyingly for another five.

Compassion towards humankind is not the order of the day with Williams, but there is tenderness towards all living creatures: cockroaches included, dogs especially. In ‘Shepherd’, a story about getting married, it is the dog that steals the show. “The shepherd was brown and black with a blunt, fabulous face. He had a famous trick. When the girl said, ‘Do you love me?’ he would leap up, all fours, into her arms. And he was light, so light, containing his great weight deep within himself like a dream of weight.” This elementary sense of rapture seldom occurs with humankind. True happiness lies elsewhere.

Her stories have also been compared with those of Flannery O’Connor, where dark intimations of God abound. The Visiting Privilege has an epigraph from 1 Corinthians 15: “Behold, I tell you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye …” And that is what the long stories usually are: narratives with cryptic signs towards something else, something more. People hear things, they listen out for them. They know that animals, especially dogs, listen out well. Who on earth said that humans were at the centre of the cosmos? If God said that, he was joking, or just plain wrong. Empty-headed fools know that! An empty bottle or a broken toy might know it, too. Williams, quite marvellously, describes a whole terrain of broken things. Amid weeds and rubble, human beings carry on with their nonsense, littering the desolate surface of their maps where pathos reigns.

Now, with Ninety-Nine Stories of God (Tin House Books; $39.95), Williams is the latest, hottest practitioner of micro-fiction, a form that thrives in the age of Twitter, indulging many while testing others with its opaque codes of brevity. Different arts are attached to the micro form. For example, Lydia Davis is highbrow micro-fiction because she is a fastidious grammarian and a stern translator of Flaubert. Williams tests us in other ways. She tends to revel in words and wounds – those we inflict on others and ourselves in the normal course of our ignorance, neglect, misunderstandings, callousness, intoxications and so on. God could be blamed, or some vague thing that comes between us and God, if he or she exists – who or what would know?

“I’m going to do one more story about God,” Williams said recently. “He’s really going to confide in me. Then I’m done.” She could have been referring, martini in hand, to her whole body of work so far, but she was in fact speaking about a follow-up to these 99 short stories, which have come out all too soon after the acclaim of her collected stories. They arrive as if she is riding high on God, although whether entirely ironically it’s hard to say.

Ninety-Nine Stories of God is a miscellany of vignettes, anecdotes, apparent offcuts of long stories, fables, and aphorisms. To give them good marks as enlightening you would need to rate them highly against the utterances of, say, Jesus Christ, Franz Kafka, Rumi the Sufi poet or a Zen master.

Sometimes the entries are up-front funny; they pip wisecracks. Other times they are gnomic. Often I felt dumb reading them, and sad that they fell so flat. After a while I began to see the segue cues: ah, here’s another dead or damaged or lost child; here’s another deadpan entry on what we think we know; here’s the enigma that follows on from an insight about ignorance. Here is a droll tale about a writer who has had many literary awards, poor fool, little does he know – nothing more than we know, sometimes, since a story begins in one place and so quickly shifts to another, like something caught in the lights of a speeding ambulance. And here, neatly caught, is James Agee’s wonderful dream about elephants that set themselves ablaze so that “their huge souls, light as clouds, settle like doves in the great secret cemetery back in Africa”.

Another story, one of the fables, begins, “A child was walking with a lion through a great fog.” “I’ve experienced death many times,” the lion tells the child. “Impossible,” the child says, at first, and then asks, “was it … consoling?” “Yes,” the lion says. “An inexplicably consoling irony filled my heart.” Finally the child says, “I would not know what irony is.”

Sometimes, Williams can be arresting even if she undoes all that she has just said. These micro-fictions have a Zen flavour, as if language exists to be transcended. Readers will have their favourites, no doubt, depending on the extent to which moments of cruelty have their way, or splinters of light break through.

Barry Hill
Barry Hill is a poet and historian. His book Naked Clay: Drawing from Lucian Freud was short-listed for the UK’s 2012 Forward Prize.

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