Books
September 27, 2021 Issue
Joy Williams Does Not Write for Humanity
In a new novel, the author’s dark, surprising language mourns for the world we’ve demolished.
By Katy Waldman
September 20, 2021
In “Harrow,” Williams writes sentences that seem to warp and remake reality.Illustration by Laura Lannes
You don’t encounter the fiction of Joy Williams without experiencing a measure of bewilderment. Williams, one of the country’s best living writers of the short story, draws praise from titans such as George Saunders, Don DeLillo, and Lauren Groff, and many of her readers, having imprinted on her wayward phrasing and screwball characters, will follow her anywhere. But the route can be disorienting, like climbing an uneven staircase in a dream. Her tales offer a dark, provisional illumination, and they make the kind of sense that disperses upon waking. For years, Williams has worn sunglasses at all hours, as if to blacken her vision. The central subject of art, she has written, is “nothingness.”
Williams is now seventy-nine. In her stories, and in her five novels, she opens cracks in reality, through which issue ghosts, clairvoyants, changelings, and suffering. She seems especially attuned to the psychoanalytic distinction between “manifest” and “latent” content—the smoke versus the fire beneath it. In “The Farm,” from 1979, a woman utters words as “codes for other words, terrible words.” Her son has died, yet she prattles on about “food, men, the red clouds massed above the sea.” One of the strangest parts of reading Williams is the jumpiness in her language, a feeling that her nouns and verbs, no matter how meticulously ordered, might be arbitrary, a “code” for things impossible to say.
Williams uses the variation of her distinct, mysterious sentences to bypass the conventions of plot. Her basic unit is short, declarative, and deceptively simple. (“Preparation for a Collie,” from 1974, begins, “There is Jane and there is Jackson and there is David.”) Sometimes, thrillingly, the sparse habitat of the prose yields a hoof or a horn, a glimpse of exotic vocabulary. (Of a pack of feral children Williams writes, they “certainly weren’t babies, nor would they be the resigned and ingravescent old.”) More intricate statements pair a blank tone with a confounding meaning: a girl “is propelled by sidereal energies.” And then there are the mother lodes, the lines that disarm the reader with their lovely, freakish surrealism: “He is a tall, dark tree rooted in the stubborn night, and she is a flame seeking him—unstable, transparent.”
Energy flickers in and out of this writing, with its flatness and sudden, lyrical bursts. Williams is endlessly interested in the attribute of spirit and who or what possesses it. Her work proposes limit cases in animation: taxidermied creatures, people in comas, people with dementia, the very old and the unborn. She often assigns lifelike qualities to sunlight or plants or even buildings. In one passage, “the balconies did not look as if they would suffer to be enjoyed”; in another, “the wind rose, searching the sky for something to engage, then finding nothing, dropped down to nudge the water in the pool.”
If Williams’s breezes indulge in child’s play, her human characters resemble something close to forces of nature. They behave like beasts, fall to earth like meteors. Their motivations prove hard to fathom, even and especially to themselves, which makes them read like cosmic misfires, unequal to the rest of creation. Williams is at her most entertaining when skewering peoples’ preposterous dinner parties and daffy beach houses. Someone is always drinking too much; a husband is frequently cheating. Characters meet brutal, untimely, bathetic deaths, which may or may not slow them down. (In “The Quick and the Dead,” from 2000, a spectral socialite torments her spouse, who has a crush on the yard boy.) Villains, marked by their cruelty to children and to pets, are particularly doomed: one man has his penis blown off.
At the wistful center of things usually stands a young woman. She may be a new mother, like Pearl, in “The Changeling” (1978); perhaps she has just done something drastic, like Corvus, from “The Quick and the Dead,” who burns down her house after her parents drown. Ontological anxiety is a shared affliction: Kate, from “State of Grace” (1973), “often worried about never being born.” A God-shaped shadow hovers over these books, whose cadences feel Biblical, their proportions vast. Williams, the daughter of a Congregational minister, invokes themes of purity and sin, and yet the religious retains an aura of anachronism. In much of Williams’s writing, a question lingers: Has holiness finally withdrawn from the world?
Williams’s new novel, “Harrow” (Knopf), answers that question definitively. When the curtain lifts, nature lies in tatters, its remains soon to be converted into so-called sewer meadows or leased to Supercuts. The protagonist, Khristen, is a teen-ager with a grand destiny, according to her mother, who insists that her daughter briefly died as an infant and then returned. Khristen is shipped off to a school for the gifted—a Kafkaesque place, with no books or paper—before her father dies, her mother disappears, a mysterious cataclysm occurs, and the academy closes. She wanders into a retirement community next to a befouled lake, which the elderly residents have named Big Girl. The group, which calls itself the Institute, is not, one of its leaders reflects, “a suicide academy or a terrorist hospice. Or not exactly.” Its members seek to avenge the natural world, to kill scientists who vivisect animals or breed germs for warfare. They’re “a gabby seditious lot,” Williams writes, “in the worst of health but with kamikaze hearts . . . determined to refresh, through crackpot violence, a plundered earth.”
In the past two decades, Williams has churned out stories and furious, eschatological, climate-themed essays, but she hasn’t published a novel since “The Quick and the Dead,” which earned a Pulitzer nomination. “Harrow” extends several of that book’s preoccupations—the eco-terrorism theme recalls Alice, a militant environmentalist, who at one point ties up a drifter for animal cruelty. But “Harrow” summons a more alien palette, with Williams’s tone achieving a new, perfectly hostile register. Characters are ruthlessly dispatched—a student, broken by the academy, is “taken away a shuddering ruin”—and society’s foibles are laid bare. At the end of history, we learn, Disney World “is going strong” and apathy amounts to a “sign of refinement.” Academics flock to voguish conferences to deliver lectures on “The Potentiality of Landscape’s Emptiness: The Integrity of Half Measures.” Much of this would be hilarious, if it weren’t so sad.
Williams’s vision of an annihilated earth seems to have flown from the brain of Francisco Goya. “The land was bright with raging fires ringed by sportsmen shooting the crazed creatures trying to escape the flames,” she writes. As the novel continues, it plumbs ever-deeper zones of dystopian weirdness. Rain does not sparkle or ricochet but clings “grayly like tiny sticky-bodied caterpillars.” Tree bark burns to the touch. Even the days themselves, with their “rubbery, unforgiving texture,” seem “hesitant, as though waiting for something further and not to their benefit to be decided.”
Any remaining goodness persists in an ironic place: humanity, the part that understands its own crimes. And it is doubly ironic that the keepers of this flame belong to a demographic—the elderly—that is so consistently belittled and undervalued. I thought of Yoko Tawada’s “The Emissary” (2018), another novel of environmental crisis, which imagines vigorous centenarians tending to the weak, toxin-addled young. In a way, these books’ atmosphere of warning draws strength from ageism: a reader’s disturbance—the heroes are old ?—is conscripted to make the future seem even scarier. And yet Williams’s seniors don’t scan as “feisty,” or as insipidly, twinklingly wise. They can be petty, harsh with obsolescence, yearning only for “a proud and wolfish death.” Such pessimism generates haunted, peculiar prose. One of the Institute’s leaders, Lola, considers Big Girl, the tainted lake: “Someone was down in her depths, this she’d once believed. A woman, of course, with long tangled hair. And all the wickedness of humankind against nature fell down through the waters and collected in her dark locks.”
There is a way of understanding Williams that connects her imagery to the nature of grief, to how it makes experience gigantic and strange. She practices a kind of hallucinogenic realism, which takes at face value the psychological flights of characters deranged by loss. Kate, Khristen, and the three teen-agers at the heart of “The Quick and the Dead” are all motherless, and many of the short stories fall open with an intimation of tragedy. For Williams, sorrow doesn’t contract the universe; it expands it. In this, she’s an heir to the poet Wallace Stevens, who wrote, in “Sunday Morning,” that “death is the mother of beauty.” (Stevens, who called himself a “dried-up Presbyterian,” was likewise reckoning with a residual God-shape.) It is Lola’s sadness that begets a vision of a lady in the water. Pain prompts these women’s imaginations; pain is the new mother of creation, now that the earth has been despoiled.
