Joy Williams – Dimmer introduced by Daniel Alarcon

from Object Lessons: The Paris Review presents the short story (Heinemann 2012)


This is the hardest Daily Short story so far. Not only have I never read Joy Williams before I also had no idea of her background so the interview above, which is excellent, has filled in the gaps. I started this Daily Shorts idea confidently expecting to read and comment on a short story a day. That seems unobtainable now. Maybe one every two days maximum is a better target. ‘Dimmer’ is a challenge from the get go. Long, maybe closer to a novella, and stylistically wonderful but breaking most creative writing workshop rules from the start. Thirty-eight pages (roughly) of galloping, imagistic and totally riveting prose in which the main P.O.V. character ‘Mal Vester’, as Daniel Alcorn says in his introduction above, never speaks.

It is a virtuoso performance by a skilled narrator at top of her game. A product of Iowa MFA, who was in the same year as Carver and Andre Dubus (she actually worked with Carver’s first wife Maryann as a waitress) it was for me a revelation. I instinctively, perhaps the Australian setting, thought of Nick Cave (another preacher’s offspring coincidentally) or rather I thought of Cave reading Williams which makes sense.

There is a luminosity to the writing. It is packed with images that haunt like the father’s boots ‘hanging’ way before we find out he hangs himself in prose which scrupulously accurate yet not sensationalist but conveys the ‘meat’ of the action. The mother’s death in a shark attack is conveyed in one line about a pool of blood, big as a paper plate, floating shore-ward nothing more perfectly capturing the moment.

It slowly builds a picture of a ‘simple’ boy growing into adulthood who too ‘feral’ for the small Australian town he orphaned in. He is an instinctive, animalistic individual, almost an ‘Enfant Sauvage’. In a blisteringly dry piece of writing he is shipped to America and encounters another female ‘Wild Child’ driving for a living before the story disappears along with the beach-side dwelling they occupy in a cloud of questions. The lack of resolution is well handled clouding our knowledge of who responsible for the child-man and perhaps suggesting that nobody ever was.

Online forums suggest many readers regard her story as ‘experimental’ and difficult which I didn’t really see although maybe the length as mentioned above is beyond short story maybe a ‘Long Short’. As the story was published by George Plimpton in 1969 it very early for Williams and I have yet to encounter her later collections of short stories or novels. It may be stylistically different for that reason. It certainly feels more modern than 1969 and, but for some of the flight cabin details, could have been written yesterday.

In the interview she is wonderfully dismissive and grumpy…

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 incomprehensi- bility of time, the dark encroachment of old catastrophes—which is Wallace Stevens, I think. As a form, the short story is hardly divine, though all excel- lent art has its mystery, its spiritual rhythm. I think one should be able to do a lot in less than twenty pages. I read a story recently about a woman who’d been on the lam and her husband dies and she ends up getting in her pickup and driving away at the end, and it was all about fracking, damage, dust to the communities, people selling out for fifty thousand dollars. It was so boring.

She recommends DeLillo as truly ‘avant-garde’ and two Russian contemporary (I presume) authors as follows…

DeLillo is first among them. A writer of tremendous integrity and presence. Mao II is an American classic. So, too, is White Noise, though it’s been taught to splinters. His later works are fierce, demanding. His work can be a little cold perhaps. And what’s wrong with that? The cold can teach us many things. Coetzee I admire very much. On a lighter note, the Russians. Vladimir Sorokin and his crazy Ice trilogy. The short-story writer Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.

ill nature

I find her tone one I can trust and her involvement in Eco Politics and her ‘Earth First’ comments striking a chord. Ultimately she believes in a  certain ‘transcendentalism’ but not one bound by a particular religion. She is beautifully wary of formula and ends thus…

Yes, yes. Freedom is most desirable. Of course none of us are free. Our flaws enslave us, the things we love. And through technology we’re becoming more known to everyone but ourselves. What’s that phrase about certain writers being what the culture needs? Most writers just write about what the culture recognizes.

She is also interviewed for Bookslut here: