What surprises the most is where other writers might conclude their stories, Joy Williams pushes forward, downplaying a major event in a character’s life for a more nuanced, indirect, mysterious insight to rest her uncompromising ending upon. She has summed up the short form this way: “A story’s nature is to locate itself in that moment, that incident, where the past and the future of the participants are perceived.” —Jason DeYoung
The Visiting Privilege
490 pages, $30.00
“Life is an eccentric privilege” is a misunderstood comment in Joy Williams’ story “The Wedding,” but it might do as the pithiest of credos for Williams’ fiction. Life is an eccentric privilege…and then you die, because her stories never let you forget that because we have life, we also have death. It might be the clearest meaning her fiction imparts.
Bleak, nervy, unsentimental, hilariously at times, The Visiting Privilege combines three of Joy Williams’ previous short story collections with thirteen new stories, for a total of forty-six tales. The hangover from mainlining these stories over the last few weeks reveals an overwhelming array of narrative talismans, inimitable plot strategies, and philosophical undercurrents, the latter of which Joy Williams delights in undercutting, exposing our dumb, fragile humanness. “There are philosophers who maintain we are not our thoughts and that we should disassociate ourselves from them at every opportunity. But without this thought, I would have no experience or the world and even less knowledge of my heart,” the narrator says in “Dangerous,” one of the new stories.
Joy Williams has been up for just about every award an American writer can get but has brought few of them home. Her first novel, State of Grace, went toe-to-toe with Gravity’s Rainbow for the National Book Award; her most recent novel, The Quick and the Dead, was nominated for a Pulitzer. I bring this up not to shame Joy, but to urge those who haven’t read her work to do so. She’s worth it. Strange and dark, her stories and novels make their foundation in realism, but then you never know quite where they will lead to. Most stay firmly planned in the “manifest world,” while others drift off toward the uncanny. What surprises the most is where other writers might conclude their stories, Joy Williams pushes forward, downplaying perhaps a major event in a character’s life for a more nuanced, indirect, mysterious insight to rest her uncompromising ending upon. She has summed up the short form this way: “A story’s nature is to locate itself in that moment, that incident, where the past and the future of the participants are perceived.”
The Visiting Privilege is a hefty retrospective of Joy Williams’ short fiction. Just about all of the stories from her previous collections—Taking Care (1982), Escapes (1990), and Honored Guest (2004)—are included. Some stories have been edited out, some rearranged from their original order. All told, it’s nearly fifty years worth of fiction. Dipping into the collection will get you if not a masterpiece, a guaranteed peach of a short story. But viewed as a whole, The Visiting Privilege tells a kind of narrative on its own, that of Joy Williams’ development as a published writer.
The collection opens with “Taking Care,” a story she as said was her first “good” story, one that Rust Hill, her future husband, would accept for his literary journal Audience. Many of the narrative fetishes and tics that will follow Joy Williams are present here. The focus is on the one character most stuck in his current situation—a minister/father. He is worried about his wife who is dying and his daughter who is truant—gone to Mexico to have the nervous breakdown she’d seen for herself in the “stars.” Clearly the daughter is having the more dramatic and busier life, but Williams chooses not to follow her. The protagonist is held duty-bound to his community and church, he is responsible for the “care” of his grandbaby and wife. It’s a story about the human family, with the specter of death always in the background. Like all Williams’ stories, it also honors the inscrutability of existence, as she describes the old mother’s illness: “Her blood moves as mysteriously as the constellations.”
The prose of the early stories is tightly wound, often with the simplicity of subject-verb-object as its underlying foundation. Take for instance these few sentences from “The Lover,” a story about a young woman trying anything to keep a rather disinterested man from leaving her:
The girl becomes a lover to a man she met at a dinner party. He calls her up in the morning. He drives over to her apartment. He drives a white convertible that all rusted out along the rocker panels. He asks her to go sailing. They drop the child off a nursery school on the way to the pier. She is two years old now, almost three.
This humble pattern pulls the story along with lines that so aptly describe the human heart that they’re often hard to move past: “The girl thinks about the man constantly but without much exactitude.” These early stories frequently derive their structure from thematic or temporal iterations instead of a single conflict, effectively building an uncommon density in short story form.
As the collection progresses, the prose loosens, and becomes more and more chatty. ‘Off-plot’ sequences become more daring. The horror intensifies. Insidious and scalding stories like “The Little Winter” and “Rot” speak to the outlandishness of life. In one a girl asks to be kidnapped by her mother’s ailing friend and succeeds; in the latter, a young woman recognizes her future will remain in stasis after her much older husband rebuilds a rusty Ford Thunderbird in their living room. He calls it a work of art.
