The Visiting Privilege by Joy Williams

26/11/16, The Guardian

The short story is an undertheorised form. Theories of the novel abound but have you heard of any for the short story? The form is slippery, defiant, uncategorisable, the best examples of it making something new of the surplus in which the form trades: a successful short story, after all, is always greater than the sum of its parts; an unsolvable equation, if you will, where there will always be at least one variable that cannot be pinned down. This core of absence is everything in the form; in fact, its very meaning.

That the general British readership is unaware of perhaps the greatest living master of the form, the 72-year old American writer, Joy Williams, is a matter of some shame but also cause for exultation because an enthralling discovery awaits. The Visiting Privilege contains most of the stories from three of her four collections – the fourth one, 99 Stories of God, is an exercise in microfiction – and throws in thirteen new ones. Williams makes that mysterious, ambiguous surplus not simply a matter of a concluding flourish but allows it to leak back to colour the entire fabric of the story. Mystery seems to be the very soul of her stories, whether it lies in their interpretive indeterminacy, or in the surreal turn in some of them, or in their frequent gestures towards, or even the incursion of, the metaphysical; her stories remain irreducible and interpretively inexhaustible.

With most short stories, a two-sentence précis would give some idea, if pale, of the work; Williams’ stories resist this entirely. Their meanings lie neither in plot, nor in the prose, which is plain to the point of austerity, making illustrative quotations beside the point. Only at very rare moments will she allow herself something approaching the sparse poetry of the following: ‘In the southern dusk, the dark grew out of the sky like a hoof of mud dissolving in a clear pool. But on the island, dusk seemed to grow out of nothing at all. Dusk and night being a figment of fog, an exhaustion of wave, the time when blackness sank into the town as if buildings and trees were a pit to be filled.’ To say that ‘Dangerous’ is about a recently widowed elderly woman who builds an elaborate enclosure for a desert tortoise, the cruel twist at the end making you ponder if bereavement is not a Sisyphean task, is to say next to nothing about the way it works. To observe that in ‘Rot’, the Thunderbird corroded irreparably by rust that sits in the living room of Lucy and Dwight is an embodied metaphor of their marriage is to state the obvious. Far more interesting, and elusive, is the gear-shift in mood, meaning and temperature when Lucy catches Dwight asleep behind the wheel of this car and feels the world robbed of its promise. How did Dwight’s infatuation with a piece of junk get us here? The enormous effects of and in her stories are hidden, like depth charges, and one can only account for them, via the process of rich bafflement they produce, by accounting for the absent surplus which constitutes meaning.

What are the stories about, is a frequent question you may be asking yourself. Wiliiams has provided a clue in the epigraph, from a verse in the first letter to the Corinthians: ‘Behold, I tell you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye …’. Nearly all of her stories turn around a transformative moment, often mysterious to the point of acquiring a metaphysical valence, and often outside the margins of the pages. In ‘The Skater’, Annie and Tom’s search for a boarding school for their daughter, Molly, is really the displaced mourning for their dead daughter, Martha, a note first sounded when Annie asks, while visiting a prospective school for Molly, ‘“Martha would really like this school, wouldn’t she?”’, to which Tom replies, ‘“We don’t know. … Please don’t, Annie.”’ We have grown used to the invisible presence of the unsaid in the short story but Williams’ genius is to let it suddenly bubble up, giving us a momentary glimpse, then letting the surface settle again; everything is now changed, both for the reader and the characters.
The new stories are mostly about the final and greatest of all transformations, dying and death. ‘In the Park’, for example, all of five emotionally dense pages, sees ranger Preyman, grieving the loss of his father, receive intimations of death in the Florida Everglades, in a way that makes you wonder if his death will conclude the story, and you’d be both right and wrong, since the culminating vision is totally unexpected and moving.

Like some subatomic particle, Williams can be in two states simultaneously – compassionate and ruthless. Her vision, unlike anyone else’s, is ferociously intelligent, angular, undeluded, astringent. The stories are all entirely unexpected, every sentence a surprise. The blank space between each of her sentences is loaded with intelligence and surprise because you can never tell what the next sentence is going to be, or bring. Reading her is exhilarating and dangerous, as if you’re poised on the brink of a canyon. And make no mistake, she is great, easily taking her place among the ranks of Gallant, O’Connor, Paley, Cheever, and Carver. She makes Alice Munro look like a dowdy hausfrau practising that same strain of reductive domesticism until it has worn thin to the point of brittle transparency. If you think this is over the top, read a story or two from The Visiting Privilege, and you’ll begin to understand how restrained this review is.