Monday, December 19, 2005

Joy Williams is an unsettling genius

A few weeks ago I mentioned Joy Williams’s introduction to a Jane Bowles story in the anthology You’ve Got to Read This. I had been reading Williams’s collection of essays Ill Nature over the past few months (since she writes 140 proof prose, you don’t chug it), and knew that she had a story collection published recently, but had not yet acquired it.

I have now done so, and want to draw attention (to the degree that I can) to Williams’s scintillating prose. Here is the opening paragraph of her story, “Honored Guest”:

She had been having a rough time of it and thought about suicide sometimes, but suicide was so corny and you had to be careful in this milieu which was eleventh grade because two of her classmates had committed suicide the year before and between them they left twenty-four suicide notes and had become just a joke. They had left the notes everywhere and they were full of misspellings and pretensions. Theirs had been a false show. Then this year a girl had taken an overdose of Tylenol which of course did nothing at all, but word of it got out and when she came back to school her locker had been broken into and was full of Tylenol, just jammed with it. Like, you moron. Under the circumstances, it was amazing that Helen thought of suicide at all. It was just not cool. You only made a fool of yourself. And the parents of these people were mocked too. They were considered to be suicide-enhancing, evil and weak, and they were ignored and barely tolerated. This was a small town. Helen didn't want to make it any harder on her mother than circumstances already had.

Note the shifting relationship between narrative voice and the protagonist. Although told in the third-person, the narrative is essentially inside the protagonist's head, and numerous touches in the opening sentences ("Then this year . . .") reinforce this. Then it seems to take a step backward, into a more omniscient mode ("Under thecircumstances, it was amazing that Helen thought of suicide at all"). The narrative voice then ventures a bit closer again ("It was just not cool") and seems to toy with the second-person ("You only made a fool of yourself"). The final sentences seem to move out again, like a camera dollying back, to give a view of other parents and indeed the community. This is then tied off with a final sentences that brings it back into Helen's head.

This can sound as though the author is simply being inconsistent, but actually she is modulating the tone, with great skill. The most intimate sentence ("Like, you moron"), which goes inside the head of other, unknown students -- who are reacting to the action of an unnamed individual -- is full of contradiction: it is highly mediated (there is one more level of mediation: all these derisive responses are being imagined by Helen) yet very direct; extremely compact, yet full of feeling. These contradictions, binding the sentence together like the nuclear force of a heavy atom that would otherwise blow apart, lend it great energy.

The paragraph undergoes a major change after that point; it's a judgment call whether there should have been a paragraph break there. In those last sentences, there is another contradictory movement: we are both farther into the real world (we are speaking of other parents, and the community at large) and farther into abstraction (these are hypothetical parents of hypothetical suicidal kids, rather than the three kids who had actually tried or succeeded.) And this contradictory movement echoes one in the first half of the paragraph: the complex reaction the reader had -- perhaps without registering it -- to the two girls who committed suicide, who really did do it, and who are mocked for their multiple, effusive notes. "Theirs was a false show." Show? False? In what way? -- the poor girls are dead. Their peers' derision is doubtless covering other emotions: grief, horror. The pathetic notes are held up to ridicule because they are unbearable. The girl who OD'd on Tylenol is, in one respect, being jeered at not because of her similarity to the two suicides but because of her crucial dissimilarity: she plainly hadn't meant it. And all of this, of course, is being imagined by Helen, the single consciousness who holds it all together.

This is really brilliant prose.


Blogger Wallace Hardin said...

Hi Mr. Feeley,

A lot of people can't figure out why Joy William's work is so compelling. I am often amazed at her world-view, her tilted observations, those quirky out of step truths she conveys so effectively. I was shopping at Amazon online to pick up one her collections I lost when I moved, which is where I ran across your blog. I've read a lot of criticism, reviews, and splashes on her work and have had the chance to talk to her at length about craft in Key West and Connecticut. "Honored Guests" is one of my favorite pieces of short fiction. I found it hard to believe she could better some of her previous work.

I think your deconstruction
of the first paragraph is brilliant, insightful, and something few are brave enough to take a stab at. Yes, she is an unsettling genius, but none of her work is off the cuff. She is deliberate, methodical and stretches to squeeze out every word. It's apparent here and in her other work, but thanks for taking note of it.

I was wondering if you had any thoughts on Denis Johnson's "Name of The World." I'd love to hear them if you do. I think this a work of genius, my favorite novella, but have the feeling a lot of people miss some of the more compelling points. Or maybe it's just me.


Wallace Hardin

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can gas on all you want, but I know what an unfeeling man you really are. Who gives a crap that you spoke with an author? That is really the point of your post. You are a pathetic old , bald, FAT AS A PIG jerk.

9:39 AM  
Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

Hello, Wallace Hardin. I'm glad you liked my little piece. Joy Williams has written little enough that you'd think I'd have read all her work by now, so much do I like it -- but I am so vastly busy (especially now, when after twenty years of freelancing, I am also teaching full-timie), and her work is so dense, that I only pick up a book of hers every two or three years.

No, I haven't read Denis Johnson's "Name of The World." I have certainly heard of him, but I don't think I have yet read anything by him (though I'm sure I have one or two of his books downstairs). Is this the work to start with?

4:08 PM  
Blogger Scrivener424 said...

I enjoyed your comments on the excerpt from "Honored Guests." And it was nice to find a page honoring Williams' work.

I read Joy Williams' short story, "Taking Care," in an anthology years ago and was blown away. I had always promised myself I'd read more of her, but haven't gotten around to it till very recently, when I read several stories from her collection, "Honored Guest," including the title story.

You know, so many books, so little time.

I get the sense, from the few stories I've read, that Williams may have lost someone very dear to her to a catastrophic illness, and that has become one of the central issues that informs her work. So be it. She has turned it into incredible art.

I think the actual "honored guest" in the eponymous story, the bear cub chosen to be suckled and pampered by an Indian tribe? (if memory serves me right) only to be later tortured and killed, for no rhyme or reason, is a metaphor for Helen and her mother, for us all.

We come into the world and, if we're lucky, suckled and pampered by family and loved ones, live through love, joy, and loss, only to eventually experience the pain, suffering, and ultimate betrayal of the body--the short, capricious nature of our earthly existence.

I believe Williams captured the "whole ball of wax" in that little anecdote, a small kernel of her wonderful story.

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