O medium most meaningful! O pinion! You are writing a review! Take flight! You! A review! How wonderful. How transient. The smoke will be gone very quickly but it will be seen by many in the congregation. It is ancient. It is soulful. We are but the reader’s vessel, the book’s vessel, the soul that carries the book forward across these authors’ lifespans.
In the critic’s hand there murmured a book which contained the story, “There is Always a Hesitation Before Turning in a Finished Job.” A sign! Inviting description of the feeling before the click that pushes the review toward the editor. Ever inviting, ever feeling, ever clicking send—speak and set your worries free. Exorcise is good for you.
Dear reader, I have my worries about you. Your interest, your time. Of all the things we could be doing: We read about books.
To succeed anew a critic must become strong in prayer. Become a vessel for every story, intone over each like prayer beads another editor has already rubbed smooth. Must see a way to embody the contents of Williams’ new story collection, her eighth book, forty very short pieces. Bring them in with literary prayers bunched close to the spine. Make of me, “A Mere Flask Poured Out.” If all I leave upon this earth is “A Little Bottle of Tears,” I will be blessed. What of your “Personal Details” after you are gone? What of these pieces of the author, “Glimpses of Mrs. Williams,” in this book of mortality and confusion among the upper-crust?
Dear Williams-born characters, forgive my taking pleasure in your mannered immobility, manner reminiscent of the surprisingly prolific Sherwood Anderson.
I do take unseemly pleasure in several stories. You, women who seem to wade to their deaths in a swimming pool while the lifeguard looks on, bored. You, citrus plant, which “had seemed to pull up its skirt to expose its private parts.” You, man holding your penis and having thoughts as you pee through your weird length. You, mother explaining your methods “to apply heavy pressure” to your daughter: “I ask her where she is going, what does she want, how does she know and why.” You, girl in the fiction having sex that’s an act of application and drainage: “He applied himself against her and she allowed his solution to gently drain from her,” and when this same story, “Head of a Naked Girl,” ends, Williams writes, “As a rule, she blamed herself—for yet another perfect day.”
I hold you in high regard, “Bang, Bang on the Stair.” Your fourteen levels of life and doubt in just a few lines, from flamingo cookie jars to a joyful leaping cow to holding hands with mother just before she dies. You I could read every day and still like you, big and little multitudes, little place, “I went to search where I keep a liquid glue pen, specialty tape, and twine.” You, place where, “I kept on talking while I pawed around for some reason in the drawer.” The stories that don’t work don’t work like jokes the comedienne seems very sure of until the room is entirely quiet and the audience feels, sadly, more sober, deprived of their money.
Dear authors, I worry about you. Your sales, your lifespans. What you endure.
Because among the problems, one: reading rarely lasts. The reading is pleasant and then gone. Especially for very short stories. Even if we quake and hold the book on high in the light, praying it into memory, the words depart with speed. Then it begins. The voices. Talk about it. Tweet and post about it. Do something about the book. Establish muscle memory.
Dear publisher, I am sorry if I do so few of these stories justice. Someone else surely will. I don’t know what justice for a book is but I think I saw it as I prayed over this one. I was ashamed as I read, “I have always thought I was a careful person, but apparently I can surprise myself,” which Williams wrote for me, needy of prayer. I should have paid attention to greater forces and careers. “Many times I feel the prickle of a nearby, unseen force I ought to pay attention to,” Williams writes in “To Revive a Person is No Slight Thing.” Lucky you! I felt such a prickle before, in stories ringing as solid and true as many of Tove Jansson’s. Be still in the Jansson and Williams coldness, sir, I tried to tell myself. Be there, wiser, and go still. Continue reading the story as a voice describes how, “I turned and saw my husband standing naked, with his clothes folded in his hands.” To which he responds to the female narrator, “I don’t like you very much and I don’t think you’re fascinating.”
This is the nightmare that is perhaps not so bad, or perhaps just bad enough. A scene where time pokes at empty people in the hallway of a fine home. It is the immobility vector, the manner, the hurt in the poem I wish to see sucking its narrative teeth. How can such a couple so uncoupled keep alive together? Show! They do. The husband, now clothed, comes in, saying, “Diane?” She tells him, “I am trying to think of you in a new way. I’m not sure what—how that is.” Implausible and perfect. Like marriage. A sweet denial that lasts.
Their undone life, continuing, rings true because there in a relationship there in a marriage there are so many where people go crumbling beneath lovely older strains. They are growing old. Their pains carry great experience and frail at death angrily. Before the words for that story stop in full, leaving a good measure of the story’s final page empty, the narrator-she expresses things in these exact lines, using italics to end:
“I gave him a nod, made no apologies. Where were his?
“I didn’t cry some.
“I must say that our behavior is continually under review and any one error alters our prestige, but there’ll be none of that lifting up mine eyes unto the hills.”
The last line is a prayer half-prayed, a verse half-here and gone. What the white space holds, the denial hinted at before the story’s hereafter, is murmured toward us from the Bible: from whence cometh my help.
Dear me, go on, confess: books are a waste of time.
Nay, I dare not. (Imagine! A critic, who, like Dostoyevsky’s priest no longer believed in God, no longer believed in the power of books! As if he were enamored of the glamour of self-abnegation. Gloomy. And still glamour! Praying to books while murdering them with praise!) No, I will make of this author’s work a page of mine own religion.
Dear me, though, there are pages and pages of this.
Bibliomania, boredom, bombast, bile. Along with common sense and good advice from upright people in Williams’ stories. Use a cinch trap to capture nuisance rodents who’ve infiltrated your yard. “After you catch a gopher, you tap it headfirst, dead, right back into the hole! That’s good fertilizer.”
Write what you like, large and small, with or without prestige, the reading’s meaning in one’s life won’t reveal itself for years. If the book doesn’t hold fast, if the prayers don’t stick, it’s the same cinch trap, critic. A voice in the wilderness, a question of devotion to this book and the next and the next, until the reading and forgetting become as gorgeous as the daily blast and flow of birth and death in the neighborhood. There was a quote that seemed to get at this somehow. It’s trash night. Let’s place the quote and click send. Hallelujah, the review’s almost done! O suckling ephemeral. Where the hell is it? The child is coughing himself awake. Heaven help me. And dishes to do. C’mon. Okay, found it:
“She feels the onset of arousal, of genital swelling that is triggered by no one in particular and she has the inability to think normally.
“What’s still to come?—a warm flat landscape?—a shallow swimming pool?—the complete ruin of her health?—her absolute devotion to anyone?”
Diane Williams is the author of eight books, including a collection of her selected stories. She is also the founder and editor of the literary annual NOON which is acclaimed both here and abroad. She lives in New York City.
Matthew Jakubowski is a writer, editor, and literary critic based in West Philadelphia. He’s written experimental book reviews for Interfictions Online, 3:AM Magazine, and gorse, a Dublin-based literary journal. His work appears widely in various publications such as The Kenyon Review Online, Berfrois, Music and Literature, and Kirkus Reviews. He maintains a litblog called truce and can be found online @matt_jakubowski.
Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine is published by McSweeney’s.