Saturday, January 3, 2015

On the craft of Joy Williams


Traveling to Pridesup, does anyone know about this story but me?

Sometimes good stories are like secrets. You want like hell to share it just so you can revel in the absurdity of some singular predicament, almost as if to get the most out of anything, you need an accomplice...someone familiar enough with the situation that it doesn't take two hours to blow your load--detail by detail, to make it relevant to anyone but you.

What some get from these stories is often some universal message, where relativity is greatly forsaken for an objective classroom-esque lesson, whereas actual secret secrets are more esoteric, yes, but my point here is Joy Williams has a way of letting us in on deep, dark truths in her stories.

I rarely find this in fiction, which is saturated by transcribed lists of mundane activities. I never asked to subscribe to anyone's food journal--their eavesdropped conversations between people whose only relevance to the reader is nil in that the author carries some sort of grudge for their malignment, whereby chiseling past scenes to suite them, some call it exploitation. But at the risk of digression, I'll get back on track.

I've been enjoying Joy Williams' 1982 collection Taking Care very slowly these days, having gorged myself on most of her novels last summer. Between other books, for work and whatnot, I've been sipping her stories as leisure-time palette cleansers, since to read them quickly would be a waste. I reached the fourth to last story just this morning: Traveling to Pridesup. And now I am completely devastated and don't know what to do with myself.


The story's about the relationship between two sisters, Otilla who is eighty-one and her older sister Lavinia. To explain what happens in the actual story feels redundant since it's more about how Williams doles out their personalities surrounding a situation involving a mysterious baby which they find strapped to their mailbox one day. The ways people deal with crises is, and always will be, the equivalent of seeing someone you know unleash some latent skill/seeing demonstrated for the first time, whether flawless flambe or stairway to heaven on dessert spoons--this is a story about that, but then oh my god. All I can offer at this point are lines:

"Lavinia had never cared for Otilla. She realized that this was due mostly to preconception, as it were, for she had been present at the awful moment of birth and she knew before her sister had taken he first breath that she'd be useless. And she had been. The only thing Otilla had ever had was prettiness and she had that still, lacking the sense to let it go, her girlish features still moving around indecently in her old woman's face. Sitting there now in a messy nest of bread crumbs and obscure stains with the baby playing with her dress buttons, Otilla looked queerly confident and enthusiastic as though at last she were going off on her wedding day. It disgusted Lavinia. There was something unseasonal about Otilla. If she had been a man, Lavinia thought, they might very well have had a problem on their hands." p184

then...

"Otilla was picking through the remaining maps when the baby tipped off her lap and into Lavinia's side. Lavinia stomped on the brakes and beat at him with her hand. "Get Away," she shrieked, "You'll break my hip!" She tried to pull her waist in from the weight of his head. His smell was sweet, fertile, like an anesthetic and she felt frightened as though someone had just removed something from her in a swift, neat operation. She saw the dust motes settling like balloons upon the leather dashboard and white thread tangled in the baby's fingers. Slow Down You're Almost There Only 2000 Yds. The baby's face was wrinkling her linen and his hand was fastened around the bottom of the steering wheel. p185

later...

"When she left the people, they became bystanders, not to be trusted, and she drove on without reference. And the only sounds she heard were the gentle snappings somewhere in her head of small important truths that she had got along with  for years--breaking." p186

Do you see what I mean by secrets? Deep, dark truths? It's all too rare to see such punches packed in lines these days, in fiction which contains so much filler--sugar water compared to the simmered down consistency we reach in Williams' full-bodied Vermont maple syrup. Williams is fine-tuned in the art of essentiality. Everything she gives us to see is there for a good reason and this is one of the reasons why I love her so much. Even or especially when she rips my heart apart.

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