Fragment from Philip Guston's "Cherries," 1980. | Morgan Library
J.W. McCormack,  October 25

Brutalist Fiction

On The Collected Stories of Diane Williams

Fragment from Philip Guston's "Cherries," 1980. | Morgan Library
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When Brian Eno was hired by Microsoft to write the start-up chime for Windows 95, the ambient musician and Roxy Music-alum composed eighty-four distinct songs, each roughly 3.25 seconds in length. Afterward, he said, “I was so sensitive to microseconds at the end . . . when I’d finished that and I went back to working with pieces that were like three minutes long, it seemed like oceans of time.” Going from Diane Williams to almost any other work of contemporary fiction can produce the same sensation, that the classic short story of posterity is a sprawling black hole, pussyfooting around a nub of recognizable truth for pages and pages, while Williams nails it in one.

Williams’ stories run anywhere from a sentence to two and a half pages—but typically much shorter—into which are packed abstract miniature worlds of razor-sharp intellect, vivid prose stripped bare of illusion or ornament, and psychosexual longing. It is fiction that reads like the residue of a dream. Often there’s a sensation of being caught in a moment of self-realization or a glimpse into the embattled core of a restless psyche. In his introduction to The Collected Stories of Diane Williams, Ben Marcus writes that “The conventional narrative tools Williams uses to bring her fiction to life are disfigured . . . She’s melted them down and made them into new weapons. Sharper, weirder, more brutal.” The emphasis is on that last word. Williams’s work is not only brutal in the way it squeezes meaning from three or four lines; it’s brutalist in the architectural sense, rough-hewn and modular.

The sense of a dead body, invisible but near, persists in Diane Williams’s stories.

The collection, which spans seven previous books of short stories, plus sixteen new pieces, is unprecedented in its scope; in her first book of short fiction, This is About the Body, the Mind, The Soul, The World, Time, and Fate from 1990, there’s still the identifiable rigging of domestic storytelling. Stories like “Glass of Fashion,” “Orgasms,” “Pornography,” and “Baby” are at least straightforward with regard to their titles, breezing through the signature questions of dirty realism (ailing fathers, parenthood, jealousy, and ravenous sexual frustration) before puncturing them with an alarming paragraph, as in “Ultimate Object”:

At the risk of shocking readers, there was a dead body hidden not far from the man, which was the body of a woman the man had killed the day before, with a sharp enough knife, then lying—the knife was—in a drawer above the cupboard of vases.

The sense of a dead body, invisible but near, will persist in Williams’s stories, an existential dread barely concealed behind the fractured scenes of routine distress, as though someone took a story by John Cheever and bored a hole into its center. Or maybe it is not violence, but the sliver of accidental holiness suggested by the title of her second collection, Some Sexual Success Stories: Plus Other Stories in Which God Might Choose to Appear. Here the strands connecting us to imaginable scenes and setting are decidedly cut; she even signals her intent to do away with the tired, quotidian dross of the accepted short story structure with offhand remarks like “There should be a story. I don’t know the story” or “I’ve told the story other times. Some of my stories get told more often than they’re worth. This one is one. It signifies not much,” “What is missing is what I did with them,” and, hilariously, in a story about pitting avocados, “No, this is not about childbirth.” But perhaps the mission statement of Williams’s mature work appears in SSSS:POSWGMCA’s very first story, “The Limits of the World”:

Keep in mind, we are past the age of enlightenment. This is past reason. We are pretty deep into modern history and the decline of religion. This is when Nature itself has been stripped bare of its cozy personality and we all feel homeless in our own natures as well . . . So now what?

The message here is, in contrast to the content of the piece, crystal clear. An aimless and detached age deserves a literature of confusion, prose that unravels and turns in on itself. To reflect the mind unfettered by reason, nature, and God, we must be continuously disarmed of our assumptions and cured of the ingrained habits of fiction that pretend to an objective reality, one where things make sense. With an almost Cartesian privileging of interiority over action—if we understand Descartes to have made friends with his proverbial evil demon—Williams seems to say fuck all that.

A late story mysteriously titled “The Poet,” begins with a scene of a woman slicing bread for her dog and cat—so far so good—and then we’re treated to a musical paroxysm of a second, final paragraph: “She holds the loaf against her breast and presses it up under her chin. But this is no violin! Won’t she sever her head?” As with her best work, Williams has scrubbed the story free of context—we know neither who the poet is or where decapitation comes in—yet they’re words you can read over and over again with the same pleasurable disorientation; they communicate some wild combination of loneliness, terror, and lurking violence. Doing the work, that is, of the most urgent and outrageous of fictions.

It would be ridiculous to class Diane Williams as an “outsider artist.” She’s among the most prolific and respected writers working today, a revered teacher, as well as the founding editor of the influential annual literary magazine Noon, which publishes like-minded writers like Lydia Davis and Christine Schutt. But there is something in later collections like 2007’s It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature and Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty from 2012 reminiscent of the painterly avant-garde. A preference for the line over precise figuration, an interest in composition that only brushes up against recognizable shape—or think of Philip Guston, all those piles of shoes, scraggly legs, and inescapable cyclopean heads. Or, another analogue, Chantal Ackerman’s classic slow-burn film Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, where a single mother goes about her daily business, including uneventful sex with strange men, until violence finally comes to the fore. Scratch the surface of what masquerades as routine and you’ll come away with grit under your fingernails. To put it another way, in Williams work life is sluiced down to its inadequate if constituent parts.