In “Cats and Dogs,” a story appearing for the first time in this collection, Joy Williams offers up this blistering (and hilarious) paragraph, which is a good example of her more recent longer, looser style of writing:
She had no admirers at present. Since leaving her parents’ home at eighteen she’d experience two brief marriages—one to a Ritalin-addicted drywaller, the next to a gaunt, gabby autodidact, brilliant and quite unhinged, who drank a pound of coffee a day, fiddled with engines and read medieval history. After their parting, he flew in a small plane he had built to Arizona and found employment as a guide in a newly discovered living cave. Daily, he berated the tourists by telling them that every breath they took was robbing the cave of its life, even though each of them had gone through three air locks and was forbidden to touch anything or take photographs. People didn’t mind hearing they were well-meaning bearers of destruction, apparently. According to him, he was the most popular guide there. She was amazed to learn that people liked him. She certainly hadn’t.
It’s hard to think of another writer who could venture as far afield as she does in this paragraph, most of which has little bearing on the actual plot.
Typical protagonists in these stories are wayward girls, or older women, both invariably made strange by life and circumstances. Often the women are cranky drinkers, some are attenders to community groups or patients; the children are spoiled, hyper-intelligent with imagination to spare. They are pretty much all looking for a way out of their current condition. Williams’ male characters don’t fair much better. They come in the form of secretive adolescents, older husbands, abusive fathers, aloof lovers, and enablers. One of the more interesting threads in these stories is how many yardmen there are—“The Yard Boy,” “The Other Week,” “Another Season,” “In the Park.” The progression of their depiction is somehow telling in itself, from the erotic, to the threatening, to the stoic, to emotionally lost. They are always shown as slightly simple men but with a profound touch for nature and plants.
The stories of gardeners and nature-lovers are important also because they make a common theme in Joy Williams’ stories and nonfiction. In 2001, she published a book of essays called Ill Nature, most of which she had written for Esquire the years before. They are harsh, deliberately incendiary essays on the environment with titles like “Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp,” “The Case Against Babies,” “Sharks and Suicide,” and “Audubon,” with its indictment that “though his name has become synonymous with wildlife preservation, [Audubon] was in no manner at any time concern with conservation. He killed tirelessly for sport and amusement.”
In The Paris Review interview Joy Williams gave a few years ago, she said this about avant-garde writing: “real avant-garde writing today would frame and reflect our misuse of the world, our destruction of its beauties and wonders. Nobody seems to be taking this on in the literary covens.” Although the tone of her environmentalism in her fiction isn’t as strident as it is in her nonfiction, it’s an essential part of it—she has taken our world’s “destruction” on. It generally appears in the form of denial. Characters want to deny or tame nature, such as in “Another Season,” in which the main character is given a small stipends and a truck to drive around a resort island to clean up all the dead animals—to make it “appear as though death on the minor plane” didn’t exist. In “Charity” its enchantment is spoiled by over-labeling: “The road led past the toilet and ramadas through a portion of landscapes where every form of plant life was explained with signs.”
Williams is wise enough, however, not to sermonize. The drama of her characters is still her foremost concern. In a little essay called “Why I Write,” Joy Williams says: “The writer doesn’t want to disclose or instruct or advocate, he wants to transmute and disturb.” And that’s The Visiting Privilege. Williams’ eye is on the spiritual and there’s an ever-present willingness to go ‘wild’ in these stories. While reading, I kept wondering when is she was going to pull back, when would she reveal it’s all fantasy or a dream. She never does. And because she doesn’t withhold, when she writes, “we’re all alone in a meaningless world,” I believe her and don’t discount it as posturing nonsense.
But here’s something small and anticlimactic: I’m unconvinced a review can do right by all these stories. There are simply too many, too much variety, too much change and range. A review of a book this formidable can only provide insufficient glimpses and peeks at the ineffable within its covers. So, I offer my personal response to this collection as a testament to its importance: At home, I have a shelf of novels and short story collections I consider vital—they are books that provide me not with clarity, but with a kind of fundamental thinking about the murkiness of human motivations, desires. I return to these often. On that shelf are books by Mavis Gallant, J. M. Coetzee, Clarice Lispector, Melville, Kowabata, others. Recently, I made space on it. The Visiting Privilege is in there now.
Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), 3:AM, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.