The Last Book I Loved: Honored Guest


One of my favorite books is the story collection Honored Guest (2004) by Joy Williams. I like it to a degree that its “flaws” seem to function “completely” as contributors to its “tone,” which I like, and which therefore creates a situation for me where “there are no ‘flaws,’ only ‘idiosyncrasies’ that contribute to the ‘tone.’” This contrasts with books where I can easily sense what I like and dislike, for example I like the dialogue and social interactions in Less Than Zero (1985) and American Psycho (1991) by Bret Easton Ellis but dislike the violent parts. When I think about Honored Guest’s “tone” I think it is maybe something like drinking a lot of caffeine while mildly and “calmly” depressed, taking painkillers at night while happy, going outside into sunlight in the morning after not sleeping the night before due to a specific kind of crippling loneliness, or being financially stable while unemployed and living alone in a clean studio apartment with little or no social or familial obligations.

Honored Guest seems versatile, powerful, reliable, and accommodating to me. If I am severely depressed I can read it and feel calmer, more accepting, and better able to utilize such depression-reducing skills as detachment, irony/sarcasm, and relativism. If I am happy I can read it and feel “delight,” an increase in the non-delusional aspects of my happiness, and that I am glad I exist and can interact with certain other humans. If I am bored I can open the book randomly and study whatever sentence or scene to see how they have been constructed, find “little jokes” or “other things” I didn’t notice before, or read it slowly in a self-conscious manner for purposes of perceiving how exactly my emotions are being affected by certain line breaks or adverbs.

In the past I have felt that Joy Williams’ stories were too [something] for me to enjoy at a comprehensive, “direct” level but today I do not feel that way. Today when I read Joy Williams I feel that I am not blocking out or suppressing any aspects (or only very small and vague aspects) of my personality, sense of humor, or worldview. I feel that I am “enjoying” the writing in a manner similar to how the author herself would enjoy it, as opposed to writing where I feel “ever conscious” that I am probably “enjoying” it in a different manner than the author would, for example writing that I feel is unintentionally funny or only “accidentally” detached (not completely sure what I mean re “accidentally” detached).

To me Joy Williams (b. 1944) and Lorrie Moore (b. 1957) overlap in their writing to some degree. I like them both a lot. Their output quantity (and, to me, quality) is similar, to some degree, a notable degree. They’re both sort of on the “edge” of whatever groups of writers journalists have successfully grouped together. They both have three story-collections of which the first ones, I feel, were in a somewhat different style than the next two, which have styles that are “crystallized” versions of the first books’ styles, in my view. I sometimes think about what they think about each other’s work. I feel interested in interviewing Joy Williams about Lorrie Moore or Lorrie Moore about Joy Williams. I have Googled their names together without success. They seem to have not ever mentioned each other’s names in print. I think almost everyone I know that likes Joy Williams’ writing a lot also likes Lorrie Moore’s writing a lot.

I will write about some of the stories in Honored Guest.

“Honored Guest.” In this story a girl is living with her mother who is dying. At one point the mother wakes up screaming her own name. I feel like if I were dying I would wake up screaming my own name sometimes.

“Congress.” In this story a woman’s boyfriend’s job is to examine body parts of dead people or animals to identity them as specific people or animals. Halfway through the story the man falls out of a tree while hunting with a cross bow and gets brain damage. This story feels to me like a full-length “indie” movie in terms of narrative movement, number of scenes and locations, and quirkiness level re characters.

“The Visiting Privilege.” In this story a woman visits her friend in a “mental hospital.” Her friend gets annoyed because the woman visits every day and sometimes more than once a day. The woman makes friends with an old woman and thinks the old woman is “cute,” in how she acts, and I agree. This story to me exhibits clean, beautiful, high-quality expressions of depression and meaninglessness.

“Charity.” In this story there is a small girl that is very “cute” in how she acts. I think I always feel that Joy Williams thinks her characters are cute, interesting, or funny and not ever “evil,” uninterestingly boring, immoral, or “wrong.” This and The Visiting Privilege are maybe my favorite stories in this book.

“Fortune.” In this story a lot of young people go to South America, for a vacation, I think, and “sit around” a lot. I think their parents are also in South America on vacation. It is maybe the longest story in the book. I remember only parts of it. I remember the ending. I seem to almost always have an urge to reread this story in order to know it enough to “feel aware” of its entire structure inside of my head, at one time, as I have been able to do with the other stories after rereading them whatever number of times. I feel I will in the future reread this story for the 5th or 10th time or something and “gain” the entire structure, and then experience it at a different level, causing me to have different urges to further reread it.

Tao Lin (b. 1983) is the author of novella Shoplifting from American Apparel (Melville House, Sept. 2009) and the forthcoming novel Richard Yates (Melville House, Spring 2010). He is the author of four other books and has a blog at and a store at He lives in Brooklyn. More from this author →