Rushing out of the house for an appointment, I grabbed what I thought was Diane Williams’s Collected Stories. When I retrieved the book from my bag, I was surprised to find it was actually the latest volume of Sylvia Plath’s letters: they’re both large hardbacks whose pale jackets are touched with baby blue. The switcheroo generated unforeseen connections. If I had been unsure how to classify Williams’s 310 stories – all of them between one and four pages long – I now saw that each was about the same length as one of Plath’s letters. Williams’s fiction has the rhythm and diction of East Coast speech, and the intensity and sociality of the letter-writer who cranks herself up to offer a distillate from the endlessly mundane. ‘Certain animals,’ she writes in ‘A Woman’s Fate’, ‘have intentions to awe, to comfort, to guide, to be gossipy – to be observant, to be sly, to be thoughtful, and more. To be witty, to come to light, to be worth waiting for.’
Williams, who was born in 1946, has been publishing very short (I hate the term ‘flash’) fiction since 1990. She lives in Manhattan, has taught at various colleges, and has edited two literary journals that specialise in contemporary fiction: StoryQuarterly (1985-97) and NOON (which she founded in 2000). Biographical information about her is scarce. She is, or has been, married with two sons; her father’s family emigrated from Romania to the US and he had psychic powers – that much we glean from a recent Paris Review feature in which she gives a tour of her eccentric art collection.
What is veiled (or just normal) about her life is revealed (or fabulated) in her fiction, which is full of funny, libidinal and invigorating enigmas. In her stories, roles and classifications are up for grabs. The narrator is usually a woman, but relations misbehave. Sons queasily meld with lovers, lovers with dogs, ‘he’ with ‘she’. Freudian substitutions and intrusions are rampant. Yet the voice is always identifiable, no matter who’s narrating. (In dreams, aren’t we all one plural multigendered omniscience?) ‘The house was neat and clean as ever,’ the narrator of ‘The Time of Harmony, or Crudité’ declares. ‘I got a lot of things done. I fully enjoyed sex. It turned out I was very deep into being.’ Whether or not that seems ironic depends on the way you read the tension between harmony and crudité (the narrator is chopping vegetables), and the way you read the final run-on sentence that ends with ‘crap’.
Just as Williams shuffles the categories and scripts and roles for women, men, children and pets, it follows that we’re led to question the categories of story, letter, poem, dream. (Some people think these categories are trivial, but we keep slipping back into them because they provide friction.) The women speaking are very often, especially in the early stories, framed by specific rooms – kitchens, bedrooms and, often, toilets. There are children’s parties, cocktail parties. When men take the narrator by surprise in some carnal way, there are no #MeToo objections. Walls and boundaries fail at the point where sexuality is irrepressible. Explaining Williams’s stories in his introduction to this volume, Ben Marcus is deadpan: ‘They are about people. Foolish, foolish people.’
Another category where verbal effect depends on compression and timing is the joke. The only online clip of Williams shows her reading in a bar; you hear the appreciative audience cackling in the background. I wondered what a stand-up comedian would make of her pastiche of pornography, ‘On Reddish Skin and the Red Flesh’:
I was very worried about sex, because, you know, I’d never had any formal training.
I offered her a molasses nog.
What might have been an average one-liner is much funnier when juxtaposed with the second sentence, in which something quaintly literary becomes faintly filthy. The filthiness doesn’t come merely from the reference to sex – these are so often cloying and banal – but from the suggestion that the vowels and consonants are secretly having it. (Note the hidden words in ‘molasses nog’.)
There are dark moments in this book too. Much of Williams’s early work has to do with shame and embarrassment. ‘The Dog’, which seemingly describes sex with a man, is followed by ‘The Man’, which seemingly describes a self-satisfied dog; ‘Pussy’ ends on the word ‘poonac’ (a Sri Lankan coconut cake used as animal fodder); in ‘Cloud’, a victim of gang rape is relieved that her attackers weren’t ‘of the opinion that her tits sucked’. In ‘Scratching the Head’, this menacing sentence jumps out: ‘An accident isn’t necessarily ever over.’
Williams has fun with Gertrude Stein’s dictum that sentences aren’t emotional but paragraphs are; she’ll often turn sentences into paragraphs to drive home a point, as in ‘As It Turns Out’:
I will encourage myself to lead a more up-to-date way of life, in a rarer atmosphere, where something in the world is really wanted or needed.
People either like me or they don’t. Nobody is ever completely persuaded or enthusiastic, though.
Many of those who have thought that they enjoyed my company have not, in fact, been charmed, as it turns out.
I think that they pretend to be in dreamland, which is rather romantic.
Heaven all around us, I am fond of saying.
My husband gave me something which demands something. He said, ‘See?’
I put it on.