And yet the work is ever-pressurized, crushing inward on the trappings of personhood. Or as she writes in “Inspiring One,” “Life may be gaily spoken of.” That’s a joke. Life is always just out of frame, which happens to be much closer to how we experience it than the safe remove or sprawling security of traditional short stories would allow. Our actual, mortal powers of cognition are, in fact, nothing to write home about. We feed on glancing impressions and exhibit only a feeble grasp of what is really going on around us, mistaking mere familiarity for certainty. Under these conditions, as Williams writes, “Lust and temptation are sometimes personified.” Meanwhile, a sense of apprehension pervades. What if what I need isn’t what I want? What if my spouse has an inner life from which I am excluded, a life I wouldn’t even recognize? What if I’ve missed the point of living altogether? A characteristic line from “A Little Bottle of Tears” runs “You find yourself in a situation where you have agreed, agreed, agreed, agreed, and you realize this is not such a good agreement.” And fear is at the forefront of stories like “The Skol,” from 2016’s Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, the most recent title included in The Collected Stories:

In the ocean, Mrs. Clavey decided to advance on foot at shoulder-high depth. A tiny swallow of the water coincided with her deliberation. It tasted like a cold, salted variety of her favorite payang congou tea. She didn’t intend to drink more, but she did drink—more.

That’s the whole thing and, as I’m sure you noticed, that m-dash is discomfiting to say the least. But what exactly have we just witnessed? A drowning? A suicide? And who is this Mrs. Clavey, with her preference for some esoteric tea? A quirk in Williams’ body of work is that nearly every character is named. Blanche Bird, Enrique Woytus, Jaques and Mary Rose, Mrs. White; normally these characters are named once, only to vanish off the page. The really crazy thing is that each seems to have an independent existence of their own precisely because, as if encountering them in life, we know so little of them.

Williams’s project is to catch the mind at work in its very private business of dreaming, forgetting, drawing a blank.

What you might call “about-ness” is increasingly eliminated in Williams’s post-nineties work with titles telling as much of the story as the prose itself, each a kind of invocation: “If Told Correctly It Will Center On Me,” “At a Period of Exceptional Dullness,” “Stronger Than a Man, Simpler Than a Woman,” “To Revive a Person Is No Slight Thing,” “The Widow and the Hamburger,” and the obvious favorite of the bunch, “The Penis Had Been Plenty Decent.” Like the work Williams nurtures at NOON, these are stories which use everything at hand to achieve their effect: their titles, scraps of seemingly overheard dialogue, abrupt one-sentence gasps between paragraphs, even the blankness of the page, where language literally can’t go. Williams’s project is often to describe the indescribable, to catch the mind at work in its very private business of dreaming, forgetting, drawing a blank, and deciding to try on a feeling, usually one that’s a very poor fit.

For all that, her stories can come to seem like games of interpretation, Williams can bracingly straightforward. A quick survey of first lines yields, “She wanted Bill to obey her,” “The child arrived to eat a pancake,” “Now my father is better than my hat is,” “They are not like you,” “The future has not yet produced anything to be happy about,” and “The person has no sanction for sucking.” And now some last lines: “There is slim chance that anything is unable to be unmoved,” “Then she clumsily prepares a miracle,” “There is nothing I can think of that is there enough,” ”It is senseless to prevent them,” and the heart wrenching “As a rule, she blamed herself—for yet another perfect day.” There’s nothing ethereal about any of this. And oftentimes we do understand enough, as in “Sigh,” where an ex-husband has dinner with his former wife and her new husband, both men intrigued by their shared and secondhand intimacy, or “Living Deluxe,” in which two sisters passive-aggressively divide their late mother’s possessions and which ends with something sinister, we’re never told what, tapping away at the window. Depending on how you define it, there is as much content in these stories to sink your teeth into than any number of dry social novels. See how much you can do, Diane Williams seems to say, when you concentrate; beyond the bullshit is the raw material of the unconstructed self.

There is great variety in The Collected Stories of Diane Williams, which shows how much ground you can cover with complete control of your craft. There are certainly forerunners to her work—maybe Nathalie Sarraute’s Tropisms or Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights—but Diane Williams’s voice rings out even when set beside the other practitioners of what is unfortunately called “flash fiction.” It’s not a question of doing a lot with a little, it’s more a question of knowing just where to cut into the airy vastness, how to sharpen a little corner of the cerebral cortex just-so. This collection is a timely reminder of what we have in Diane Williams, a writer uncannily attuned to what we call real, whose ability to scrape away at the artifice we have built around it brings to mind the ending of “No Cup,” perhaps one of the greatest endings in the history of American literature: “The most important thing in any circumstance is what people want to believe is all wrong, you asshole. Defecation.” As always with Diane Williams, that says it all.

Recent work by J.W. McCormack appears in VICE, BuzzFeed, The Culture Trip, the New York Times, and The Paris Review Daily.

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