Joy Williams’s Ninety-nine Stories of God sounds like a large coffee table book, but this diminutive collection of less than 200 pages will easily fit in the back pocket. The beginning and end of each story are within a page of each other, so there is a temptation to skip around on the first time through. That plan misses the setup of several themes that prepare the reader to meet the primary character, the Lord, who first appears in story “6” and predominately in the latter half of the book. Skipping around might also cause the reader to misunderstand that the Lord and God are two separate characters.
Because the word “God” appears in the title, the nonreligious reader might move on along. Stay. Many will buy this book because of the religious tag, but if this is a religious collection, then the book is a religious mongrel in the best sense. The publisher, Tin House, compares the book to The Book of Common Prayer, which isn’t an adequate comparison. The book questions much more than an Anglican sense of the world. Although some internet booksellers place this collection in the religious fiction genre, other readers including the poet, the dramatist, the philosopher, and the nonreligious reader will find value. Joy Williams is our contemporary O’Connor with a mix of Protestant sacraments (in interviews she talks about her preacher father) and a Zen Koan consciousness. Like Flannery O’Connor, Williams never shackles the reader to the church pew with a boring homily. Many religious and philosophical systems lead the spiritual mendicant toward some communal life force through a guide book or catechism. Williams’s book allows the reader to experience the religious and philosophical tribulations of regular people in the guise of fictional characters. In that sense, the book is common. The reader can decide what, if anything, must be changed in his or her own life.
Each story is numbered, and a word or phrase in all caps appears at the end of the story. The titles are like hashtags, or ad markers, or tweets. In story “1. POSTCARD,” Williams eases the reader into a worldview ever so delicately skewed from the mundane. The milieu is not quite surreal, there are no dragons or talking dogs, yet, but there are events that test the limits of probability and the presence of characters who might suggest a paranormal tone. In this story, a woman sends a postcard to the last address of her deceased mother. One week later, she receives a letter in her mother’s handwriting with her mother’s favorite green ink. The daughter does not open the letter, but the story entices this reader to open the remainder of the book with a taste of life’s irrational possibilities.
In the chapter “Why I Write” at the end of Williams’s 2001 essay collection Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals, she states, “The good piece of writing startles the reader back into life.” Immersion into the world of these stories reengages the reader with his or her own real world experiences. Each story is a crucible that does not leave the reader hanging in some nebulous spiritual realm, which might be the case with a collection that is completely religious in nature. All the stories are rooted in the real world.
This is not a traditional book of stories. There is a bit of Chekhov here, but many pieces read like the pithy observations of Thomas Merton and Roland Barthes. Many others resemble aphorisms that Epictetus or Yogi Berra might offer.
In both form and content, the classifications of fiction and short stories do not adequately describe what Williams is up to. It’s too easy to call these stories micro-fiction or flash fiction, but a handful are not fiction. Some stories contain less than 140 characters, or mimic long text messages, postcard notes, fables, parables, proverbs, dictionary entries, or historical moments.
The intriguing story “18,” if it can be called a story, contains two lines of instruction, a drawing, and the all caps ending title, “THIS IS NOT A MAZE,” that reconfigures René Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” What should the reader do with this part cartography, part technical manual, part enigma one-page item that defies genre conventions? Apply a sticky marker and come back for a second and third reading. Reading is not the right word either. Experience. Contemplation. Fracture. The kinds of things Kafka liked and who appears in a couple of stories.
At some point, Kafka became a vegetarian.
Afterward, visiting an aquarium in Berlin, he spoke to the fish through the glass.
“Now at last I can look at you in peace, I don’t eat you anymore.”
Williams is known as an environmentalist writer by way of her essays in Ill Nature and her comments in interviews. Will this Kafka story cause a reader to become vegetarian? Probably no reader will be disturbed enough to climb out of the omnivore rut, but some readers will pause and contemplate the necessity of aquariums and zoos. Williams bears an affinity to fish in many other stories. In “60. PARTY,” the host has invited the Lord, but the host is worried that the expensive caviar will offend the Lord because “the lives of many thousands of female wild salmon were sacrificed for their eggs.” The Lord didn’t show up. Williams offers conundrums like this to prompt the reader into self-evaluation. If the Lord dropped by your house, invited or uninvited, what would he see and think? Philosophers offer another way to self-reflection.
You should have changed if you wanted to remain yourself but you were afraid to change.
SARTRE TO CAMUS
Existential pieces like this make the reader want to clap with one hand.
There is no lull in the progress of the collection. Story “8” begins with Williams winking at the reader with a one-line paragraph, “This is an appealing story.” There is a Paul Harvey The Rest of the Story sense to this meta moment. Story “23” harkens to Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” when an unknown old man attends a wedding. Story “45” recalls the O. J. Simpson case and DNA analysis, while story “46” remembers Ted Kaczynski and his typewriter. Story “49. NAKED MIND” reads like a section from the Dhammapada. The instructions in this story might benefit someone practicing the Noble Eightfold Path especially when working on Right View or Right Mindfulness.