He said he had paid for it.
I wear it, paying for it, too.
If you’ve been a wife you probably have an idea what ‘it’ is. (There’s a conspiratorial pleasure in imagining she knows you know she knows.) Every page of a Diane Williams story is enlivened by a slightly unmoored situation of this sort; it’s usually resolved with an epiphany that has less to do with wisdom than with the timing of a sentence. A steady stream of varied utterance – now self-exhortation, now self-criticism, now a dry half-amused remark, now something incomprehensible and private, then something ominous. That last line – ‘I wear it, paying for it, too’ – is not quite a punchline, yet the whole story is like an extended joke; the lines reel you in, and take left turns, but the ending makes everything click into place.
I resist describing Williams as an absurdist or surrealist (though I often think of Leonora Carrington, Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein while reading her). The narration is too homely, driven by idiosyncrasy, intimacy, and the valiant effort to maintain dignity. Besides, the sentences that come out of our mouths are routinely weirder than those we think to write. Williams told an interviewer for the Believer that she had once taken
a splendid sentence out of the mouth of a student who was speaking about her intentions for a story and wrote her spoken sentence – with all its redundancies, incoherent elements, hesitations, all of its eccentric rhythms – on the chalkboard, declaring this to be her most and only successful sentence she’d composed for the story to date. Finding out what one sounds like is too shocking for some to bear.
First and last sentences are the drivers of any given Williams story: they jump-start, accelerate, coast, crash or arrest. The accelerative first sentence of ‘Upright Pearl’ runs: ‘How about the deity responsible for me? – why should it not move me through the realm, escort me to the other side of the predicament?’ Then the brakes of the last sentence screech to a stop on the next page: ‘The disorder in my left knee has returned, and this time for a different reason than the last time, I have pallor, debilitating pain, possibly fever, a noticeable tumour involving a tendon, and persistent tingling in my affected good try and first haunting.’ ‘Great Deed’ begins: ‘Far off he saw his peril – that is, a friend – and she waved.’ It ends: ‘The sleep, dear guest, was sleep. Dear guest, your request not to be disturbed has been acknowledged.’
By paying attention to language at its most fine-grained – every hesitation, every repetition is keenly considered – Williams makes me think of Flaubert dreaming of a literature ‘about nothing’ precisely because it’s about everything. Consider this sentence: ‘If the two of them have really ever been tender with one another, these people, this morning, will be so mythological as if not to be yet beyond belief.’ I wonder how long she agonised over the intrusion of ‘if not’ and ‘yet’ in ‘as if not to be yet beyond belief’. And although she doesn’t mention Flaubert, he lurks in her answer to another interview question:
I can’t argue the case for freedom in art as persuasively as Freud did, or as Jung did, or as any of their heirs did and do. Psychic freedom is crucial to our sanity and to our humanity – so nothing differentiates an amoral piece of writing from one concerned with truth, justice and morals. A great work of art that can deliver Hell has a purifying effect. Why? Ask why.
‘The acoustics are always on my mind,’ Williams told the same interviewer. ‘My object is to manage the text as if it is a musical score.’
Aha. Now this is finally a category that makes sense to me. No wonder her titles so often remind me of John Ashbery’s. (He said that music was an even greater influence on him than visual art.) Williams’s titles are invitational or introductory, not explanatory: ‘Head of a Naked Girl’; ‘What a Great Man Learned about Reflection and Emotion’; ‘Aggressive Glass and Mirrors’. Really, they could be the names of songs: ‘Oh, Darling I’m in the Garden’; ‘It Can Take Years to Remain’; ‘Nancy Weak’; ‘Vicky Swanky Was a Beauty’. When a writer aspires to be a musician, she violates the basic terms of her contract with the reader – to, as they say, ‘communicate’. That there is room for misreading in even the most basic sentence is one reason directness is so desirable; it’s also the reason poets and comedians and writers like Williams double down on the possibilities of misreading:
‘How is Thursday,’ she said, ‘or anything else?’
(‘Her Hair Is Red’)
And for now, there’s a slight bulge in myacumen.
(‘Romance Erector: A Novella’)
Ultimately, the best recommendation for Diane Williams is Diane Williams’s own words: ‘something teeny keeled’; ‘an unold mouth about to kiss me’; ‘there is grey in the child’s hair’; ‘I took to fluffing my speech with the details of the day.’ Readers who love the arresting phrase, the surprising word, will gravitate to her. I suppose that’s why for once I didn’t mind that this collection is as heavy to carry around as a mid-sized tortoise. It’s perfect to leave on the bedside table, to be consulted before one’s dreamlife begins: ‘There is laurel all over the garden, as well as my dog Cyril, and the fowl who walk without the benefit of their arms and hands to swing.’