SEPTEMBER 23, 2015
I AM NOT A PHYSICIST, but sometimes I like to pretend that I am. I sit with my brother, who happens to have a physics degree, and we talk about things like light and the infinite relationship between objects in the universe. I don’t get a lot of it, but occasionally I get something near it. To touch the edge of a theory, to talk about forces and dimensions and vibrating energy, is beautiful and fearful, the kind of fear that is good, like fearing God.
There is a striking idea in modern physics that other dimensions do in fact exist, and that there is knowledge of them because theorists have taken what I — and a number of them, it seems — would construe as a leap of faith. Apparently, there might be as many as seven possible dimensions, and these seven, as my brother puts it, interact in a way similar to the sacrament of communion; that is, they engage between the observable and the unseen, making possible, at least theoretically, the reality of transubstantiation.
What I like about theoretical physics is what I like about the work of Joy Williams. I absorb the sentences, process the dynamics, follow the dialogue, and then, somewhere during the reading, I lose the edge of what I thought I understood. Even as Williams sets out the ordinary in terms that initially seem trivial and mundane — there is a gum wrapper and a little girl and a dog; a couple is having a drink by the pool; friends are spying on a favorite teacher — I find myself in a liminal space that is inexplicably profound. Between these objects and scenes, between the words and their associations, Williams inserts a layer of meaning that stretches a reader’s relationship with the text. Without losing the safe harbor of original association, Williams introduces the possibility of two or three, or more, tangible dimensions.
The Visiting Privilege is Williams’s first collection of stories to be published since 2004. It combines the majority of stories from her previous collections — Taking Care (1972), Escapes (1990), and Honored Guest (2004) — with 13 new, unpublished stories. For over four decades, Williams has been tracking human nature and waiting for it to reveal itself in unlikely ways. Williams’s theory of story, as a comment of hers in The Paris Review suggests, involves deception and pretention, but also something like faith in the possibilities of experience:
What a story is, is devious. It pretends transparency, forthrightness. It engages with ordinary people, ordinary matters, recognizable stuff. But this is all a masquerade. What good stories deal with is the horror and incomprehensibility of time, the dark encroachment of old catastrophes. […] As a form, the short story is hardly divine, though all excellent art has its mystery, its spiritual rhythm. I think one should be able to do a lot in less than twenty pages.
While “ordinary people” and “ordinary matters” might seem deceptively coy, Williams’s stories are anything but. What is so interesting and occasionally sublime about The Visiting Privilege is its invitation to enter the liminal and consider whether we can acknowledge our own insignificance. Once we have done that, by following something that Williams calls the “spiritual rhythm,” we find we have arrived — not at some new destination, some new shore, but rather at something more like home.
A car carrying three passengers flips over and continues on its way without injury to its occupants. When the witnessing officer stops the driver, she calmly replies, “I thought it was just a dream, so I kept on going.” A runaway dog reminds two young women that “angels tell you when it’s time to leave a place by leaving just before you.” A girl waits in a midnight diner for her alcoholic mother to get sober. These people salvage themselves by waiting for something they cannot control. We understand the presence of mystery, and there is no need for translation.
Taking Care was first published in 1972 as a collection of short stories that had appeared in major venues like The New Yorker, Esquire, and The Paris Review. The stories are set almost entirely in New England and Florida, places in which Williams has lived. Her characters, though, are hardly linked to the topography. Instead, they drift across it, with cursory observations made as they go. A house stands near the Gulf; an armadillo hides in the bougainvillea; “the cold slouch[es] and press[es] against the people.” This nonsubstantiation of place turns the reader toward the inner workings of the individuals, even if they are designated only as “the girl” or “the child.” Readers are seemingly funneled toward some kind of center, only to discover that a center does not exist.
In “Train” (1972), a 10-year-old girl named Dan is traveling from New England to Florida with a companion she dislikes. They are nearing the end of summer vacation, and she has been sending postcards home from different holiday locations. The postcards themselves are uninteresting, having been given to her pre-stamped before her travels began by a mother hoping for updates. As they travel into the night, Dan leaves her increasingly obnoxious companion to watch the sunrise from another car. As the train makes its early morning pass into Florida via Jacksonville, we are not told what Dan is feeling, nor are we given a description of Jacksonville that distinguishes it from any other city. Instead, we receive an image, we are directed to see what Dan is seeing, what has caught her attention: “The train went slowly around a long curve, and looking back […] Dan could see the entire length of it moving ahead. The bubble-topped cars were dark and sinister in the first flat and hopeful light of the morning.” This is all, but it is enough to guide us. There is hope, but we do not know its origin or how to summon it.
