The Visiting Privilege
Joy Williams does not like being asked glibly by readers to ‘capture the American experience.’ To say anything of America, she warns darkly, the writer must ‘write with a pen – in Mark Twain’s phrase – warmed up in hell’. It is a fair caution: the 46 stories in this collection are fiery, cruel and desperately funny. The first 33 are previously published works, meticulously describing brittle outsiders and the loneliness of their heads and hearts. Williams’ writing seems driven by a merciless consciousness. Rendered in precise, unsentimental prose, her characters are stage players who enter and exit their fictional worlds with a devastating lack of consequence. The spare set pieces they inhabit seem a wild inhuman globe, overwhelmed by loss, desire and apathy. The book opens with a preacher ‘gaunt with belief’ who ‘has always acted rightly, but nothing has ever come of it’. The ‘bright and shining rooms’ he prepares for his wife’s final days are suffused with her impending death; the fresh snow he shows his grandchild marred by the flying corpse of a hunted hare. He is joined by a series of characters drunk, absent, forgetful and foolish who ignore all commonplace expectations and stoically find a way to be.
Williams’ raging literary vision has not mellowed any in the new stories included here. These sometimes combine the isolated landscapes of the earlier works with bureaucratic spaces and the horrors of officialese — and these, too, are stark and bleak and excellent. The humour that punctuates the collection is unexpected and wry. In the midst of raw misery, we are told a character may be ‘having a little difficulty with his enlightenment’; this difficulty brings him the sense of anger and absurd comedy he has needed. This is not nihilism: Williams’ work is permeated with a force beyond simple human feelings, ‘a terrible instance’ that ‘illuminates everything’. And beyond any mystical notions of literary grace, the sheer quality of the writing – painful and beautiful – is its own answer to the formidable questions it asks.
Words: Gill Moore