On the genius of Joy Williams

17 November 2017

You might not have heard of Joy Williams, though you’ll be glad we changed that. We’ll just leave these quotes here, with sections usefully in bold for your delectation.
– ‘Perhaps the greatest living master of the short story … easily taking her place among the ranks of Mavis Gallant, Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley, John Cheever and Raymond Carver’ Neel Mukherjee
– ‘How to tell the story of a 500-page collection of stories spanning more than 40 years? Especially when I really want to just exclaim, “Oh, Oh, OH!” in a state of steadily mounting rapture’ Geoff Dyer, Observer 
– ‘Williams is a flawless writer, and The Visiting Privilege is a perfect book’ NPR

We could go on. Instead we’ll leave you in the capable hands of Serpent’s Tail editor Nick Sheerin, who will take you to purgatory and back, via Dante and Denis Johnson… 

BACK INTO THE BRIGHT WORLD: On the genius of Joy Williams

The characters in Joy Williams’s stories often have the aspect of the damned. In ‘Another Season’, an old caretaker named Nicodemus is tasked with collecting up all the dead animals on an island for disposal. This macabre task, for which (it turns out) he is only theoretically remunerated, is described as a favour but ends up seeming something of a cruel joke. Is this some sort of Sisyphean punishment for a man who came to the island as an old man and whose existence now feels interminable? Is it a coincidence that a 4th century account of Christ’s descent into hell was attributed to the Nicodemus who appears in John’s Gospel? (I don’t know, but when you’re talking about a writer as exacting as Joy Williams, it is difficult to believe in coincidences.)

This bleakness, this will for her short stories to devastate (something Williams has spoken about in a New York Times interview) is a celebrated part of Williams’s writing. But often, Williams’s stories are not so much a descent into hell as a window on purgatory. In his Comedy, Dante shows us the mixture of grief and hope experienced by penitent souls as they work their way through purgatory to heaven; in Canto XXVI, the great Provençal troubadour Arnaut Daniel, atoning for sins of lust, tells Dante:

With grief, I see my former folly;
with joy, I see the hoped-for day draw near.

In ‘Taking Care’, originally the title story of Williams’s 1982 debut story collection and selected in The Visiting Privilege as the opening story, a pastor named Jones dotes on his granddaughter as his wife dies of cancer. Like many of Williams’ stories, the set-up here is hopeless, and the characters exist in a world where things happen senselessly – your daughter abandons her own daughter to travel to Mexico and have a nervous breakdown; a hunter kills a snowshoe rabbit right in front of you; your wife’s blood fills up with sickness. There is grief aplenty. But where ‘Another Season’ treats Nicodemus with the offhand brutality of a godless world, ‘Taking Care’ is more generous to Jones. Midway through the story, Jones, shortly after taking in his beloved granddaughter, listens for the first time to a record of Kathleen Ferrier singing Mahler:

The music stuns him. Kindertotenlieder. He makes no attempt to seek the words’ translation. The music is enough.

What we are not told is that Kindertotenlieder means ‘Songs on the Death of Children’. Does Jones know this? It’s impossible to tell, but where in other stories Williams might have played this for deadpan humour, here she leaves the awful irony of it half-submerged, allowing Jones his moment of wonder, of hope.

In Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, another story of a pastor late in life, Reverend John Ames weighs up his past and confronts the present with a kind of stupefied wonder. So too Jones in ‘Taking Care’. But where Ames is granted expiation, Jones is granted only an ambiguously celestial ending:

Jones has readied everything carefully for his wife’s homecoming. The house is clean and orderly. For days he has restricted himself to only one part of the house to ensure that his clutter will be minimal. Jones helps his wife up the steps to the door. Together they enter the shining rooms.

What’s going on here? Is this simply a description of the clean rooms? Of course not. Is it an ascent to paradise? Perhaps not so much as that, but at least the recognition that there could be something beyond this purgatory.

At the beginning of Denis Johnson’s debut novel Angels, Jamie arrives in Chicago with her two children and no money; relying on the kindness of strangers, she is raped. She takes up with Bill, a bankrobber who is later sentenced to death for shooting a security guard. Jamie’s children are taken away from her. Bill goes to the gas chamber. But in spite of everything that happens – and Angels is, on a temporal level, relentlessly bleak – there’s a sense of hope in all this, of Jamie and Bill moving towards the light of purgatory. As Bill awaits his trial, he experiences a kind of epiphany:

And then abruptly but very gently something happened, and it was Now. The moment broke apart and he saw its face. [This] was a world he might be lifted out of by a wind, but never by anything evil or thoughtless or without meaning. It was a world he could go to the gas chamber in, and die forever and never die.

For some writers, this is glimpse into the heart of things is the only solace they can give their characters. Bill must go to his execution; Jamie must go mad. Arnaut Daniel must spend a thousand years singing and weeping. Jones must watch his wife as she dies. In Williams, as in Johnson and Dante, there is only a dim light at the end of a narrow road, and not everyone finds the way out. But the light shines, just about.

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