At times, Williams surrenders the material world entirely. At the close of “The Wedding” (1972), Sam and Elizabeth are alone. “He kisses her as they stand pressed against the windowsill. Together, in their animistic embrace, they float out the window and circle the house, gazing down at all those who have not found true love, below.” As the lines of the physical world become blurred for the two lovers, we enter into something that resembles a Chagall. The image does not unravel the narrative; it is visceral and complex, but not entirely without order. It contributes to this moment in which the previously undetected dimensions that play between the mystical and empirical suddenly become plausible and imperative.
Williams’s stories, especially when read collectively, might challenge the plausible, but they also demand a reader’s participation, a leap of faith. With her second collection, Escapes, she continues to deliver transcendent and bizarre moments scattered amid the harsh realities of her characters’ lives. A couple moves a classic Thunderbird into their living-room to slow down its material demise while avoiding the rot in their own relationship; a young woman waits for an oversized boa constrictor to find its way into the backseat of her Volkswagen, so that she and the snake can begin a new life together. Such actions, however outrageous, are written simply, indistinguishable from other parts of the story. Through this unembellished delivery, readers face the paradox of faith and the possibility that disbelief can be suspended, just long enough for the arrival of the mystical. Readers join Williams’s characters when they make this leap into the extraordinary. Suddenly, saving a Thunderbird might save a marriage; a great snake can sustain a troubled young woman. These surreal circumstances force us to identify with our own moments of faith. We too remember waiting for a little magic to happen.
The Visiting Privilege takes its name from a story that was originally published in Williams’s third collection, Honored Guest. The story is about relationships — between women, but also between two individual perceptions of reality. Williams leaves us with the heroine, who is trying to find her way home. She finally arrives, but while standing in her own driveway, she is overcome with anxiety: “the disorder she felt was so remarkably real [… so] she hesitated. She could not go forward. Then, she couldn’t go back.” This figure of a woman who cannot go forward and cannot go back is where Williams’s previously unpublished stories locate themselves. The characters in these new stories do not discover alternative dimensions in the liminal but rather are trapped on the threshold. Less surreal than their predecessors, these characters, however unusual their circumstances, are disturbingly real. The widow in “Dangerous” is processing her grief, building a place to house a desert tortoise, a place for herself, a “shell with living thing inside.” The boy in “The Country” channels his dead grandmother, describing to his father, in her voice, what happens when you die: “Then you’re in the other here, where the funny thing is no one realizes you’ve arrived.” The characters populating these stories are no more transparent than previous ones, their response to the loss and longing of life reveals their brittleness and resonates with the reader. They hold hard and fast to the threshold as a last hope, and in that hope, they touch the eternal. These stories do not ask the mystical question. They are, in their beauty and brutality, the answer — a moment of grace.
This concept of grace only accompanies the hardest of times, consistent with remarks once made by Flannery O’Conner about her own characters:
I often ask myself what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story, and I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story. […] This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity. The action or gesture I’m talking about would have to be on the anagogical level, that is, the level which has to do with the Divine life and our participation in it. It would be a gesture that transcended any neat allegory that might have been intended or any pat moral categories a reader could make. […] Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violence which precede and follow them.
The lives of the characters in Williams’s new stories are not looking for hope; they are resigned to the reality they are living. They are sisters happily draining the life from their mother, a son sleeping through his father’s burial, a forest ranger losing his grip on reality. Still, even as they stand on the threshold, caught between, they find that the abyss is not a void. Eternity reaches toward them, almost imperceptibly, but as cleanly as a needle piercing the skin. The result is not comfortable, but as Williams has previously said, “Good writing never soothes or comforts.” Instead, it reminds us that however petty or self-involved our reality may be, there is another ever present that does not need us. We read our own insignificance and impermanence, and still there is hope.