In a Lonely Place

The Doloriad by Missouri Williams. New York: MCD x FSG Originals. 240 pages. $17.
Missouri Williams. Photo: Ceci June

Missouri Williams is an author, editor, and playwright currently living in Prague. As coeditor of the feminist film journal Another Gaze, and a contributor to outlets like The Baffler, The Nation, and Five Dials, she has written about the social importance of enmity, the epic misery of the writer Thomas Bernhard, and Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. In keeping with these themes, Williams has just produced her first novel, The Doloriad, published by MCD x FSG Originals.

An apocalypse narrative of biblical proportions, the book follows an interbreeding family on the outskirts of a ruined city, who may or may not be the last band of humans on Earth. In gorgeous, painful language that evanesces between the perspectives of the novel’s main characters—the clan’s Matriarch; her children Agathe, Dolores, and Jan; and the schoolmaster who teaches them—Williams’s novel boldly engages philosophical and theological questions about humanity’s will to live and right to survive and offers a shimmering glimpse of a world beyond our own. I spoke with Williams recently on the eve of The Doloriad’s release. 

NOLAN KELLY: This novel is so different from a lot of other contemporary fiction. What got you started?

MISSOURI WILLIAMS: I began with that first image of Dolores in the wheelbarrow looking toward her uncle. That moment is strange: you have Dolores looking toward this person who’s approaching. She makes a slight movement in order to be obliging that throws her completely off-balance, and so she’s let down by her body. It’s like she can’t escape who she is in her nature, and this sabotages everything. And that idea is threaded throughout the novel: you have characters who can’t help who they are and act in predetermined ways, but, at the same time, they wish for something much better. I was really interested in how entrapped we are by our past, our memories, and our physical constitutions. For me, that opening image contained almost everything that came later. A lot of the novel’s themes and ideas were grounded in a need to explain a certain way of seeing. It’s as if that way of writing was born out of the logic of the image.

The idea of being trapped in your body is one of the fundamental themes of the book, and it works so well with the sense of wanting and dreaming for something greater. Two of the major characters in this novel don’t have legs, while Agathe has epilepsy and a somewhat troubled relationship with her body.

Right, there are a lot of characters in The Doloriad who can’t move or talk or understand in the ways we see as conventional. Agathe has epilepsy, Dolores has no legs, the schoolmaster has no legs, and the Matriarch is in a wheelchair—although we do have the impression that she can walk when she needs to. I suppose that some of that derives from my own experiences, but I was also very interested in different ways of understanding the world, and the ways we relate to animals, objects, and the rest of nature. A lot my thinking about these things is a response to Heidegger, who writes about this threefold division of being: man is world-forming, the animal is poor in world, and the stone doesn’t have any world to speak of. I was interested in challenging those ideas, and I wanted to explore that in the form of the novel. I think so much of how people understand humanity as different from animals and things is in this sense that they lack something that we have—like the idea that what makes us special is that we have reason, which goes back to Saint Augustine’s “Literal Commentary on Genesis.” He says that we have something in our nature that enables us to have dominion over animals and other things, and this is our intelligence. But plenty of philosophers have understood human difference in other ways. Heidegger is obsessed with hands, Levinas is really interested in the ability to lie, and a lot of the early medieval theologians saw walking upright as a sign of our humanity. It’s a mark of our specialness. So, on one level, taking legs away from Dolores and the schoolmaster was a way of giving them a different perspective—quite literally, even, since they’re on the ground. But throughout the novel there’s the sense that these characters who lack something we conventionally see as valuable also have a very different and equally valuable way of seeing the world.

Agathe is compared to a rock quite often or is described as feeling that way.

Yeah, this recurs throughout the novel—images of people being like rocks and other objects, people who aren’t quite people. The schoolmaster’s position is interesting, too, because he’s been changed in a similar way to Agathe and Dolores, as in he has no memories, he has no legs, and this enables him to fixate on something very separate from the Matriarch and the encampment. He recognizes that the world is alive with objects, like when he crawls down the streets. He thinks that the city is as fertile as a river delta in a way most of the other characters can’t apprehend. The schoolmaster perceives this life as a threat, as if the world of objects is trying to overtake us, but his ability to see it at all is one of the things that makes him different.

It’s interesting that the schoolmaster is so converted in this way, legless and seeing from a different perspective, because he’s one of the few characters here who was alive before the cataclysm. Whereas Dolores’s lack of legs seems to be a birth defect in response to their new living conditions.

The way I saw it was that a lot of the things that happen in the camp could be due to incest and the environment. But at the same time, I wanted there to be something really holy and inexplicable about the book. It’s important to me that the schoolmaster be legless too, even if we don’t know why. He thinks the cataclysm could have deprived him of his legs. He blames God. But other characters have different explanations for why things are the way they are. I really wanted to keep that open, both the sense that the encampment is a kind of sacred space with this biblical or mythological origin story, and that it’s something that exists in the aftermath of an inexplicable natural disaster. To have those two explanations running parallel throughout the whole novel, and those kind of weird contradictions, was really important to creating that sense of ambiguity.

