REVIEWED BY ANNE E. WEISGERBER
Ninety-nine Stories of God by Joy Williams | Tin House Books, 2016 | ISBN: 978-1941040355 | 151 pages | $19.95
Compressed fiction writers benefit from a study of Joy Williams’s story collection, Ninety-nine Stories of God. Williams not only provides a rich reading experience, but also confirms the micro fiction literary genre. Williams has the uncanny ability, via the poetic technique fixity and her judicious use of humor, to do as Emily Dickinson advises: “tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”
Williams places her titles at the ends of stories, where they raise questions: should a reader begin at the bottom and read up? Are the titles cliffhangers propelling the reader onward? This arrangement designs thematic richness by re-emphasizing imagery. She lays out a problem in the story, then resolves it with a low-hanging title that seals each story in unexpected accuracy, feeling, and felicity.
In one story, the Lord wants to compete in a demolition derby, and the punch line is that the pink Wagoneer He will drive is not thrilled with Him taking the wheel, and shares that it has been through enough already, complaining, “And now this.” The title, the endnote of this 214-word tale, is “Driveshaft.” A driveshaft directs power to the wheels, but this derby ends with the Wagoneer being shafted by the Lord, the ultimate shaft of light. Another story concerns the blood evidence of the O.J. Simpson trial, and how forensics proved mathematically that Simpson was at the scene, left his blood there and took the victims’ blood home on his clothing, but “courtroom analysts have concluded that most jurors find DNA evidence ‘boring.’” This 185-word story is titled “Numbers,” which also happens to be a book of the Bible (and Torah) concerned with holiness, trust, and faith. Each story reverberates with this titular tapping of the divine bell. Williams’s slant truths reveal themselves in these pensive, mirror notes.
Williams controls this collection with poetic fixity, which Terri Brown-Davidson defined as the perfect poetic word for the perfect poetic occasion. There is precision in Williams’s diction, with many key words plucked from realms of Western religion and academia. Her close-hewn vocabulary underscores the completeness of the collection. Greek words of worship or from the Arts pepper the text: anamnesis, epitasis, pantomnesia. A child uses the archaic undercroft to indicate a basement. “This Is Not a Maze,” a story told in 22 words plus a diagram, seems to outline the means of folding a 20’ x 20’ tarp, but its companion symbol seems sacred; it’s very similar to a map of Chartres cathedral’s labyrinth. Titles, like “Aubade” or “Compline,” reference specific prayers. Animals, Williams said in her interesting list “Eight Essential Attributes of the Short Story,” are necessary “to give [a story] its blessing,” and are generously present. She also alludes to many philosophers, preachers, and artists: from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Emanuel Swedenborg; from Philip K. Dick to Anton Chekhov; from James Agee to William James. These continual allusions to the academic and religious are the guy lines that secure the tent of Williams’s overarching themes.
Sometimes Williams structures a small joke at the turn of a page. For instance, the 158-word “Abandon All Hope” features a protagonist in solemn contemplation of a Good Friday vigil, wherein he reads aloud a section of Dante’s Inferno where punishments are meted out to those “violent against God, Art, and Nature.” The plot moves down the page to the protagonist’s holy moment of peaceful satisfaction; then, as the story continues and the page turns, his equanimity vanishes when, outside of the church for a moment, “without reflection, he put out his hand and extended the middle finger.” Another good example of a page-reveal surprise is in the 144-word “Inoculum,” wherein the Lord is in line at a drugstore for a shingles shot. The pharmacist hems and haws about giving the Lord a shot, and at the turn of the page an impatient woman waiting behind the Lord says, “Just give Him the shot, for Pete’s sake.” The silliness of these moments—the bird or the quip—belies their gravity. That one’s meditative grace could immediately vanish, or that the desire for a consumer to preserve ice cream from melting might outweigh any sense of reverence in the presence of the actual Lord, rings true. Williams’s wry delivery of sneaky humor is not overdone in the collection, serving the purpose of highlighting these little jabs by shifting tone and grabbing attention. These bold payoffs in Williams’s text can result in a gasp, or a chuckle, which closes her narrative distance to the reader.
In terms of the overarching themes, Williams’s notion seems to be that small actions, even their precipitating thoughts, are divine. Williams’s tales of God’s interactions with Man are often grounded in non-fiction. “Giraffe,” 252 words, tells the story of a gardener involved in “the shooting of all those giraffes back in the 1970s.” This references the 25 April 1975 nighttime massacre of 46 giraffes in a zoo in Prague. According to J.M. Ledgard’s 2006 novel devoted to the event, Giraffe, this troubling and hideous slaughter has never been fully explained by officials and continues to live in infamy. Williams’s gardener tries to stay busy when he “feels God at his elbow” but all God wants him to know is that he has a gift for him. Another reality-based tale, in 113 words, is “Doll House.” In it, parents have the sex organs of a developmentally disabled child removed, so the child stays small into adulthood and remains manageable. The Ashley Treatment allows guardians to elect growth attenuation surgery, which may include hysterectomy, breast bud removal, appendix removal, and etc. In both stories, Williams spotlights the roles of the caregiver, the steward, and the sheriff overseeing one of God’s gifts. Williams engages the reader, by proxy, to wrestle with moral and personal challenges and consequences.
To this end, Williams poses God to wrestle with surprising and sour truths. God asks Man, in the 85-word “Wet,” “What have you done to my water?” God is perplexed, in the 163-word “Fathers and Sons,” that man hunts his gifts. In “Dull,” 124 words, a nun learns post-surgery that “life without epilepsy” is like “a ruined village.” This serves to make Williams’s text one that is moral, raising for inspection the notion of ignorance. She founds fictions upon non-fictions, making conditions ripe for ethical epiphanies. In Williams’s world, all things that are wrought of “the living water” be they junk cars, fancy trout dinners, or Pit Bulls named Peggy, are just as perplexed by the God in whose image they are made. It’s complicated.
Williams’s choices in language and humor package her complex quasi-parables in inviting ways. This is the heart of the slantness of her truths and the fixity of the collection’s language as a whole. The lessons to the student of this collection are key: poetic fixity can be an essential chain holding a linked collection together. Williams corrals the diction, details and imagery of Western religion and academia into her ninety-nine stories by deft vocabulary and allusions. Williams’s satisfying placement of key words and concepts in neighboring stories, in evocative titles, and as concrete details has a cumulative effect. The rickrack of minutiae, it seems, is where Williams frets patiently on the fabric of the universe. The golden stitches of this collection are its timely placement of humor, its use of non-fiction as launch points, and its fixed poetic language. This collection is required reading for any student of compressed forms.
Anne E. Weisgerber has recent stories published or forthcoming in New South, The Airgonaut, Tahoma Literary Review, Vignette Review, and Jellyfish Review. She is a freelance fiction editor, and has been nominated for Best Small Fictions 2016. When not teaching, she’s working on a novel that spans five generations, or hanging out with the #fishtankwriters. Follow her @AEWeisgerber, or visit anneweisgerber.com.
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Thanks, April. The collection is wonderful. Williams is truly a unique voice.
As always, what an fine, nuanced review, Anne. Thank you & Change Seven so much.
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