Reading “Harrow,” I was struck by a memory. When I was in middle school, my mother learned on a phone call that her brother-in-law, my uncle, had died. After she told me, the first thing I asked her was whether I had to go to swim practice. Then I laughed uncontrollably at something unrelated that my sister had said. This is a Joy Williams story: bad behavior, broken synapses. Loss rewrites the rules of the living. It seemed impossible, in that moment, that certain words might continue meaning what they had always meant. The rupture had rendered everyday language incoherent—had driven us to converse in hoots, like animals.
Williams seems uniquely sensitized to the pressure that grief exerts on expression. Her novel flips frantically through specialized vocabularies: bureaucratic, commercial, medical, poetic. Can any of them meet the moment? At the lake, Khristen encounters a precocious ten-year-old, Jeffrey, who dreams of a career in law, and who speaks mostly in legalese. He is the reader’s surrogate, or advocate. “Of course the whole situation is opaque,” he declares, referring to the rules of the community they’ve washed up in, or perhaps to the novel, or perhaps to life itself. “I expected more incandescence.” But, by the end of the book, Jeffrey has become a judge who presides over incomprehensible proceedings, in what might be the underworld. Reason and justice: these are matters for the dead, if not dead things themselves.
Art, that vaunted human achievement, might impress Williams even less than the law does. At an Institute meeting, members discuss whether Khristen’s project should be “killing all the poets,” with their “pious revulsion” at contemporary excess, which has only ever been “useless.” (One woman moves to defend writers who “write unsentimentally with cold disgust,” but she is overruled.) The activists seem to mourn the very idea of narrative: the hope of a human tale that doesn’t imprison life within its limits. During her lakeside reverie, Lola envisions someone—“shaman, vizier, gangrel”—diving to the lake’s bottom to tenderly comb out Big Girl’s knotted curls. It is a mother’s fantasy of caring for her child, a reparative inversion of the usual metaphor, in which people are nurtured by the earth. But Lola catches herself. “The old dear stories of possibility,” she thinks, dismissively.
If a new story is possible, it will require an entirely different language; the current one has been desecrated with the climate. (“You really couldn’t call it dirt anymore, least of all soil . . . but the stuff was generally referred to as dirt, it being accepted that it was too much trouble to define it as something else.”) One suspects that, for Williams, our mixture of political cant, scientific jargon, and corporate cliché has passed the point of no return. An Institute member drafts a manifesto full of words like “aridity” and “desertification”; to Khristen, it sounds like gibberish. Take, by contrast, Williams’s delightful rendering of a post-apocalyptic bowling alley, whose patrons, “of that pastime’s typical bent—hefty, of a tribal disposition and with themselves well pleased,” upon releasing the ball “held the afterward of their poses for a vanity of time.” There is the archaic diction (“with themselves well pleased”), the perfect and surprising nouns (the “afterward” of their poses, a “vanity” of time), the curious anthropological remove. Williams has long written to the side of conventional English, pursuing a form that feels more commensurate with actual experience—with the terror, comedy, and mystery of moving through the world. In “Harrow,” perhaps, she conjures a denatured earth to go with her denatured prose.
But that’s not quite right. While the habitat of the novel has gone dry, Williams’s sentences swerve toward lushness. What she seeks is a healing language, something suited to God’s once-unbroken design. One could call this re-natured prose, writing that makes room for the rest of the ecosystem, and the simplicity of Williams’s sentences can have a pleading, encouraging quality: speaking this way isn’t hard. At one point, Khristen is walking around the lake when a word appears, in her mind, “as though upon the path. Like a great wilted flower. Pronounced. It was a word they used before the dead in that instant when everything was altered.” She imagines pushing past the verb’s “petaled softness,” and the elegy of the passage is almost unbearable. Williams is evoking, and lamenting, another transformative moment: the Creation, in which God’s Word manifested as the universe, and language and nature met as one. ♦
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Published in the print edition of the September 27, 2021, issue, with the headline “Let There Be Darkness.”
Katy Waldman is a staff writer at The New Yorker.
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