I could describe this novel as speculative or science fiction, but it seems so unconcerned with operational details. Writers often spend so much time tinkering with the exact logic of their worlds to make their characters do what the author wants, which can take us away from some of the philosophical implications of the work. But you really go into the philosophical implications. 

I grew up reading a lot of science fiction and fantasy, and I have the highest respect for that kind of world-building, but I knew from the beginning that I wanted no part of it. I knew that the postapocalyptic setting was important to me, and I knew there had to be a cataclysm. And, of course, a cataclysm stands for so many different things. But with world-building, I wanted it to mostly take place in terms of how it feels—in terms of trees, the sky, the forest, and just the minute-to-minute experience of the children, versus any kind of explanation that would situate the reader any more than they needed to be situated. Some of the sci-fi elements of The Doloriad are quite tongue-in-cheek. Like it zooms in on farming, but that’s more interesting to me for the biblical implications than knowing what Jan would actually grow in his field. 

You and I both love Clarice Lispector, and The Doloriad does something that I've never seen outside of Lispector's work: it radically reimagines stream-of-consciousness writing. Was this a style you found organically as you were trying to envision these characters, or was that something you wanted there from the beginning?

It’s something that was just there to begin with. I’ve always been interested in the idea of distributed consciousness, the extent to which the world is conscious with you, and what it means to become unmoored from more conventional kinds of consciousness. I think the fact that I have seizures affects my writing and the way I see the world, because they leave you so fragmentary and dissociated. In the aftermath of those experiences, it can feel as though a new way of understanding reality had been opened up to me. So the style came before anything else. In general, I think I’m very interested in all the things that thought does to prevent itself from ever getting going. I really like writers who have an obsessive, circling style and that sense of endless self-questioning, relentlessly moving from one thing to another and then back again. But I was also interested in other obstacles, how a world full of living objects might intercede. 

You mentioned that you were homeschooled and grew up in a kind of isolated environment. I imagine that this must have influenced the book as well.

Yes, definitely. I’ve always been very interested in how a claustrophobic family setting can become the ideal setting for a ruthless exercise of power. That’s not to say that the experience of being homeschooled is necessarily bad. The isolation of the family unit creates contexts where there’s more space for new structures of thought.

I love the recurring element of the children’s television show starring Thomas Aquinas and a sheep. In light of this talk about homeschooling, I’m starting to see it a bit differently now, as a sort of alternative education tool. But I’m curious about where this idea of a television show about a problem-solving priest came from, or where your relationship with the real medieval philosopher began.

I was always really interested in theology growing up because my family was quite religious. One of the first people who taught me about these things was a massive fan of Aquinas, and he would often introduce a religious problem and then talk about Aquinas as this person who would come around later and solve the problem. I’ll always have this image of Aquinas as the great reconciler, the person who could bring everything together. When I got older, I read some of his works and I read G. K. Chesterton’s really amazing biography of him. But probably the book that was most influential to my thinking was Etienne Gilson’s Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages. He talks about how Aquinas brought reason and faith into harmony by saying that there are things proper to faith and there are things proper to reason. Aquinas has always represented that sense of harmony to me, but in terms of the TV show, my style is to move between high and low quite quickly, and to combine the two. I always knew I wanted something running through The Doloriad that would provide commentary on the main action, and I knew I wanted it to be funny. I wanted to be able to look at something extremely ugly—the family and the things that happened in the family—through a lens that gives the reader some distance from events, that allows them to be sad but also to find some humor. It’s such a brutal expression of faith too—in the show, the children never see Aquinas. But they also have dreamlike sequences with Aquinas where they imagine what he would be like and what he would do. I like the idea of having a promised figure, someone behind the scenes who might come but also might not—a Christlike figure, basically.

It makes for a fascinating ending. I was really taken with his dialogue with the sheep as they try to offer some answers. 

There’s definitely a sense that the sheep is spiritually undermining Aquinas the whole way through, that he has a more direct route to God. But it was important to me to also have the sheep be an enigmatic animal who refuses to speak, especially in a setting that is so devoid of animal life. And then he has the last word—Aquinas gives his version of events, and his version is true but it’s also reduced, and then the sheep kind of pushes everything out again, so that there is no closure, no real conclusion. It’s the first time we hear an animal speak, and then Dolores begins to speak for herself soon after.

Nolan Kelly is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker and critic who is currently at work on his first novel. His essays and interviews can be found in Hyperallergic, The Brooklyn Rail, Senses of Cinema, and the Los Angeles Review of Books