412pp, hardback, £16.99
Reviewed by Alison Burns
Emerging from forty-six stories by veteran American writer Joy Williams, the reader may shake her head and rub her eyes as if returning from a journey into another world. For Williams – like Jean Rhys, or Stevie Smith, or Edward Hopper – has a very particular take on life. These frank, surreal tales unroll before us like a kind of intimate newsreel, taking us right inside the daily lives of so-called ‘ordinary people’ to reveal shocking degrees of loneliness. In Williamsworld, everyone is alone. The young are atomized, ruthless; the adults are stranded, as if in a limitless penitentiary where small personal aims and activities tide them over through what many perceive as a purposeless void. Plants, pets, lucky charms, fortune-telling and inadvisable attachments or feuds fill their hours.
Death is everywhere seen as the major event. In ‘Taking Care’, Jones, the preacher, wears his heart on his sleeve (‘awkward and unfortunate, something that shouldn’t be seen’) like a freak. His dying wife ‘is a swimmer waiting to get on with the drowning’. Somehow they stagger on and he brings her home to die in ‘the shining rooms’ he has prepared for her.
Deadpan horror sits on the page repeatedly, as in ‘Winter Chemistry’, where two girls are alone on the beach ‘except for two people drowning’. They sit, ‘eating potato chips, unable to decide if the people were drowning or if they were just having a good time. Even after they disappeared, the girls could not believe they had really done it. They went home and the next day read about it in the newspapers.’
Of black humour there is also plenty, as in ‘The Little Winter’, in which Gloria reflects that ‘every person is on the brink of eternity every moment’. She steals a dog, and somebody else’s daughter. In the motel, while the dog gnaws ‘peaceably on the bed rail’, the daughter offers to paint her nails or do her hair. ‘With a little training, Gloria thought, this kid could be a mortician.’
In ‘White’, we get a flash of insight into the depths of Joan, who, with her husband Bliss is throwing a farewell garden party for their priest. ‘The worst has already happened’ for Joan, who has lost two living babies: ‘She referred to the days behind her as “those so-called days”.’ Neither the priest nor the guests know ‘the terrible way she thinks’.
There is a lot of ‘terrible thinking’ in these stories. In ‘The Last Generation’, his older brother’s girlfriend, Audrey, tells nine-year-old Tommy that comparisons are pointless: ‘Similes are a crock. There’s no more time for similes. There used to be that kind of time, but no more. You shouldn’t see what you’re seeing thinking it looks like something else. They haven’t left us with much but the things that are left should be seen as they are.’
Joy Williams is expert in seeing things as they are. Some of her descriptions of people are startlingly precise. Before she steals the dog and the daughter, Gloria in ‘The Little Winter’ sees another distressed woman at the airport, looking ‘the very picture of someone who had recently ceased to be cherished’. In ‘Bromeliads’, an intense young woman is captured as ‘a thin, hasty, troubling girl with exact and joyless passions’. And always there is the voice, which may or may not express Williams’s own feelings on the matter in question: ‘Imagination is not what it’s cracked up to be’, ‘We’re all alone in a meaningless world’, ‘People have lost their interest in reality’.