Joy Williams has been described as misanthropic, uncommercial, a writer’s writer. Open any of her books and read a sentence at random, and it is certainly clear that she is doing something singular. Upon my first reading of her short story collection 99 Stories of God, I felt I had not been trained for it. These stories tend to be taut, sparing, and unresolved. Characters make observations that seem significant, but it is not always clear what exactly they signify. In “Jail,” a woman arrested for shoplifting is placed in a cell with a woman attempting to explain to her the origins of the Book of Ecclesiastes. “Help, help, help,” the protagonist thinks, desperate for the conversation to be interrupted. Her cellmate’s biblical history lesson has the appearance of meaning, but I’m not sure what it actually means. The narrator’s breathless eagerness for the exchange to end might suggest any number of things about her, but the story’s tight coil – it is under two pages long – confirms very little about this shoplifter with an aversion for the religious and loquacious. The other 98 stories don’t follow this particular construction but many left me with a similar sensation. I sped through them in a sitting and walked away deeply intrigued and a little baffled.
Two years later I purchased the 40th anniversary edition of The Changeling, Williams’ second novel. Tin House’s is the third edition of the book; according to the prevailing critical narrative, a withering New York Times book review sank the first edition and it quickly fell out of print as a result. Couched as it came to me in laudatory blurbs and a glowing shelf talker at my local bookstore, it is hard to imagine The Changeling as a critical failure. The novel enchanted me from the start, and reading Williams at greater length gives one the luxury of acclimating to her mind as it plays out on the page in a way her short stories do not always allow.
The Changeling follows Pearl, a new mother, through seven increasingly unhinged postpartum years. We meet her at a bar in Florida, drinking gin with her baby in her arms and observing the layers of the air –
Pearl could see the layers very clearly. The middle layer was all dream and misunderstanding and responsibility. Things moved about at the top with a little more arrogance and zip but at the bottom was the ever-moving present. It was the present, it had been the present, and it was always going to be the present. Pearl was always conscious of this. It made her pretty passive and indecisive usually.
This last sentence in particular is so subtly disarming, constructed almost colloquially with a whisper of the third person voice straying towards its subject’s stream of consciousness. This paragraph tells us much about Williams’ writing – deft and unexpected sentences fill the novel – and Pearl’s character. She perceives things that others do not, and as The Changeling unfolds we are quickly made to wonder if this quality of her perception is rooted in childlike insight or delusory madness. And her passivity has a vise grip on the novel, the force of her intoxicated inertia often driving plot and pacing. She notices subtle details but seems to lack the will to interpret them; as Williams explains early on, “Pearl’s life had never lacked in gesture but it had always avoided significance. It avoided meaning as the bird does the snare.” The profusion of suggestive detail recalls (or, more accurately, precedes) some of the more vexing moments in 99 Stories of God. Here, though, there is time for patience, to enjoy Williams’ humor and sharp phrasing while we wait to learn what it might all be about.
In the end, The Changeling is about many things. It is about hunters and patriarchs, motherhood and marriage, childhood trauma and the closeness of children to God. It is about animals, and keeping them out, and letting them in. Pearl’s husband Walker’s family lives on a remote Northeastern island, descendants of a hunter named Aaron who built the labyrinthine home in which they live. After years living and hunting on the island, Aaron felt the animals begin to encroach too far upon him and built the house to keep them out – “He put all of his strength into keeping them out of the rooms he had made. Each night he went through the rooms one by one to make sure none had gotten in.” In the novel’s present day, the barriers between the island’s animals and its human inhabitants begin to break down in strange and supernatural ways that Pearl herself is unconvinced she has not imagined. And while The Changeling could be said to have many meanings, I find this to be is its most thrilling element – our creeping uncertainty, until the very end, whether each bizarre, monstrous event is only happening in Pearl’s mind. Early in the novel, as Pearl makes her way back from Florida to the island with Walker and their baby, an accident leaves us uncertain whether a member of the family has been killed; the hallucinatory scenes that follow are among the most intoxicating I’ve read in years, and reverberate through the novel until its final pages.
I returned to 99 Stories of God after finishing The Changeling, feeling newly equipped. Published almost 40 years after her sophomore novel, these stories share many of the same preoccupations and habits of mind. Surrealist details abound, often taking the form of strange animals as they do in The Changeling. Characters tend towards outsized or inexplicable reaction to the events before them; this time, Pearl’s gin-soaked confusion had prepared me for their scrambled interpretations of phenomena. In “Aubade,” a scholar – his name sharing an acronym with the phrase “check this out” – delivers a lecture on the prospect of discovering life on other planets, arguing for the primacy of human intellect and artistic endeavor in the universe. Later, upon ordering lunch, he hears his plate of trout emitting “the most beautiful music. It was exquisite, joyous yet heartbreaking, a delicate furling of gratitude and praise”. Horrified, he rushes to attack the chef and is admitted to a psychiatric institution. Here again we have the question of insanity, though more succinctly and humorously sketched. And again, though perhaps more bluntly here, Williams questions the superiority of the human mind over the animalistic and wild. Here and throughout the remaining stories, I found that reading Williams as a novelist had prepared me to take a more educated guess at her purpose while finding greater enjoyment in the turns of her phrase, her humor, and her lack of impulse towards clear resolutions.
I don’t mean to suggest The Changeling as a blueprint for Williams’ short fiction, or imply that they map against one another. New ideas abound in this collection, many of them unexpected and sharp. God plays a more central role here, as the title might suggest, and the stories in which he appears are often the funniest and most enjoyable. Real events and historical figures also enter as characters in these stories, often to great effect. Williams shows no sign of stagnation here. But her ideal reader, I think, must be prepared to read through a character like Pearl, who offers endless details of endless significance and refuses to make meaning of them. At our best, we might enter Williams’ work inclined to relish the puzzles she creates for us – as prepared to seek for significance as we are to enjoy space of searching.