A few weeks ago at the Harvard Bookstore, I had the pleasure of listening to Joy Williams read from her new book of collected stories, The Visiting Privilege. “Escapes” is a story I’d read before–though I couldn’t tell you when or where. In fact if you asked me just before the reading what I recalled of it, I wouldn’t be able to say much at all, except that I knew there was a moment early on that has stayed with me, somehow, for many years.
I’ve reread the story a couple times over the past week, trying to suss out how Williams achieves her strange and arresting beauty. There are many things I love about this story of a daughter and her alcoholic mother: the earnest, off-kilter world view of the narrator Lizzie, the dry humor throughout. The delicate way Williams alludes to a future when Lizzie will herself have a drinking problem. How the themes of love and leaving are woven together. But what I keep coming back to is this singular paragraph, only two pages in, in which Lizzie encounters her father pretending to have a limp:
“I saw an odd thing once, there in the mountains. I saw my father pretending to be lame. This was in the midst of strangers in the gift shop of the lodge. The shop sold hand-carved canes, among many other things, and when I came in to buy bubble gum in the shape of cigarettes, to which I was devoted, I saw my father hobbling painfully down the aisle, leaning heavily on a dully gleaming yellow cane, his shoulders hunched, one leg turned out at a curious angle. My handsome, healthy father, his face drawn in dreams. He looked at me. And then he looked away as though he did not know me.”
To meet your father pretending to be someone he is not–it is a tremendously interesting detail, which seems like it should be emblematic of something. But what? Lizzie doesn’t investigate or question this, nor does she linger over the moment. The story moves on, and this becomes just one among many details about the narrator’s relationship to her parents. While it seems to carry the weight of metaphor or symbolism, it is done with such a light touch that explanation seems beside the point.
In Charles Baxter’s wise craft essay “On Defamiliarization,” he cautions against the overly direct, which has the tendency to make a story fall flat. Instead, he encourages the idea that by resisting overt meaning in our details and images, writers may arrive at greater resonance. “When all the details fit in perfectly, something is probably wrong with the story. It is too meaningful too fast. Its meaning is overdetermined and the characters overparented. […] The writer has decided what her story is about too early and has concentrated too fixedly on that one truth.” I am certainly guilty of this, and have on more than one occasion belabored a metaphor to death. My characters tend to have far too much insight into their own lives; I have them wonder why things happen so that I, the writer, can point the reader in the direction I want them to go. I fall for the myth, again and again, that explanation and exposition are necessary for clarity.
Yes to clarity–a thousand yeses to that–but it would be good to remember that there must still be room for the unknowable. Clarity in the way that an ocean of clear water can be deep and dark and mysterious.
Baxter goes on to write, “There is always something anarchic about the imagination: it likes to find details that don’t belong, that don’t fit.” Joy Williams is a master of the detail that is just slightly off, that keeps the reader intrigued and searching. I think the power in her details lies in their hints of a reasoning denied to both the characters and the reader. They flicker in and out of making sense. They may seem wholly random in one light, but Williams allows them to hang together associatively, so that they throw each other into strange relief.
And how true to life this strangeness is. Though we may be tempted to read into the happenstance of our own lives, more often than not they resist single narratives. It is in the nature of narrative to reduce for the sake of understanding–narrative has a root in the Latin gnarus, or “knowing.” But we cannot know why everything happens, or why people do some things. In one short paragraph Williams bestows the father, a primarily absent character, with an inner world that is inaccessible to us but vividly suggested. The irrational stands on equal footing with the rational in Williams’ work–perhaps this is why I admire her so.
A friend asked me a few months ago whether it feels like work, to read. My first instinct was to say no, how silly, but after sitting with this question for a while now I think I’ve changed my mind. Except, it is pleasurable, engaging work that I feel grateful to spend time doing. If it gets me that much closer to figuring out how Joy Williams makes me remember one fleeting image for years–that much closer in my own work to an ocean of nuanced clarity–I will keep on doing this work.
Cynthia Gunadi, Ivan Gold Fellow