Feb 072016
 

diane-williamsAuthor portrait by bill hayward.

Despite disruptions of her own reputation, Williams remains most adept at dropping readers into an inarticulate present where something is always amiss and each sentence conveys a syntactically spry sense of yearning, however vague or fleeting that sense may be. In the stories throughout Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, narrative jumps beg to be bridged, implied meanings considered, and absences filled however readers see fit to fill them. —Jason Lucarelli

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Diane Williams
Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine
McSweeney’s Books, 2016
136 pages, $20.00

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Inside every Diane Williams story lives a tense and turbulent narrative, where pressurized and peculiar sentences carry epiphanies and ambiguities—and sometimes both in the same sentence.

To read one of her stories is to forget what you know about conventional storytelling. Forget the rise and fall of dramatic action. Forget plot. Revel in the inconclusive. These fictions are fractured, and many of them last for only a page or two. But their brevity is impactful, an unexpected slap.

What Williams has created over eight collections of condensed fiction is an enigmatic genre of prose that falls somewhere between language game, parable, and poetry. And her exploration of this genre-bending territory continues in Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, her newest collection of stories.

Diane Williams has been described by Ben Marcus as “a startlingly original writer worthy of our closest attention.” She has taught at Bard College, Syracuse University, and the Center For Fiction in New York City. As current editor of the well-respected literary annual NOON, she publishes authors like Gary Lutz, Greg Mulcahy, Deb Olin Unferth, and Noy Holland, and stories that “leave one conscious of powerful meanings not yet fully absorbed.”

Williams’ own stories have been called “unsettling,” “sensual,” “cryptic,” “strange,” and “revelatory.” They leave us asking, “What is this?” Here’s a taste from Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine:

The Bucky’s waitress says she is happy to have back that amorous part of her life and that this makes her less of a Plainer Jane.

And, with an old man named Humphrey, she says she’s made a pretty bargain.

Today she said, “I’ll take some of this, too!” and she took a gulp of my water.

And we enjoy laughing about the poor hot beverages she serves and about our divorced husbands. Although my partner in marriage, Ray, was nobody to laugh about—Ellie always says she’ll clear the decks to ignore that. (“Flying Things”)

Readers looking for insight into Williams’ narrative logic should turn to Gordon Lish, her teacher of many years and the editor of her third collection of stories The Stupefaction. Lish holds that there is a “combative relationship between sentences,” and that while each sentence is born from the prior sentence, “every sentence is in contest with what has been said.” His method of composition is based on students saying “no” to the prior sentence, and “swerving” away from its intended direction. Lish would instruct his students to write each sentence by “looking for how it’s saying something other than what you think it’s saying, and exploring that rather than what you think it intended to say.”

With Williams, this method of composition, this continuous swerving away from the expected, lends her fiction a suppressed quality where narrators engage syntactically but remain proactively evasive. An absence or break in logic becomes a source of narrative momentum. In an interview with The White Review she said, “I don’t think I’d be happy if I were clear about everything that ends up on the page. I’d like to get beyond what I know as far as I can. In my fiction I like to provide some mystery, a place to meditate, where I might be nearing a new insight, if in fact I haven’t reached it.”

Her latest collection of 40 short stories, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, contains tales of characters encountering ghosts, marital woes, pesky gophers, second husbands, thieving sisters, dinner parties, and, above all, impending death. These new stories are as short or as long as anything Williams has written in the past, yet the finest fictions here are the longer ones, the ones persisting beyond three pages. In these stories, Williams demonstrates a new willingness to linger, to follow an intended direction and extend a narrative arc beyond a few sentences or a paragraph. This new continuity is not purely a function of length. Rather than deflect the flows in her prose as she has seemingly done in the past, Williams appears to embrace them. By balancing ambiguous phrases beside narrative assertions, she allows readers to enter the action instead of being barred from it.

The collection kicks off with “Beauty, Love And Vanity Itself,” a story told in first person perspective with a length of two pages, 380 words. A woman, who is largely unconcerned with her appearance, is looking for love. While the “real thing” comes along, she chooses instead to go forward on the “funny path” pursuing her “vocation.” The narrator makes her way through a town and keeps to a path along a fence where she looks into the distance. Suddenly, she is poolside at The Marriott Courtyard where she seems to witness three women drowning in the hotel pool. When she alerts the lifeguard, he says that the women do not “know what the rope is” even though “everybody knows what a rope means.” She asks the lifeguard why he failed to tell them that, and he says because he doesn’t “speak Chinese.” The story ends with the narrator and lifeguard watching the surface of the water.

Yes, a Diane Williams story in summary form does not appear a compelling read nor an accurate conveyance of her uncompromising vision. To summarize Williams is to miss the actual drama of the work, which is in her aggressively organized sentences. This drama is not always character-on-character fiction, but the inner workings of characters, the switching of gears, the erratic battle between competing motives enacted by the grammar in each sentence.

Let’s look at a few examples from “Beauty, Love And Vanity Itself,” starting with the first sentence:

“As usual I’d hung myself with snappy necklaces, but otherwise had given my appearance no further thought, even though I anticipated the love of a dark person who will be my source of prosperity and emotional pleasure.”

