AN IMPOSSIBLE GAME TO PLAY with a Diane Williams collection is to try to recount what happens in a given short story. Take “Beauty, Love, and Vanity Itself,” the opening story from Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Diane Williams’s latest collection:
Our narrator, an unnamed woman, adorns herself with “snappy” necklaces in anticipation of a visit from a Mr. Morton. Mr. Morton arrives. The woman gives him an explanation. Mr. Morton leaves “at a good clip” after telling the woman she wouldn’t like the way he drinks soda or eats olives with his fingers. Some time passes. Books and magazines are read. An unspecified vocation is pursued. A “gray and deranged” cloud is observed. The woman finds herself poolside at the Marriott Courtyard wearing a “knee-length black swimsuit and the black canvas shoes.” She sees three women go into the pool. She notices that they are drowning. She tells the lifeguard, “They are drowning.” The story ends with the following line: “It was a hash — nothing to look at — much like my situation — if you’re not going to do anything about it.”
To paraphrase Williams is to reduce her work to melodrama, to do away with art. The story isn’t in the actions of its characters; it’s in that vital something produced by the interplay between plot and subtext, between what happens in a story and what a story is about. Indeed, in Williams’s work, we find the short story subverting the constraints of narrative, or at least something clearly recognized as such. Her stories don’t want for character, conflict, or change, but there are no tidy, reasonable transitions. She does not hand-hold.
Consisting of rarely named characters set in and about a recognizable yet unspecified American home, Williams’s writing is often described as edging up against the immemorial effect of the folk tale. We move through time and place with dexterity, but we never settle long enough to get comfortable. As if in a fugue, we often find ourselves walking into the middle of a life, a moment, a story that’s well on its way. In the course of some 300 words, the reader might enter into the middle of a conversation (“‘For a blue sky, that blue’s a bit dark, don’t you think? And the sea’s a bit too choppy,’ I said”), jump 20 years ahead (“An hour passed. Why not say twenty years?”), and end up with the dead (“The cyclist hit me, and it’s vile after my life ends in the afterlife”).
In sum, the 40 short stories of Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine amount to a collage of beautifully trimmed and perplexing details, of moments that make us feel alien in a world we so readily recognize. Even the well-worn cliché works only to lead us elsewhere: “Nothing to look at” … “No less interesting” … “As a rule” … “Some progress to report” … “Something exciting afoot” … “Let us examine the case” … These are throwaway phrases, bridges between relevant information, and yet they feel so foreign in the context of these short stories. They link up clauses we pick up and then drop, plop, unexamined.
We say yes — yes, I get where you’re going with this — and we mean it, but we’re wrong. We still find ourselves wondering: “Where am I?” In this way, we’re much like the characters in Williams’s short stories: adults who have agreed to the premise, who have said yes and meant it, and then found themselves rather ill equipped to that which they have unguardedly agreed. The comfortable space is made unavailable in her prose, and it cannot be taken for granted. Indeed, there is no such thing: as the heroine of “Lavatory” tells an acquaintance at a dinner party, there exists no “little environment that you can slip into and be perfectly happy.”
Williams’s characters find themselves poolside at the Marriott Courtyard, selling and buying heavy mattresses, making “standard” sponge cakes, building rec rooms, arranging a bust on a mantel, trimming a mustache, putting on jewelry, taking off jewelry, smoking a maduro, hunting for objects to put away, washing, washing, and washing. And they settle into sleep “with nothing much accomplished vis-à-vis the mysteries of daily life.”
Much of life comes down to arranging and sitting and talking small — to adapting the self to the situation at hand. In between the preening and the cooking and the negotiating of desires, how is one to find the time for anything significant and full of meaning? As if overcompensating, the characters in Williams’s fiction invest both actions and objects with undue significance. We find them coveting jewels, fussing with their homes and appearances — a flurry of meaningless activity imbued with greater purpose. Take this splicing of action and motive in “Rhapsody Breeze”: a woman painting her living room decides, “There’ll be a turquoise mantel — and for her dinner — more pleasure and change. She’ll cook a strong-juiced vegetable, prepare a medley salad with many previously protected and selected things in it.”
We encounter characters that function as islands unto themselves, waywardly attempting — but ultimately failing — to communicate. There is little bonded sentiment, no perfect understanding between any two minds — just atomized entities that bump against one another to fuck or supper, to sell and buy. “Don’t you think they all go to work so wretchedly for what then never amounts to a feast for the soul?” asks the narrator of “Living Deluxe.”
