The Divine Comedies

The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories BY Joy Williams. Knopf. Hardcover, 512 pages. $30.

Joy Williams wears sunglasses day and night. She does not own a computer and she corresponds by postcard. She can be irascible in interviews (one poor interviewer admitted he “cringe[d]” to publish the interview uncut because of her little digs at him). A real live kook, she is widely admired by writers with even the faintest interest in the avant-garde, and her books have been finalists for major prizes, including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, because she is a fiery writer with a sharp humor and a dark energy and because her sentences are weird, funny, and full of emotion. The publication of The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories is sure to be celebrated. At five hundred pages, it includes most of her first four collections (though scandalously leaves out a few of the best pieces) and thirteen new stories.

The sentence that opens the first story of The Visiting Privilege, “Taking Care,” is quintessential Williams: “Jones, the preacher, has been in love all his life.” Here we find the slight oddity of the ambiguous missing direct object (with whom could Jones have been in love all his life?), an implicit longing, and the narrator’s faintly teasing tone. Even Jones’s unconventional profession is one of Williams’s conventions. Her father and grandfather were both ministers, and her books are full of gentle father-ministers. (Her collection of very short stories 99 Stories of God, in part an homage to Thomas Bernhard, reads almost like a hilarious prank on her dad with its pedestrian Lord.)

Alongside her playfulness, she adds a dramatic flair. The stories are set in the working-class Florida flatlands, the coyote-and-cacti expanses of Arizona, and lush New England, lands of water and desert, and Williams has fun describing them. The stories have almost a biblical ambience, with their “extravagant white water” and the “vermilion clouds [that] streamed westward and vanished, never again to be seen by human eyes.” At times the stories seem to lift into the realm of tale or myth and her God is as cruel and unknowable as the God of Job and Ecclesiastes.

But her characters’ quests—their road trips and train rides across the US—are wild failures: determinedly aimless. A woman drives off hoping to do a good deed and winds up lost, injured, and passed out. Another character lets her friend’s daughter join her on a crooked road trip and the daughter takes off, doesn’t reappear. The wise men at the end of the stories’ journeys are as tired, bored, and confused as the seekers. “I want to retire,” says one. “When you grow up,” says another, “a shadow falls. Everything’s sunny and then this big goddamn wing or something passes overhead.” He looks out the window for the last line of the story. “Do you think there’s something I missed?”

Williams’s ilk—her contemporaries Raymond Carver and Lorrie Moore, her nemesis Alice Munro (with the Canadian’s calm stories and humorless sentences), and her predecessor Flannery O’Connor—built their art on the backs of emaciated affections, dying love, and faithlessness. Few of Williams’s stories fit that theme. She writes about the enormous, inconvenient human capacity for love, the weighty responsibility of it, the loneliness of it. A preacher cares for his daughter’s child while she has a nervous breakdown in a foreign land. A teenager watches her mother slowly die. Another teen mourns his father, who that summer had been “executed by the state of Florida.”

In Williams’s stories, the family is not a static unit. It is in continual flux, dissolving and reassembling, its natural state one of mid-wreckage. Deaths, divorces, second marriages, second sets of children, abandoned children, and children shoved into other self-destructing families are only a few of the hyperbolic, morbidly hilarious ways families are torn and mended, leaving a raggedy fabric that somehow still does the job. The characters look to build family wherever they can—in mental wards, among a crowd of ex-girlfriends, among people who remind them of the dead people they’ve lost, with a man they have, during a hunting trip, accidentally turned into a vegetable. The takeaway is the sense that whom you love is more chance than choice. You will love whomever winds up next to you in this deadly game of duck-duck-goose. By sheer coincidence you will break your own heart and back for love of this person.

Allegiances are formed inadvertently, but they run deep and are expressed in secret systems of signs that are usually misunderstood. In one man’s suicide note, each of his friends is bequeathed a carefully described item, but the friends can’t figure out what the stuff means. It looks like trash to them and they mostly get rid of it. One character is left a dog. “The worst of it was that none of them remembered Elliot’s having a dog.”

Indeed, dogs fill her stories: a dog snatched by coyotes, a dog drowned and mourned, a dog stolen from a monastery. A dog is an apt metaphor for the families of Williams’s creation: that beloved friend whom you are responsible for but understand in only limited ways.

