From The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories
Joy Williams has never become the household name she deserves to be. Among the cognoscenti, she is spoken of in reverential tones, often in the company of names like Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor. But like Jim Shepard – another contemporary American master of the short story – her work has largely flown under the radar of the general reading public.
Perhaps this is because of the genre she appears most proficient in. Though Williams is also an accomplished novelist, her true métier has always been the short story, a form that retains a small but devoted audience and resists mass appeal. Perhaps, too, people shy away from the coldness that Williams considers an essential aspect of the short story. One headline in The New York Times referred to the author’s “misanthropic genius,” and in his review of Williams’s collected stories, Ben Marcus wrote, “If the human race were ever put on trial – for crimes against the planet, animals, and one another – it would be hard to think of a more ferocious prosecutor than Joy Williams. Is there a writer whose condemnations are more convincing, whose vision is more godless and bleak?”
Williams herself would seem to be in agreement with this assessment. In 2016, the author offered a list of eight principles for short fiction; number eight reads, in part: “A certain coldness is required in execution. It is not a form that gives itself to consolation.” The general overview she provides as a coda to her eight rules is equally harsh: “A novel wants to befriend you, a short story almost never.”
And yet this focus on nihilism and stringency in Williams’s writing – while no doubt an accurate characterization of the author’s output – also belies how blisteringly funny she can be. Granted, the humour in a Williams story is not the kind that appears cozy or approachable; it is more frequently charged with a streak of nastiness and almost merciless judgment. None of which makes the laugh-out-loud moments in her writing any less gleeful or effective.
Take, for example, this description of Sam, the hapless male protagonist in Williams’s coruscatingly cynical short story “The Wedding”: “Elizabeth loved his kisses. On the other hand, when Sam saw Elizabeth’s brightly flowered scanty panties, he thought he’d faint with happiness. He was a sentimentalist.” The punch line lands with the force of a blow to the head; the reader is impelled to laughter as a result of the directness and unexpectedness of the final, four-word declaration, almost before comprehending the vicious character assassination that underpins it.
One reason the people who follow Williams’s work do so with an almost fanatical devotion is precisely this ability on the part of the author to reduce a character or situation to its barest essentials in a few, perfectly aimed words. Carver proclaimed himself a fan of Williams’s stories and it’s not hard to see why: the two authors share a tendency to strip away anything extraneous in the interests of accessing the emotional core of a story. And in both authors’ work, the first extraneous element to be disposed of is anything even resembling sentimentality.
“The Wedding” follows Sam’s courtship of – and eventual marriage to – Elizabeth. True to its title, the story culminates with the two central characters marrying and it is therefore a candidate for the formal genre of comedy. Though this is not a clichéd happily-ever-after type story; Williams is not traversing anywhere near the same territory as Jane Austen or the films of Richard Curtis.
The laughter in the story, by contrast, is of the bitter kind, and Williams is merciless in her dissection of the way the two characters relate – or, more frequently, fail to relate – to each other. Sam has been married three times before; the first marriage finds its perfect metaphor in the couple’s travels through Mexico. Sam and his wife reside in “a grand room in a simple hotel opposite a square.” Beside the hotel is a shop that manufactures coffins; the association between Sam’s marriage and death is cutting and on point. His most recent marriage, to a woman with whom he “had seemed very compatible,” broke down after his wife returned to school to study animal behaviour. Williams includes one exchange focusing on Sam’s drinking that evokes the acerbic badinage of George and Martha in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:
Sam poured himself another Scotch. He lit a cigarette. He applied a moustache with a piece of picnic charcoal.
“I am Captain Blood,” he said. “I want to kiss you.”
“When Errol Flynn died, he had the body of a man of ninety,” Annie said. “His brain was unrealistic from alcohol.”
If Sam’s decision to marry Elizabeth springs from the triumph of hope over experience, neither does Elizabeth’s previous relationship, which resulted in a daughter, hold out much in the way of confidence as to Elizabeth’s ability to maintain domestic accord. Her former partner was an accountant who disparaged Elizabeth and cheated her out of her rightful portion of their joint tax refund. “Elizabeth, in turn, told her accountant that he was always ejaculating prematurely.” As for the daughter, Sam compares her to Pearl, Hester Prynne’s illegitimate child in The Scarlet Letter. None of this seems like a particularly auspicious bedrock for a lifetime of marital bliss.
Elizabeth is constantly relating fables and fairy tales to her little girl and this becomes a dominant motif in the story; it is also the element that provides the clearest window on the dysfunction in the relationship between the girl’s mother and Sam. Williams cues her reader right from the opening paragraph that the story is not likely to end well: “The people in Elizabeth’s fables were always looking for truth or happiness and they were always being given mirrors or lumps of coal.” It can hardly be accidental, then, that in the final moments of “The Wedding,” after the two have been married in a civil ceremony by a justice of the peace, Sam and Elizabeth are pictured in their bathroom, kissing “before the full-length mirror.” Nor is it accidental that their embrace is described as “animalistic” – a distinct refraction of the dunning fables Elizabeth relates to her daughter. (Recall, at the same time, that Sam’s previous wife left him after enrolling in a course to study animal behaviour.)
Though the final moment of the story finds the newly married couple clutched in an embrace, the specific details should twig the reader to the irony in the scene. Aping a fairy tale, Williams abandons realism to find the couple floating out the window and hovering in the air, “gazing down at all those who have not found true love, below.” The story’s conclusion is as unexpected as it is derisive and ironic; it also reflects a declaration Elizabeth makes just prior to Sam’s marriage proposal: “Colourless, anticlimactic endings are typical only of primitive stories.” Williams’s stories may be considered many things, but primitive is certainly not one of them.