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Joy Williams Captures the Absurdity of America in Her Stories

The dark, funny-sad stories in her new collection ;The Visiting Privilege' are both a warning and an offering to a country in distress.

by Shane Jones
Sep 17 2015, 3:08pm

Joy Williams. Photo by Anne Dalton. Courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf

Last month, at the age of 35, I traveled for the first time to Europe. It was very nice—bright green parks, cobblestone streets, charming accents. Returning to JFK, I watched a man scream, "Fuck up Mario," into a bathroom mirror. The man wore a name tag: "Mario." When I got off the train in my hometown of Albany, New York, I took my first picture since returning to America. It's of a garbage can stuffed with Dunkin' Donuts cups and a pair of pants on top of the cups. After taking the picture, a man thanked me, then grabbed the pants. After experiencing the seemingly relaxed and chill people of Scotland, I was home.

Reabsorbing into American culture has been weird and difficult. I have thought, multiple times, This place is fucked. There is, I believe, something intrinsically sad about living here. For me, the greatest cataloger of this particular sadness is Joy Williams. Being home has made me think, repeatedly, I'm in a Joy Williams story.

To her devoted fans this isn't news. Williams has been highlighting our absurd confidence in the face of cosmic obliteration since her collection Taking Care first appeared in 1982. But, it seems, she's never been more popular than she is now: a profile in the New York Times earlier this month, glowing reviews from the Washington Post and NPR, a current national book tour, a nearly sold-out forthcoming discussion with Don DeLillo, an interview in the Paris Review last summer, and a younger generation just discovering her work. I believe the reason for this is because we've become as sad and ridiculous and detached from nature as her characters are. With The Visiting Privilege, a 500-page definitive omnibus of old and new work published last week by Knopf, she will be more read than any other point in her career. This is a great thing, because looking around, we need Joy Williams now more than ever.

Photo by the author

Returning home wasn't the first time I've considered how accurate Joy Williams's portrayals of American culture and our people are. I have a note, two years old, that says, "Very Joy Williams," after an interaction with a coworker. I had been standing at the end of the hall where my boss's office was and his two assistants sat. Making small talk, I looked out the window and said, "It's a nice day out," and one of the assistants walked over, looked at the sky, and said, "It was a nice day on 9/11, too."

This kind of brutally ridiculous speech bordering on non sequitur is everywhere in the stories of Joy Williams. Her characters say outlandish things, are mean to each other, and are equally absurd and lonely. There's also something oddly beautiful and funny going on here. They are people who want to live their future by looking in the past, but they never connect. But what I realized, after my coworker said what she did, and even more recently after my trip, is that this is how we talk and act, exclusively, as Americans. From the man screaming in JFK to the pair of pants in the garbage can, it's all very Joy Williams, and perhaps I should start leaving that note everywhere I have this thought.

In the story "Hammer," Angela has a daughter, Darleen, who hates her and one day surprises her with a visit. To Angela's surprise, Darleen brings along an older man named Deke who insults Angela for the duration of the story. Here's how Deke enters the room:

"This ain't much of an establishment if you pardon my saying so," he said to Angela. "No steaks in the freezer, no ice cream, sound system inadequate, music fit only to disinform the listener, no point in hearing it twice, towels thin, wash-clothes worn and most suspect, bed lumpy, poor recycling practices, few spare light bulbs on hand, fire extinguishers out of date, no playing cards, clocks not set properly—"

"I like them a little fast," Angela conceded. It was all true. He was in no way exaggerating.

"Potted violets on windowsill in very poor condition, worst case of powdery mildew I ever saw. I could go on."

Deke, like many people I've interacted with since having a break from America, is oblivious to his no-filter speech. Angela surprises herself halfway through the story by laughing, which is all she can do, when Deke says, "Ever visit a prison gift shop?" I did the same when my coworker said "It was a nice day on 9/11, too." Deke is real.

