Thursday, September 26, 2013

Some thoughts on Joy Williams

This year has been seasoned with a sprinkle of Joy Williams. I love checking out writers that were widely read in the past, then fell off the tongues of the book talkers. I picked up Breaking & Entering mostly for the name and concept: a couple breaks into houses in Florida and live a drifting life. The Changeling came recommended (and was in the library) and I thought, why not pick up some short stories, so Honored Guest it was.

The thing I find challenging about Williams' writing is encapsulated in this passage from the story "Claro" that takes place in a resort library after the main character asks for some children's books:
"Are you kidding? Take them all. No one's been in this place since the Second Annual Chili Cookout we had int he garden last week, a great turnout. People love their food booths. May I suggest what I believe? There was once a single language which all creatures possessed. It was highly complex and exceedingly beautiful. Latin was a gross simplification of its glories. Then some sort of cataclysm, we can't even guess.Overnight, a soiled, simpler world of cruder possibilities. Words had to be invented, they became artificial. Over centuries we appeared to evolve but our language didn't. Words aren't much more than a waste product now, space junk. We're living post-literaly. It's all gleanings and tailings. It's boring, it's transitory, but a counterliterate future is at hand. It's what's coming. The only thing language does now is separate us from the animals. We require something that separates us from ourselves."


In Williams' writing, minor characters appear, monologue, disappear and what they say seems to have little bearing on how the story progresses. The character Poe in Breaking & Entering speaks entirely in this fashion and simply hangs out at the end of the book, being annoying, or as the main character Liberty thinks " It was nonsense the woman was speaking. She was just an old, rich, crazy woman." As a fan of digression, I still haven't come to any conclusion about whether I like this or not. The balance of her writing is steeped in sensory details, specific moments of pleasure or discomfort--hairs in the mouth, the taste of a drink--so the monologue moments can wrench me out of an otherwise compelling story.

This bumps up against the other thing: women characters that just float around. In both The Changeling and Breaking & Entering, the main character is a young woman, completely willless and ambivalent, who gets attached to a strange, powerful, and usually somewhat malevolent, male character and then led on an adventure. Sure, the women act act with drinking and wandering, but they don't have much inside and that gets boring. The short stories don't fall victim to this which is why I like them better.

I enjoy that dogs appear in many of her stories. I still think about the quiet whiteness of Clem, the dog in Breaking & Entering. His presence was always noted, but he never moved plot points along. Clem was a fun, silent shepherd that accompanies the reader through an increasingly twisted story. The story "Hammer" includes a dog and some terrible speechifying, most egregiously from the daughter character.

Speaking of "Hammer," I really liked that story for its set up and insight into the parent-child relationship. Much of Honored Guest focuses on permutations of that relationship. The most charming and terrible is the title story. About a teenager, Helen, with a cancer-ridden mom, I read this at the best/worst time: while abroad with my dad for a cancer treatment. The many mundane horrors of watching your parent die, high school, dying yourself and the slow burn of cancer are explored here with a sense of compassion and humor that sings along with the sharp-eyed observations. The last paragraph of the story expresses what I love about her writing:
"The girl with the gum had been the one that told Helen how ashes came back. Her uncle had died and came back in a red shellacked box. I looked cheap but it cost fifty-five dollars and there was an envelope taped to the box with his name typed on it beneath a glassine window as though he was being addressed to himself. The girl considered herself to be somewhat of an authority on the way these things were handled, for she had also lost a couple of godparents and knew how things were done as far south as Boston."

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