Joy Williams is an unsettling genius
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.