The Wild, Rangy, Unclassifiable Delights of Joy Williams’s Fiction

But for me the epitome of Williams, Vintage contemporaneity and everything I didn’t understand about Reagan-era America was “Breaking and Entering,” her 1988 novel about a young Florida couple who squat in other people’s houses and bump up against other human flotsam. That cover is almost absurdly literal: A woman in a blue bikini peeks through brass-handled French doors. In their panes you see reflections of a beach, a palm tree and a pelican in flight. A dog crouches in front of the woman. These are Liberty and Clem, “a big white Alsatian with pale eyes,” and their inscrutable gazes — wary? teasing? hostile? bereft? — hint at the novel’s shifting, enigmatic emotional weather.

That bluntly figurative illustration — it reads as a highly specific picture, stylized and slightly fantastical but in no way abstract — implies a tone and a subject matter associated with other well-known writers of the time, who rendered fragments of American life with deadpan diction and hard empirical detail. It was called minimalism or (after a special issue of the literary magazine Granta) dirty realism, rubrics that have long faded from critical discourse.

Those old labels can be suggestive, though, in the way that old paperbacks are. And Liberty and her husband, Willie, display some kinship with the unmoored, numbed characters who amble through the pages of Ann Beattie and Raymond Carver. This is partly a matter of the absences that define the minimalized fictional terrain of the 1970s and ’80s. There is a general air of discontent, of alienation, but this feeling doesn’t have a social cause or a political effect. It’s just the way people are. There are richer and poorer people — fancy villas and ratty apartments, childhoods of pampered leisure and first-class schooling as well as back stories of deprivation and precarity — but class is more often a source of atmospheric detail than an explanatory principle. Economics is tangential to eros and subsumed by ecology:

Six dwellings. Nine. The swimming pools were lit. The sprinklers cast their slow, soft arcs. Thousands of dollars of lighting and millions of kilowatts of electricity were used to make green plants red and blue. Thousands of gallons of water from the sulfurous, shrinking aquifer were pumped up to make thousands of bags of cypress shreddings dark against the pale trunks of palms.

Inside, on a white bamboo table, were a dish of peanuts, two empty martini glasses and a ceramic dildo.

It may be that explanation as such — the assumption that things in fiction happen for a reason, and that the writer’s job is to supply or at least imply that reason — is the most important absence in the Williams cosmos. Her characters, the women in particular, often occupy psychological states and exhibit behavioral patterns that might elicit a diagnosis of some kind. But it wouldn’t just be reductive to say that Liberty suffers from depression, or that Pearl and the other heavy drinkers struggle with addiction or that the countless orphans, widows and parents of lost children — nearly everybody in “The Quick and the Dead” and half of the population of the stories in the omnibus collection “The Visiting Privilege” — are processing their grief. Phrases like those are clichés, examples of the kind of banal, flattened language Williams avoids the way her characters avoid permanence — temperamentally and also programmatically. A lazy, secondhand phrase will sometimes turn up in quotation marks, but always flagged as a moral error, a sign of bad faith or bad taste, a category mistake.

More often, people say remarkable things. You hear — and characters overhear — crazy stories, cracked bits of wisdom, fragments of longer conversations that threaten to distract you from the main action, like this:

Kant said our senses were like the nightclub doorkeeper who only let people in who were sensibly dressed, and the criteria for being properly dressed or respectably dressed, whatever, was that things had to be covered up in space and time.

Who said this?

Kant.

Or this:

Alice heard a woman say, “Before I start writing I feel affectionate, interested and frustrated. In that order. Afterwards I feel relieved, disgusted and confused. Sometimes I don’t think it’s worth it.”

I’ve often wondered if Williams invented these tidbits or collected them, or both — or if having a fertile imagination and a finely tuned ear finally amount to the same thing.

There is a plain everydayness to most of Williams’s settings. An exception is the island estate in “The Changeling,” which evokes both the spooky mansions of Gothic romance and the mad-scientist research facilities of dystopian science fiction, but even that novel begins, like “Breaking and Entering,” in a drab stretch of Florida. A woman is drinking alone in a bar — hardly a remarkable sight. But this woman, named Pearl, is, like Liberty — and also like the less evocatively named Helens, Glorias, Donnas and Alices who circulate through the other books — embedded in, surrounded by and granted the power to utter sentences that are outrageous, disturbing and loaded with surprise.

Williams’s beginnings feint toward the usual introductory business — offering names, setting scenes — and invariably swerve into a sinuous motion that repeats until the last page, when the prose stops short and the reader keeps moving, like a passenger without a seatbelt. Here are a pair of beginnings, both from the 2004 collection “Honored Guest”:

Walter got the silk pajamas clearly worn. Dianne got the candlesticks. Tim got the two lilac bushes, one French purple, the other white — an alarming gift, lilacs being so evocative of the depth and dumbness of death’s kingdom that they made Tim cry.

Miriam was living with a man named Jack Dewayne who taught a course in forensic anthropology at the state’s university. It was the only program in the country that offered a certificate in forensic anthropology, as far as anyone knew, and his students adored him.

You won’t believe what happens next. Someone named Louise, a late-arriving protagonist, gets her dead friend’s dog, which she renames Broom, and finds her life disrupted. Miriam, for her part, falls in love with a lamp with a stag’s hoof for feet, and embarks on a road trip with the lamp, Jack and one of his students. Here’s where things end up in one of the stories:

She herself could only think — and she was sure she was like many others in this regard, it was her connection with others, really — that life would have been far different under other circumstances, and yet here it wasn’t after all.

Is that Miriam or Louise? I’d rather not say. Maybe you can guess? There’s no danger of spoiling anything, and no shame in being wrong. The anticipation of just how you will be wrong — just how wrong you will be — if you try to predict what will happen, is one of the keenest and most consistent pleasures of reading Williams. And also, as the passage above suggests, a philosophical insight, a universal principle of alteration and sameness.

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