In a fall season with PR people and reviewers praising Jonathan Franzen's Purity, where you get to read about a character named "Pip" for nearly 600 pages, a slew of young female authors promised as "the next big thing," more work from John Irving, Michael Cunningham, David Mitchell, and John Banville (all old white guys deserving shoulder shrugs and a library loan), and a new Mary Gaitskill with the most depressing publicity blurb I've ever read—"The story of a Dominican girl, the white woman who introduces her to riding, and the horse who changes everything for her"— The Visiting Privilege is one of the most important and radical books published this fall. And Joy Williams has been doing it for decades.

The new stories, for the most part, are in the same style as her previous, just more philosophical and death-obsessed. Editor Gordon Lish (who published Williams at Knopf early in her career) and his message are very much present: first-person, minimal, intimate, compressed sentences, his idea of "torque," which he defines as a sense of mystery but not confusion, surprises at the sentence level. Her unmatched juxtaposing of words and ideas, her blend of humor and sadness, her penchant for realism but talent for abstraction, is still clear and striking. But there's also something more spiritual, more of a push for us to get back to dirt and acquiesce not with how to live with Dunkin' Donuts, but animals and nature.

Williams has been a strong advocate for nature and animals over the years. Part of her attack on American culture and our collective loneliness is an indictment on how we've marginalized and subdued our natural surroundings. As she writes in her 2001 essay collection Ill Nature: "Your eyes glaze as you travel life's highway past all the crushed animals and the Big Gulp cups." What we're left with is a dark world full of consumption and loneliness.

This sentiment recommences in the new stories. There's a strong theme of nature and animals looking at us, wondering what exactly the fuck we're doing, as we ignore them, destroying our natural surroundings with not only meanness, but indifference.

In one of her shortest and most powerful stories, "Preparation for a Collie," published 35 years ago, a dysfunctional couple decides to get rid of their dog against the seemingly obvious fact that the dog is important to the woman's son, and more importantly, to the well-being of the family as a complete unit. But instead they treat the dog like utter shit. "What a sad stupid dog," says one of the characters. And another: "I'm going to kill that dog, I'm sick of him."

Williams has always attempted to connect our human loneliness and American culture with our disconnect from animals and nature. It's just now, in an America where factory farming has been exposed as the nightmare it is, and animal-abuse stories are daily (the other day I read a story about a man walking his dog by driving his car down a freeway), it feels much more real and like a necessary message.

If there's hope in the vision of Joy Williams, and there is, it predominately lies within children, such as Jackson in "Preparation for a Collie" or the unnamed girl from "Shepherd." In her stories, children often serve as antidotes to adult absurdity and destruction. "Many things that human words have harmed are restored again by the silence of animals," the little girl in "Shepherd" thinks. Children have yet to be fully poisoned by American culture, adult action, and speech, and instead rely on their intimate connections to nature, and to animals as a source of love. In "Shepherd" the girl dreams her dog has died only to wake up and realize that her dog has died in reality as well. She's stuck between the two worlds and the story ends in heartbreaking fashion:

"I did love you, didn't I?" the girl said. She saw herself forever leaping, forever falling back. "And didn't you love me?"

I have a three-year-old son, Julian, and when he's older I'll show him The Visiting Privilege. I'm not sure what my wife will think. These, after all, are dark stories. But it will be a kind of warning, and, an offering. Joy Williams's spiritual yearning for a world emotionally connected not to daily minutia and American culture, but to nature, silence, animals, is an important one. Or I could simply take Julian for a nature hike in the Catskills, point to the blue sky and say it's like the blue sky on 9/11. I could point out how damaged we are with no sense of humor or explanation whatsoever. As adults, the choice is ours.

Shane Jones is the author of several books including Light Boxes, Daniel Fights a Hurricane, and Crystal Eaters. Follow him on Twitter.

The Visiting Privilege by Joy Williams available in bookstores and online from Alfred A. Knopf.