In many stories, the narrator walks a razor’s edge between the reliable, omniscient storyteller and the unreliable, snake oil salesperson. What is Williams selling? Is she trying to tell us how to live, and if we don’t change should we feel guilty? There is a little of that sprinkled through the collection, but the rhetoric is in such simple, humble speech without any sense of condescending high tones. The guidance usually reads like the teachings of Jesus and not the rants of Paul. Which brings us to this character called the Lord.
The title of the book includes the word God. The cover art shows four German shepherds sitting in a small fisherman’s boat on choppy water. The dogs appear relaxed. Their tongues are hanging out. Is Williams having dyslexic fun with the words God and dog? When a dog occurs in the text, are we supposed to think the dog is God? If so, this makes for another intriguing level of reading pleasure.
Throughout, God maintains a mythical presence, whereas the Lord is human and communes with people. The Lord has dialogue, while God appears as the patriarch of historical events. These two stories show the difference.
The Lord was drinking some water out of a glass. There was nothing wrong with the glass, but the water tasted terrible.
This was in a white building on a vast wasteland. The engineers within wore white uniforms and booties on their shoes and gloves on their hands. The water had traveled many hundreds of miles through wide pipes to be there.
What have you done to my water? the Lord asked. My living water …
Oh, they said, we thought that was just a metaphor.
When God abandoned the Aztecs, He turned their chocolate trees into mesquite.
There is never a sense that the Lord of these stories cares for humanity in an agape way. These are not stories of love, but instead stories of example and questioning. The irony is that the Lord is questioning himself. He is not the father shepherd tending the sheep with an ultimate plan to save everyone. Instead, it’s as if the shepherd went away for a while and when he came back he was startled by the sins of the people. He wonders why his people forgot or misunderstand his lessons. There is no gift of grace, either. The Lord is the one who experiences epiphany after epiphany at the misinterpretation and misrepresentation of his word while people remain oblivious to the consequences of misguided actions. Redemption for humanity is improbable, but not hopeless. The Lord casually waits in a state of nirvana.
The Lord has symbiotic relationships and conversations with animals. In one story, he lives with bats in a cave. In another, elephants and whales feel awkward in the presence of the Lord and wish He might go somewhere else to leave them in peace. In story “93. FATHERS AND SONS,” the Lord is living with a pack of wolves. He asks them why their lives are so difficult.
“Sentiment is very much against us down here,” the wolves said.
“I’m so awfully sorry,” the Lord said.
“Thank you for inviting us to participate in your plan anyway,” the wolves said politely.
The Lord did not want to appear addled, but what was the plan his sons were referring to exactly?
The text privileges the virtuous Lord and signals the mundane ignorance of people, but the Lord is not vindictive in the manner of the Old Testament God. The Lord is vulnerable in his disappointment. He observes and questions. He offers himself as a mirror for self-evaluation, which few humans take advantage of. He suffers the way a parent suffers when a child makes bad decisions. The stories indicate that virtue might be a difficult achievement, but some of us can make better decisions if we become aware in the sense of Right Mindfulness.
The Lord was asked if He believed in reincarnation.
I do, he said. It explains so much.
What does it explain, Sir? someone asked.
On your last Fourth of July festivities, I was invited to observe an annual hot-dog-eating contest, the Lord said, and it was the stupidest thing I’ve ever witnessed.
In the final story, “99. THE DARKLING THRUSH,” the Lord goes to a psychic. She can’t read the Lord, and after a lot of silence she tells him, “You always wanted to be a poet.” Williams points to herself with this story, not that she egotistically thinks herself the Lord, but throughout the book she is a poet and a prophetess.
The Lord be with you. And also with you.
If Tin House labeled this book post-structural or postmodern because the contents defy usual definitions of fiction and form, many readers would stay away. Instead, the publisher wisely states that this book “finds Joy Williams reeling between the sublime and the surreal, knocking down the barriers between the workaday and the divine.” The book also knocks down the barriers of genre definition, and the sublime shifts along an axis from irony to dark humor.
The beginnings and ends of many phases of literature are marked by historical events, especially wars and catastrophes. If 9/11 literature is such a category, Williams’s collection belongs there and points to a place and space at 8:45 a.m. on September 11th, one minute before American Airlines Flight 11 hit the World Trade Center’s North Tower. The building is whole in the same way we might naïvely believe we are whole at this moment. This collection will cause the reader to pause and wonder what is next in life. What are the effects of our choices on ourselves, others, and the environment? What happens in our lives one minute from now? Are we in control? These questions are a good thing.