The story begins “as usual,” as most of Williams’ stories do, in the middle of things, in a world already awry. In this sense, “as usual” points back to the narrator’s habits off the page, the habits that got us to this place of engagement. The sentence’s terse drama turns twice on not one but two “but constructions” (the use of a conjunction to reverse, revise, surprise, or contrast). The first “but” initiates an interior drama in a narrator who chooses to accessorize instead of focusing on improving her physical appearance. This conflict is amplified by the variant but construction “even though” as readers realize that the best the narrator can do in anticipation of a “source of prosperity and emotional pleasure” is to throw on a few necklaces. Continued re-readings allow the phrase “hung myself” to behave figuratively, as if this is a narrator who often sabotages her own desires. It’s a theme that reappears throughout the collection: our ability to impede our own progress.

What follows from here is a narrative arc that draws out this conflict, until the narrator swerves so steeply she changes tense mid sentence:

“The real thing did come along. Bob—Tom spent several days in June with me and I keep up with books and magazines and go forward on the funny path pursuing my vocation.”

After introducing the “real thing” and confusing his name—Bob or Tom—the narrator abandons her desire entirely. She neglects to define her “funny path” or her “vocation,” and as she walks through town the language leans metaphorical. The narrator says, “And isn’t looking into the near distance sometimes so quaint?—as if I am re-embarking on a large number of relations or recurrent jealousies.” At this point, the form of the story seems to embody its content. This is a narrator whose attention is hard to hold.

The story concludes with the indifferent narrator and lifeguard watching the drowning women. The narrator says:

“Our eyes were on the surface of the water—the wobbling patterns of diagonals. It was a hash—nothing to look at—much like my situation—if you’re not going to do anything about it.”

This commonplace description is made verse-like through the alliteration in “water” and “wobbling,” and the assonance shared between “surface,” “patterns,” “diagonals,” “hash,” and “at.” Attention to linguistic force is evident in all that Williams writes, but her attention is especially fine in sentences where sound and sense work as one. As readers try to understand what the narrator’s “situation” is, the phrase “if you’re not going to do anything about it” points a metafictional finger at readers to arrange the mess into a straightforward conclusion. Readers are directed back to the spaces between sentences, to the unsaid, and, in this way, the final sentence frames the rest of the collection: active participation is required.

Readers looking specifically for a formula or to excavate traceable patterns of desire in each story may find gentle hints or remnants in shorter works, and more opportunities for connective tissue in longer ones. In “The Romantic Life”—three pages, 567 words in length—a love-deprived, life-shy houseguest has a run-in with a ghost named Gunther who leaves her with much-needed confidence. Nested among the story’s sentences is the narrator’s pattern of desire captured in two lines, before and after Gunther’s appearance. The first sentence, in which her desire is expressed:

“And, really—wasn’t this a lavish new world with new and possibly better rules?—so that I would no longer be sitting along the curbing.”

And, the second, where she confirms that desire’s fulfillment:

“I stayed at Rohana’s another day or two before I went home with a new backbone for my plodding along.”

These sentences establish a contextual connection between expectation and closure, making the story one of the collection’s most startling cohesive pieces.

Despite disruptions of her own reputation, Williams remains most adept at dropping readers into an inarticulate present where something is always amiss and each sentence conveys a syntactically spry sense of yearning, however vague or fleeting that sense may be. In the stories throughout Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, narrative jumps beg to be bridged, implied meanings considered, and absences filled however readers see fit to fill them.

In a half-formed family history, “Head Of The Big Man”—two pages, 439 words in length—Williams appears to speak outright at the notion that she abandons or under develops the desires of her characters, when she concludes the story with: “Young farmers and rural characters, obstetrical nurses, scholars, clergy—all the rest!—will have their great hopes realized more often than not—unless I decide to tell their stories.”

In “Gulls”—one page, 212 words in length—a woman says to her husband, ‘“We’ll have to knock ourselves into shape, won’t we?”’ Yet whatever that shape is—the shape of a happy couple?—is left unmentioned.

One of the collection’s longer stories, “To Revive A Person Is No Slight Thing”—three pages, 625 words in length—describes the dangerous early days of being a newlywed. The reader drops in on an argument between a wife and husband for which there is little context: “I ripped off some leaves and clipped stem ends, with my new spouse, from a spray of fluorescent daisies he’d bought for me, and I asserted something unpleasant just then.”

In “Perform Small Tasks”—two and a half pages, 589 words in length—a secret relationship is brought into the light, and the male narrator says, “…I wondered if I would rise to my own occasion.” It’s a phrase that carries the same expectant quality in the collection’s epigraph by Leo Markun: “How long will Harry Doe live?… Who will win the war?… Will Mary Jane Brown ultimately find a husband…?” Any reader upended in suspense might ask similar questions. But readers of Williams’ fictions would do better to reconsider what is reasonable.

Viktor Shklovsky held that the technique of art is “to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” Despite the brevity of her surreal fictions, Williams extends this “length of perception” as far as it will go. Her stories may be short, but their mysterious centers are nearly unreachable—and reaching them is not always part of the exercise. As Williams once said, “How unlifelike to understand perfectly.” Instead of reinforcing normal human habits of perception, her fiction exists to subvert them.

The characters in Williams’ stories sometimes rise, sometimes don’t, and sometimes readers just don’t know. The real fun is in her sentences that stick inside the mind and mouth where—with enough wrestling—they may shake loose stark revelations about human existence. Her incisively plain language has a delightfully weird way of reintroducing the uneasy drama in everyday life, and distorting its familiar forms into something you’ve not seen before.

— Jason Lucarelli

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Jason Lucarelli is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Literarian, 3:AM Magazine, Litro, Squawk Back, and NANO Fiction.

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