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The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories
The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories
Joy Williams
Knopf, 2015
512 pp., $30.00

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Linda McCullough Moore


More with Less

The stories of Joy Williams.

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Annie Dillard once responded to a student who asked her if he should become a writer, "I don't know. Do you like sentences?" A warranted complaint must surely be that far too few writers these days betray much evidence of liking sentences, or clauses, or phrases, come to that. If there is a writer who could get by on her unsettling genius, it is Williams, but blessedly the woman seems to love the sentence too. In one story called "Another Season," she writes,

Nothing was familiar to him here, neither morning nor evening. In the southern dusk, the dark grew out of the sky like a hoof of mud dissolving in a clear pool. But on the island, dusk seemed to grow out of nothing at all. Dusk and night being a figment of fog, and exhaustion of wave, the time when blackness sank into the town as if buildings and trees were a pit to be filled.

She puts each phrasing through its paces, holds each sentence to account.

This collection is so very smart and wise—the two are not the same—and most of all, important. Surely here's a book we need. But, as in most attempts to understand how magic's made, to analyze we are reduced to talk of technique and equipment. Williams does more with less than any writer casting spells today. In the story "Honored Guest," a woman, Helen, dreams that she is her own daughter, and we're off to the races. The woman beside Helen in the beauty parlor has long, wet hair and a cigarette. Oh yes, and a black parole anklet. So many of the details offer rich delight and stunning metaphor in delicate minutiae. In the story "Health," a woman, Marge, "had been in Spain, in a museum studying a Goya, and a piece of the painting had fallen at her feet … a wedge of greenish violet paint, as large as a thumbnail." Then, through the years: "I have a small Goya," she will say whenever she meets someone new. And the reader laughs out loud, but later in the afternoon is made to consider the ironic ego's brave and sorry claims we so rely upon. Always, more with less. The story "Charity" tells of a wife who "felt that she was capable of awe and transfiguration," but with her husband "she felt not much of anything. She was distracted by the knowledge that they were on a loop road."

Williams embraces paradox, the subtle uses of hyperbole. We find ourselves identifying with characters beyond our ken, I think, because Williams will not shy from dark depictions of extremes. Here are drunk mothers, mothers who mix Drano and ground meat with the intention of poisoning a son's dog as he looks on; mothers who wake a young child in the middle of the night, prodding her to stay awake to listen to The Answer Man on the radio; mothers who barge onto the stage in the middle of a magic show, staggering and slurring, begging the magician to saw her into two pieces. Williams refuses to soften or explain, to offer mitigating evidence in defense of real behavior, and so, because she writes with such stark truthfulness, the reader can respond with an honesty that a more sentimental offering might well mute or excuse away. This writer shouts when the occasion calls for noise, and we hear and shudder as we surely should.

In a marvelous piece in Standpoint (May 2015), Douglas Murray writes of contemporary art:

The works may tell us about death, suffering, cruelty or pain but few have anything to say about these subjects. The art of our time seems to have given up any effort to kindle something else in us. In particular, it has given up that desire to connect us to something like the spirit of religion or that thrill of recognition—what Aristotle termed anagnorisis—which grants you the sense of having just caught up with a truth that was always waiting for you.

I am not here to make religion's claims for Williams, but surely in her work there is the thrill of recognition on every page, a catching up with truth, an anagnorisis: that point at which the reader recognizes his or her or some other person's true identity, discovers the true nature of his or her own situation. I don't know if, as so many critics claim, Joy Williams writes like Flannery O'Connor, but I would bet money I don't have that Flannery would relish every story Williams tells.

Linda McCullough Moore is a story writer living in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her most recent book is The Book of Not So Common Prayer (Abingdon Press).

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