I don’t remember the first time I read Diane Williams, but I do remember the first time I read the first sentence in her third book, The Stupefaction: “I am glad he is this man here so that I can do a fuck with someone, but I am regarded as a better cocksucker.” I used to drive around with that book on the backseat of my car. Sometimes I would make people pick it up and start reading from that beginning out loud to me so I could watch their face when they read it. Their mouths would do different things. You could tell something about a person from the way they read it.
Diane Williams has a whole other way of talking in her fiction. The way she stacks syntax and changes the forward beat of the story often in mid-sentence causes a whole different cloud of affect than one would expect, especially in the compact, often page-long forms she puts together. The language can seem sometimes brain damaged, schizophrenic, conversational, cryptic, arcane, campy, high. It’s less a matter of what happens in any particular paragraph and instead how the paragraph happens in itself, and yet at the same time, by the end, again and again, you feel like you’ve experienced something, even if you couldn’t quite say what, like rubbing along strange surfaces in the dark and sometimes the colored light.
Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty, Williams’s newest collection, recently released from McSweeney’s, reminds me of David Lynch in a different way than things usually remind me of David Lynch. Perhaps more than any of her other collections, the strings of syllables snake around horses and people and milk and cats and dead fathers and tables, all delivered in language by speakers almost as if mesmerized by where they’ve been, talking into their hand to you in the manner of an adult child’s secret. That’s something: these stories feel so muffled in their way of presenting small glimpses of the various private worlds going on in houses all around you that they seem at the same time matter-of-fact and far away, singular little aliens having walked out of the closet in the room beside you to tell you what they’ve seen you do inside your sleep.
Here’s some of that.
MY FIRST REAL HOME
In there, there was this man who developed a habit of sharpening knives. You know he had a house and a yard, so he had a lawnmower and several axes and he had a hedge shears and, of course, he had kitchen knives and scissors, and he and his wife lived in comfort.
Within a relatively short time he had spent half of his fortune on sharpening equipment and they were gracing his basement on every available table and bench and he added special stands for the equipment.
He would end up with knives or shears that were so sharp they just had to come near something and it would cut itself. It’s the kind of sharpening that goes beyond comprehension. You just lean the knife against a piece of paper.
Tommy used to use him. Ernie’d do his chain saws.
So, I take my knives under my arm and I drive off to Ernie’s and he and I became friends and we’d talk about everything.
“I don’t sharpen things right away. You leave it—and see that white box over there?” he’d said. That was his office. It was a little white box attached to the house with a lid you could open and inside there were a couple of ballpoint pens. There was a glass jar with change. There were tags with rubber bands and there was an order form that you filled out in case he wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there the first time I came back, at least I didn’t see him.
I went up to the box and those knives were transformed.
As I was closing the lid, he came up through the basement door that was right there and we started to chat and he has to show me something in the garden, so he takes me to where he has his plantings. It’s as if the dirt was all sorted and arranged, and then, when I said he had cut his lawn so nice, he was shining like a plug bayonet.
All the little straws and grass were pointing in one direction.
“I don’t mow like my neighbor,” he said.
Oh, and then he also had a nice touch—for every packet he had completed there was a Band-Aid included. Just a man after my own heart. He died.
I was sad because whenever I got there I was very happy.
I am a disappointment, so I drank the milk. I finished the milk quickly, and then took a low dosage of the tea. I lit a lamp—nearly blushed in the company of myself.
With this sort of blow, I am very unpleasant. Delmore and Constantine know how unpleasant I am.
On such a night, I normally display figurines on the table—a bear holding a staff; a man holding a house; a man holding a house standing on another man—you know, how birds sit on each other.
Constantine—one of the finest men I’ll ever know—walked in my direction like a duck who’s wrung himself out. My recommendation to the duck would have been—don’t fly alone and why fly so high. Do the other ducks know you’re out here on your own? Do you even know where the other fucks are? Are you looking for the other fucks?
Buy Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty here.