For this narrator and Williams’s others, description is dispassion. The narrator of “Lamb Chops, Cod” describes the relationship between her parents: “She had stopped insisting that they have heart-to-heart conversations, but for stranded people, they had these nice moments together, and he had his professional enjoyment at the newspaper.” The narrator of “Head of Naked Girl” describes a sexual encounter between two consenting adults: “While she bent forward to her comfort level, at her sink, without holding her breath, she kept her mouth open. He applied himself against her and she allowed his solution to gently drain from her.”
Reading this collection, I often thought of Stevie Smith’s seminal line: “I was much too far out all my life / And not waving but drowning.”
Williams’s relation to words is that of a poet. Few living writers wring as much meaning from each metered marrying of word to word. At times, the language takes on the stiff discomfort of the scene itself. In “The Great Passion and Its Context,” for example, a woman with an injured foot makes her way through a train car, “but fortunately she did not fall onto the passenger next to her, that man, when she returned.” At the level of language, we take on the discomfort of the character. This discomfort takes on added weight on the next page when the woman is exposed in a breathless sweep: “The top of the woman’s foot is still puffy and she has had quarrels at home every day this week and she goes to sleep distraught.”
Indeed, the women in these 40 stories move as if tamed but bewildered through the civilized American home. Their marriages are not happy; their relations are coldly cordial, but, disciplined and punished, their domestication is self-imposed. They prepare elaborate meals, adorn themselves with jewelry, get their hair done, make beds, paint rooms. The married narrator of one story explains: “I planned my future — that is, what to eat first — but not yet next and last — tap, tapping.”
Upon receiving daisies from her husband, the narrator of “To Revive a Person Is No Slight Thing” explains, “Yes, the flowers were cheerful with aggressive petals, but in a few days I’d hate them when they were spent. The wrapping paper and a weedy mess had to be discarded, but first off thrust together. My job.” Time and again, we find the almost violent desire to make the self known pressing against the quiescent domesticity of the expected. In “Girl with a Pencil,” a female child, asked to draw her likeness, creates “a kind of brute — a brunette with longish hair, who must love her enemies — who acts responsibly.”
What the first-person female narrators of these stories tell us about themselves is worth noting. One assures the reader: “I don’t have actual belly fat, that’s just my stomach muscles gone slack.” Another brags, “Two people once said I had pretty feet.” A third tells the reader, “I’ve done nothing to hide the ugliness of my elderly body.”
In the world of these stories, there seem to be two choices for women: adapt or flail. In “A Little Bottle Tears,” the outlier male narrator describes a difficult, “hysterical” woman with whom he has engaged in an affair as “not adaptable.” In “Human Comb,” the collection’s closing short story, a socially comfortable woman describes herself as “utterly at ease in the company of others, secretive, sexually active, quite adaptable.” The female heroine in “How Blown Up” is described as “not scaled down or reversed in her views,” but the story’s closing line heeds a warning: “The longer this goddess lives, the more she shakes her tail — or pulls on it with all her strength.”
Williams’s coup is her ability to write a mind attempting to flee from thoughts that cause it pain. The female narrator of “Clarinda” explains that “often when I make the beds before I start supper, I can forget my family troubles that are unfunny or enigmatic. But soon they come back to me, as if in secret I’d had a coughing fit.” Williams’s fiction makes all the performance — the attempts to dissemble the wilderness of the self — feel alien and indeed performed. She examines what we think we’re hiding, the fissures between what we’re told we should feel and what we actually feel.
Williams’s work resonates because it defamiliarizes — she unseats the given, that which we expect to grok innately without guidance or translation. In this way, Williams’s short stories are both confrontational and endlessly quotable. Here’s a selection of lines from the characters and narrators that make up this volatile, beautiful collection:
On courtship: “It strikes me, how, uh, how everyone is looking for a partner, wondering, What now?”
On marriage: “My conversation with my husband was as follows: ‘Are you all right? What do you want? You’re looking at me.’”
On attraction: “I feel there is so much yet to explore about how people experience a ‘pull’ toward anyone.”
On sex: “As I was a young woman without a sexual partner — awareness of the deprivation was not half the battle — I was thinking about sex and at the same time I was moving my attention to the furniture, the fireplace […].”
On cats: “I’ll make no attempt to explain a cat’s problems that are basic to all cats — schemes that are unrealistic.”
On narrative: “So how much more describing is necessary to assess if we’re done expecting something even more fortunate to turn up?”
On hope: “Young farmers and rural characters, obstetrical nurses, scholars, clergy — all the rest! — will have their great hopes realized more often than not — unless I decide to tell their stories.”
In fragments or in their entirety — but never in summary — the stories in Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine reveal the muted anarchy beneath the civility of relations. Williams wrecks the domestic landscape by making us work to access that which we think we already get.