BY CARRIE FOUNTAIN
Honored Guest: Stories Joy Williams Knopf 224 pages, $24.
had this weird feeling reading these stories that all my teeth were going to fall out or something. It may’ve been the anxious way I was clenching my jaw. But I think it was in fact the way Joy Williams’ prose made everything in my body—indeed, everything in the world—seem precarious, loosely held together, essential and yet so utterly inconsequential. With the arrival of Honored Guest, her first short story collection in a decade, Williams, who is a visiting writer this fall at UT’s Michener Center for Writers, returns to what is arguably the form which suits her best. In these 12 stories she wrings large philosophical questions from the dreariest of human interactions, and with no patience for sentimentality she meditates on our thoroughly modern, screwed-up, thoroughly American way of life and death. “I find that beliefs about reality affect people’s actions to an enormous degree, don’t you?” asks a character in the story “Congress.” In “Anodyne,” after describing San Antonio’s Riverwalk and the highly un-riverly process of draining, scrubbing, and refilling that part of the San Antonio is put through each year, another character explains: “People have lost their interest in reality.” Williams has a knack for exposing our most bizarre human behaviors, without celebrating them or chalking them up to the foibles of humanity. Amidst our perverted, American preoccupation with everything, her characters simply try to get their bearings. Her tight, graceful prose, precise in tone, deft in syntax, makes for delightful reading. Her stories are sometimes more allegorical than narrative, sometimes more poetic than allegorical. Her prophets are a taxidermist, a marksman, and, until a bow-hunting accident renders him dumb, a forensic anthropologist. Her metaphors come by way of teenagers, vagrants, and the small talk of hairdressers. Her readers are asked to believe in nothing. And with snakes “relocated” from backyards, pets dragged from a dog park by coyotes, references to taxidermy, road kill, and “the immense moribund pines, dying because of the town’s controversial road-salting practices,” we’re constantly reminded that wherever there is now a gated community or a mall or a condo there once was the natural world. ostly these stories dwell, in tone as well as circumstance, in the realm of the absurd. It’s here that Williams makes her most agile, darkly comical moves. In “Marabou” things go poorly for a woman mourning her teenage son’s death: “Other burials were taking place at the same hour, including that of a popular singer several hundred yards away whose mourner fans carried on loudly under a lurid striped tent.” After the burial she finds herself entertaining a group of her son’s friends, “addicts, or former addicts of some sort… twenty of them, boys and girls, strikingly alike in black,” whom she numbly tries to engage while reminiscing about her lost child. In a display of confused possessiveness, grief, and drugged fragility, the teenagers turn on her. In “Charity” a woman likes the idea of giving money to a family of panhandlers while traveling in the New Mexico desert. Her gesture, however, is complicated by the family’s outrageous demands, and what begins as a flash of charity finds her in a motel bed with the whole family, exhausted, nauseated, having lost husband, car, and money within the course of a few short hours. In “Hammer” a girl comes home from boarding school with a chatty vagrant in tight leather pants (which, due to an “unfortunate erotic crisis,” suggests, sadly, “no knob”). The man acts as a kind of buffer between the girl and her mother while showing his general disapproval of every nook and cranny in the house. In “The Other Week,” a woman tries to fire her obsessive gardener, encouraging him to pursue his dream of raising “security cactus.” In “Anodyne” a young diabetic follows her mother as she drops yoga to take gun classes at a place called “the Pistol Institute.” The very real tension these seemingly ridiculous circumstances create is substantial. This happens because Williams’ characters, while certainly ridiculous at times, are, for the most part, anything but absurd. What makes these stories so affecting is the author’s penchant for paring down her characters to a kind of single-minded obsessiveness that rings true both in the world of the story and in the gut of its reader. And what sends her characters into that state of hyper-brooding is most often an unshakable awareness of their own mortality. We die, they seem to be saying, right?—even as the facts of our reality become more and more abstracted, and death becomes a negligible threshold, with dead actors on TV digitally re-introduced into scenes and wild animals found to be much more believable when stuffed and mounted. Williams is intent on turning the tables, showing us that what looks like absurd human behavior on an individual basis might actually be a normal response to a world gone mad. All allegory aside, Williams has a tremendous empathy for her characters. They are conscious beings living in a peculiarly disengaged world, and they seem to sense—and, at the same time, deny—this great disconnect. When one character leaves her husband in bed to sleep out by the pool, Williams writes with a scalding clarity that, while amusing, speaks to the disturbing direction in which we seem to be headed:
It was long past the hour when people in the neighborhood used the outside. It was a big concern among Francine’s acquaintances, who were always vowing to utilize the outside more, but after a certain hour they stopped worrying about it. To many of Francine’s acquaintances, the outside was the only flagellator their consciences would ever know.
What’s especially remarkable about this prose is that Williams’ concerns are essentially—ruthlessly, critically—American. She is somehow able to both meditate on our mortality and its meaning (or lack thereof), and at the same time draw careful lines between those existential questions and the increasing vapidity of American culture. This is best achieved in the title story, where we find Lenore, a dying woman, and her teenage daughter Helen living out their daily lives as the imminent event draws nearer. This narrative unfolds like a Lifetime Television movie gone wrong, with all the heartfelt, meaningful conversations, all the conciliatory, sentimental stuff, gone. In the absence of consolation, we’re left with the hours and the minutes and the terrifying, practical matters of dying. In this fiction death does not act as an organizing principle, as it does in many American narratives. Lenore grows frantic, bitchy even, in her attempts to make her own death make sense to her, and to communicate something big to her daughter. Unable to sleep one night, she makes another attempt to come to terms with her dying.
She took a pen and wrote on the paper, When I go, the dog goes. Promise me this. She left it out for Helen. Then she thought, That dog is the dumbest one I’ve ever had. I don’t want him with me. She was amazed she could still think this. She tore the piece of paper. “Lenore!” she cried, and wrung her hands. She wanted herself.
As is typical of Williams’ fiction in general, it is the teenager, Helen, who, near the end of this story, grasps, albeit for a fleeting moment, a sense of meaning in the face of death:
“An honored guest,” she said aloud. To live was like being an honored guest. The thought was outside her, large and calm. Then you were no longer an honored guest. The thought turned away from her and faded.
Even this thought, however, fades. It’s not something she’s allowed to carry with her. This is not to say that Williams writes nihilistic fiction. In fact, what she achieves here, in the overall worldview these stories seem to profess, is actually the opposite: a desperate call for reason, which, in the end, is a call for humanity. “We are what is missing from the world,” wrote the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. Williams seems to agree. Her eye is trained to the huge, boisterous ways we humans, especially we Americans, try obsessively to deny the fact that we die. In these stories she gets beyond that, and in doing so, proves that we exist. Carrie Fountain is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. She lives in Austin and is working on a book of poetry.