Monday, January 4, 2016

Joy Williams' short stories in "The Visiting Privilege"

I read a review of Joy Williams' short stories in Books and Culture that prompted me to buy it and read it. (I'll excerpt the review toward the end of this.) I enjoyed the compilation of short stories: all of them were well-crafted and at least pleasurable to read; some of them were profound and powerful. 

The funny (or even frustrating) thing about the collection is that the first story, "Taking Care", was SO good. After that, I kept waiting for more bombs to fall, but relatively little matched that story, the rest of the way. 

"Taking Care" bookends with "Bromeliads" (within the 33 "old stories" that start the book). Both discuss a man's thoughts and actions, after his daughter gives birth and disappears, leaving the child with him-- and as his wife is dying. The two stories of Jones and his granddaughter in that context are deeply moving. 

The last two (of the 13 new) stories also bear mention. "The Mother Cell" is an account of a strange gathering: the mothers of felons dealing with their grief. In this, I was reminded of Lewis' A Grief Observed: the various ways in which people handle grief-- and our general inability to help people much, except through our presence and love. "Craving" was a riveting story that seemed like a poignant depiction of addiction. 

Two excerpts: 

-One of her characters writes this on a piece of hotel stationery: "The claims of love and self-preservation are opposed." (p. 83) This is an important insight into life (see: Larry Crabb's Inside Out), communicated through an odd character in a surprising setting. 

-From "Winter Chemistry" (p. 89) on "the middle of January": "There was nothing left of Christmas but the cold that slouched and pressed against the people...Old ladies died of breaks and foolish wounds in houses where no one came; and fish froze quiet of their rivers. The cold didn't invent anything like the summer has a habit of doing and it didn't disclosed anything like the spring. It lay powerfully encamped-- waiting, altering one's ambitions, encouraging ends. The cold made for an ache, a restlessness and an irritation, and thinking that fell in odd and unemployable directions."

Here are a few excerpts from Linda McCullough Moore's review in Books and Culture

Moore opens by telling us how Williams was introduced at a writers' conference: "If Joy pulled up in a car with two dead bodies in the back seat, and said, 'I have to tell you about the bagels I just bought,' it would be the better part of wisdom to listen to her talk about the bagels."

How better introduce a storyteller whose fiction so routinely outwits all expectation. Bagels or dead bodies, here is a writer who directs attention where she will, casts the spotlight, tilt, askew, saying, Look at this, and I will show you something. Then she does, with charm and grace, and a wild gimmickry and passion that ensure we cannot look away...

Often a first sentence introduces three or four characters, by first name only, and the domestic narrative unfolds inside a late night kitchen, a car, an ordinary circumstance, almost always in America, and frequently in families where life has gotten more than a little out of hand...She is here to tell us what it is to be person, what a thing a lifetime is...Simple story set-ups, over and again. Then, she blows the reader out of the water...there are no cookie-cutter characters here, for the simple reason that we are not all the same...Foregone conclusions duke it out with wild caprice and sudden, often cannily founded inspiration. And time will always play a part...

The prospect of attempting a synopsis of any of these stories seems daunting from the start...You had to be there...Here is humor and life and tragedy told slant. Often so slant, the reader wants to hold on to something steady, but Williams will have none of that, instead insisting that we must let go if we are to be instructed, made to see, or ever changed...

I agree with Moore on all of that. But I want to reiterate that Williams' first sentences are *amazing*, packing a ton of punch in a little package. Her characters are strange, but real. And they often face odd circumstances (sometimes of their own making; sometimes not so much) that cause lively disruptions in their everyday lives. 

Two other connections to make as I close: 
1.) Moore's reference to "slant" reminds me of Eugene Peterson's fine book, Tell It Slant. There, Peterson describes how and why Christ so often "told it slant" in his ministry. 

2.) In college, I took a film criticism course. We had to review to two films and I chose "Back to the Future" and "After Hours" for their focus on clocks/time. Everybody's heard about the former, ad nauseum, but the latter is a quirky little movie-- a dark comedy that is Williams-esque in its style. Check it out!


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