The work of Diane Williams is unexpected, enigmatic, often fraught with tension and anxiety. But reading her stories, I also feel the sheer joy of the creative act. Perhaps that’s because as a senior editor of her literary annual NOON, I’ve had an insight into her process over the years including her belief that any remarkable language can be saved and made use of, her determination to continue to surprise or frighten herself in her writing, and the way she stitches sentences together to make something unexpected and new. Many of her stories are barely longer than a page, but her body of work is extraordinary—her collected stories span 764 pages, and since it was published, she has already produced another collection, How High? — That High, and has yet another due out this year. How to select just one? I went back to the beginning, and chose ‘The Nature of the Miracle’ from Williams’s first book, This Is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, The World, Time, and Fate (how much I have learned from her about the way titles can bring gravity or resonance to a story!) Here, we can see the themes that have come to dominate her oeuvre—the possible collisions of sex and violence, the menace of seemingly ordinary domestic situations, and all the ways a woman might lose her grip. I also love the framing of unrequited love as a communicable disease that might pass from one woman to another by using the same shopping trolley, and the way the narrator’s disastrous circular logic repeats through the story like a refrain. It’s a masterclass in the art of brevity.
First published in This Is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, The World, Time, and Fate, Grove Weidenfeld, 1990. Collected in The Collected Stories of Diane Williams, Soho Press, 2018
I’m interested in the distance between accidents and intention. A thoughtless act occurs without actual consideration, but an urge is something more derivative: it is intentional, sought, desirous, unclumsy. The urge drives the human to do something that changes the story’s texture. Diane Williams knows this. ‘Revenge’ is composed of ten brief sentences, the first of which is bracingly banal: “She sat in the chair and looked out a window to think sad thoughts and to weep.” Cliché is a tourniquet in Williams’ hands. Idiom is used to disorient and obfuscate—to make humans less intelligible to each other through repetition of platitudes and received wisdom— superlatives are dizzyingly stacked: “Everything she saw out the window was either richly gleaming or glittering, owing to a supernatural effect.”
There is something neo-Kierkegaardian in the way Williams scandalizes the entire color spectrum in order to defamiliarize a scene. One is conscious of how colors do things to verbs, or act upon verbs in uncanny ways. Black obfuscates. White starches and over-irons; it envisions; it entitles angels and light and epiphanic acts. Red scandalizes; it vexes and manifests; it scalds just as surely as scarlet scolds and crimson crushes and red food coloring blushes. Alas, now I’m thinking of “Yellower” and how one assumes the subject is connected to the title only to find, while reading, that superlatives gain their own momentum, acquire their own speed and valence in the mind. Everything is bigger, sicker, messier—and so nothing is actual.
Many of Williams’ stories play these language games that look back at the language and reveal how we misuse it. In an interview, Williams described infidelity as “an inescapable subject”: “The fantasy of security is difficult to relinquish, as are the notions of invincibility and recklessness.”
Ending a sentence with the same article that opens the following sentence is anathema in writing workshops, but notice how gorgeously Williams accomplishes it in ‘Revenge’:
“Her mind was not changing. Her mind had not changed in years. Somebody’s headlights were blinding her. Her idea of a pilgrimage or promenade excited her.”
Enormous and tiny, ‘Revenge’ demolishes the interior monologue by destabilizing it. The repetition strategy wrecks the speaker. I love Williams for her profanation of expectation. I love her mockery of rationality. I love the thumbscrew she makes of the familiar by employing uncanny juxtapositions. One must read her exemplary brutality, her relentless brilliance.
Published in The Collected Stories of Diane Williams, Soho Press, 2018
Like many of Williams’s short stories, this one is very short, at under three pages. The sentences are so compressed, the meaning is somehow packed tightly between them.
It begins with the conceit that Williams cannot distinguish between several sisters who run a stationery shop. As she describes them collectively, this quickly becomes absurdly funny. She writes: “Two or three of the sisters may be married.” And then later, “A mother of a sister called in once, and she was spoken to sweetly by one of the sisters.”
From there the narrator works herself up into a rage, describing furiously things she had definitely not said to the sisters. And just when you think you have a good handle on where the story is going, the story turns abruptly and takes us somewhere completely different.
From This is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time and Fate, Grove Press, 1990; collected in The Collected Stories of Diane Williams, Soho Press, 2019
A friend recently put me onto Diane Williams’ work, for which I am so grateful. She is one of those writers who, from the first page, I knew I must read everything. This is the pick, for me, so far of her strange insightful tales, with these lines, in particular (which close the story), standing out as somehow representative of the whole:The host called, ‘Kids! Mike! Dad and Mom!’ He called these copulators to come in to dinner. In fact, this group represented a predictable array of vocations – including hard workers, worriers, travelers, and liars – defecators, or course, urinators and music makers.
From Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, CB Editions, 2016, available at PANK
Reading Diane Williams is like understanding another language in a dream. There’s suddenly a whole new way of seeing things. I chose this story because the first line is an all-time favourite: ‘People often wait a long time and then, like me, suddenly they’re back in the news with a changed appearance’. Who are the kind of people who wait to end up back in the news? Why were they in the news in the first place? Is the changed appearance just a matter of course? Does ‘changed’ mean they’re completely unrecognisable? Listen to Deb Olin Unferth (another absolute hero), introducing the story here.
Published in Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, McSweeney’s/CB Editions, 2016. Available to read online, with an introduction by Deb Olin Unferth on Electric Literature here.
I don’t know if I’ll be a fan of Diane Williams’ stories in ten years’ time or whether, by then, I’ll consider them arch. For now though, and since I first encountered them, I find that their painstakingly spontaneous contortions – not to mention their plentiful exclamation marks! – mean they read like no other short fiction.
First published in Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, CB Editions, 2016. Read it online here
I could have picked any one of the forty stories from this collection. Her writing is so energetic, always surprising, and militantly singular. When I start reading one of her stories – no matter how many times I’ve read it before – I often find myself thinking “Ah, yes, I’ve got this one sewn up! I get it! I’ll not be conquered this time!” What a fool I am. Williams has this knack to outwit her readers. I don’t believe it’s intentional, but simply who the writer, Diane Williams, is. Her sharp eye on life. Her ability to tunnel into the mundane, to slip through the cracks, and pull out endless treasures. I’m with Jonathan Franzen, who said: “Diane Williams is one of the true living heroes of the American avant-garde.” Keep ’em coming, Diane!
from Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, CB editions, 2016
Why not go to the swimming pool or on a picnic with Diane Williams? The juxtapositions in her stories may appear bizarre at first but, really, there’s nothing more like life.
Published on The White Review, June 2014. Chosen by Joanna Walsh. Read Joanna’s Personal Anthology here