Her message is: Our methods of communication are inadequate. People leave. Everything is working against you, including your own body, which is collapsing beneath you. “No one knows in what guise the end of the familiar will arrive.”

Early on, Williams committed herself to eschewing any unworthy sentence. She uses a single word or phrase to twist the ordinary into the striking. When someone wants to cry, she can “feel the back of her eyes swelling up like cupcakes.” A hospitalized wife is a “breathing body deranged in tubes,” and an unborn child is “hard and glossy as an ear of corn.” Williams specializes in pinpointing the crazy-making detritus of daily living: “the bathroom wallpaper depicted toreadors and bulls, rather a single toreador and a single bull over and over again.” Where a lesser writer might tell us a character finds a woman sexy, Williams drops this line into the character’s mind: “Close the mouth, shut the doors, untie the tangles, soften the light.”

Some of the stories from her first volume, Taking Care, published in 1982 and containing work published in the previous decade, are brilliant representatives of 1970s avant-garde fiction, a golden (or bronze, according to some) age in American letters. Some of the book’s stories were edited by Gordon Lish, who acted as the age’s editorial ambassador. Such fiction is characterized by an intentional raw energy, an authorial resistance to satisfying sentence-level expectations, and a desire to privilege intuition over tradition, to preserve in revision the language and organization of the author’s first impulse or instinct. The result is prose that contains internal swerves and pulse points to signal emotional, syntactic, and comic battles on the page: “The girl is twenty-five. It has not been very long since her divorce but she cannot remember the man who used to be her husband. He was probably nice.”

The primal momentum recedes somewhat in the later stories, but the work feels no less surprising or authentic for it. The stories retain their flirtation with minimalism, their extraordinary phrasing, their embrace of ambiguity, and their strange shapes. In “The Mission,” a protagonist is imprisoned for nine days, but swiftly the release date becomes vague, and the story unravels into existential territory, where her time served is shifting and unknowable, and her isolation is monumental.

Sometimes the stories begin to feel amorphous. Most of the characters have wandered off, nothing has happened, the tone has changed from riotous to ominous, and we worry we are running aground. Suddenly we realize that she has led us, in what felt like random moves, to a dazzling checkmate ending, final lines that feel philosophical, spiritual, universal yet particular, funny yet penetrating: “What if everything one did mattered. Thank God it could not.” In an interview with the Paris Review, Williams said, “My real interest lay in illuminating something beneath or beyond the story itself.” These drifting stories and sagacious endings express an affection for idea over plot, for question over closure, for open air and wide skies.

In some ways, to read the book cover to cover is to see the evolution of a psychology and a consciousness. In the early stories Williams writes about young, restless women who are paired with dauntingly well-adjusted men, men who love easily, who flit off each day to satisfying jobs and arrive home cheerful, ready for supper, while the nervous women look on askance. In the later stories the well-adjusted men are gone, but the oddball woman is still there and still a comic figure, wearing “the weird kind” of shorts, “to which leggings could be buttoned to create a pair of trousers.” But these women are more sure of themselves now, older, stronger, more mysterious. Gimlet-eyed, they have powers, are “no amateur[s].”

Likewise, one can track the development of her ethical interests. The environment and nonhuman animals, which she wrote about in the essay collection Ill Nature (2001), find scant mention in the early stories and only begin to show up as concerns in the middle of The Visiting Privilege. By the final stories, the destruction of nature becomes a backdrop and plot point. Some of the stories read like dirges or lamentations, chronicles of the witnesses to mass extinction. One town’s custom is to “fancifully paint old cars with complex, detailed scenes of virtually vanished worlds,” the deepwater fish and coral reefs. A disappearing Eden hovers at the edges of these stories, and the characters look for it, trying to preserve a few feet of it.

In a story that marks the beginning of Williams’s interest in the ailing planet, a teenage girl names our time “the century of destruction.” She takes on the role of seer—a compelling and passionate one—but she is shunned as if she were the freed philosopher of Plato’s cave. Only one boy believes her. “We’re the last generation,” she tells him. “There’s something else we’re listening to.” Williams is speaking through her character not only of the end of civilization but also of the witness to it, the philosopher-storyteller who is straining over the noisy fray to hear something—but what? Is its message divine or quixotic? She doesn’t know: “You’ll recognize it when you hear it.”

Deb Olin Unferth’s next book, a collection of stories, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press.