Last things first: people die.
Imagine you know nothing about Joy Williams. You pick up her book, Florida, what was once known as a “coffee table book.” It looks nice enough, filled with photos: melting purple Florida skies lining Tampa skyscrapers, a dolphin bursting through a motorboat’s wake, a flamingo on the cover, and essay by Joy Williams in the middle. Imagine buying that book for the dolphin and the flamingo and getting this:
Whatever Florida is becoming (and she can become almost anything), she is essentially her most wondrous and exceptional self when she is not the Florida that is the result of a century of fabrication.
The essay, you discover, is filled with… not scorn for tourists, never quite that, but something angry. Sorrow, awe. This writer won’t leave any version of Florida alone, not the ones that have passed, nor the one that exists during the essay’s writing. The words run ashore against a picture of lifeguard shack. It was an edgy lifeguard shack at the time, no doubt. It has a curving silver roof and yellow legs and neon green walls. Now it looks dated and ugly. Certain images, you might sense as you look at the pages, have certain eras.
The Florida in Florida has had its era, and now it’s gone. Considering the book now, you might understand what readers felt when it came out; their excited longing for those beaches, Florida was almost glowing in their far-off longings, like neon. But the essay indicates a canceling out of all that. It states that time will take you on a ride to the end. Those images of Florida will be gone. Your time will be gone. This too, and you shall pass.
This is the death in Joy Williams’s work. It’s not passive or a neutral gray. It never happens on its own but is always courted with people’s thoughts of it, and the moment of dying. It might be a moment anyone of us has already missed. For all we know, we’re dead right now. Maybe this is it.
“So,” begins her novel The Quick and the Dead, “you don’t believe in a future life. Then do we have the place for you!” The title of the novel suggests that there aren’t really options, per se. After all it’s not The Quick OR the Dead. There might be two types of people, but time is quick and death is certain. The first chapter goes on.
Nothing we do is inevitable, but everything we do is irreversible. How do you propose to remember that in time?
Which would you propose to have your life compared to, wind or dust?
And in the novel Breaking and Entering, we come across Liberty and Willie, who break into houses and stay there as long as they can. Simple enough. Sometimes they meet the owners, sometimes not. The novel starts in a normal timbre, but slowly drifts apart from itself, like cells about to divide. Adventure gives way to being absorbed into the landscape of words and feelings. Gradually, no one knows who’s alive or who’s dead. Everyone becomes unintelligible to each other.
“I was a suicide,” Liberty says into the eye of a dead heron, finding some solace there, perhaps. The narrative continues, and we can’t be sure if it’s Liberty or the world that goes on to tell us, “We are addressed, even desired, but we are ghosts.”
When we know who’s speaking, we don’t always know why. “You’re admiring the light dear? There is an extraordinary light here, isn’t there? It only reveals, never explains.”
As readers, we think, people don’t talk like this. And then, anxiously, we must admit uncertainty. Or do they?
There’s an earlier version of the novel floating around, rarely seen but definitely real. This was the book before a publisher turned away from it, perhaps in fear. The host of a book-themed radio show told me about it once; he’d read it, was shaken to the core by it, then he passed it to an author. That version, he said, is less compromising than the published one; a deep treatise on the dread of being. I don’t know what that might look like. How could it be less compromising than the existing oracle? Unless it were written in a striking new language; or perhaps a very old one. Hieroglyphics. Sacred pictures of the dead.
Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead and the underworld appears in “Cats and Dogs,” a story in her latest collection, The Visiting Privilege. Osiris is alive, but dead. Dismembered, but whole.
Siblings drowned Osiris. Then chopped up body into fourteen parts and scattered them all over the place, all over Egypt. Someone found everything except for the penis, which had been eaten by fish, then put him back together again and made him king of the underworld.
His severed penis, by the way, awaits you in one of her novels, though I won’t tell you which one. You’re going to have to find that severed penis on your own. The point here is that Osiris is the bridge between the kingdom of uncertainty (the living), and the dead, where we are certainly going. No one more than Williams writes from both worlds at once.
Imagine picking up that book with the flamingo on the cover.
That flamingo is dead now.
For sure, it is pink and beautiful and dead. Because also, the animals die.
I’ve killed a lot in my life so far. So have most people, intentionally, directly, indirectly. The ones we eat of course. The ones we hunted as children. More, more. Let’s not forget the bugs that turn to dust or smears on the windshield. Surely we are not exempt here. We decide to make and buy huge machines of metal and glass and fill them up with the liquefied dead bodies of plants and animals and then blot other animals out of existence. We are absolute killing machines, but we hover above ourselves and watch, unless, like Jains, we sweep before us. Even then, we couldn’t hope to save everything.
Joy Williams kills animals in her life, she kills them or finds them dead in her stories. This is important. Jane, in “Preparation for a Collie,” poisons her dog, for example. She tries half-heartedly to give it away, but no, she’d rather really give it away.
Jane goes to the cupboard, wobbling slightly. “I’m going to kill that dog,” she says. “I’m sick of this.” She puts down her drink and takes a can of DRANO out of the cupboard.
It’s matter of fact. Earlier, her little son David had told the dog “We’re getting rid of you, you know.” But not in this way, surely not this way. He starts to cry. Jane loves her son in an unmoved way. She kneels down to kiss him. “David does not look at her. It is as though, however, he is dreaming of looking at her.” The story ends. No meaning is given but the dream.
There’s an occult theory, developed by hermetic masters sometime between ancient Greece and the 18th century. In each animal, the theory goes, there’s a golden thread running through. A glowing, golden mark on the spine that you could see if only you had a sort of astral vision. That’s where the animal is connected to the collective animal—the archetypal animal. If you pet an animal on that golden thread, you’ll feel connected. I’ve done just that with my dog.
If we’d look into our own bodies, the theory goes, we wouldn’t notice that thread, we are distinct. There’s nothing in Joy Williams’ work suggesting we ourselves are animals, no, we’re nothing so magnificent. What she might say we are, I’m not certain. But in the pages as in life, we are the beings kill animals, often after caring for them, like in “Preparation for a Collie” or the idolized then sacrificed bear cub in “Honored Guest.”
So many animals wander into our dimension (or is it the other way around?), and then they die, because in their deaths, they may actually have a chance to affect us.
In her essay, “Hawk,” Joy Williams writes of her own dreaming. Dreams and her lack of dreams after her dog, Hawk attacks her and has to be put to sleep, killed. You will remember this essay for a long time after you read it.
The animals don’t leave us, even in death.
In her finest story, “Congress,” a woman, Miriam, strikes up a relationship with a lamp with a base made of deer hooves. “It was anarchy, the little lamp, its legs snugly bunched. It was whirl, it was hole, it was the first far drums.” The lamp shines on everything in her life, and it has its own preferences, she discovers, though the lamp never speaks. She reads in its glow and sometimes the lamp judges what she reads. Moby-Dick produces the most powerful response, a book about a longing that, once met, is deadly. Whales are our largest animals, and we take them apart and turn them into fuel, food, candles. While Miriam is away, she reflects that the lamp, with legs that once “ran and rested and moved through woods washed by flowers” was back in her room,
…hovering over Moby-Dick. It would be deeply involved in it by now, slamming down Melville like water. The shapeless maw of the undifferentiating sea! God as indifferent, insentient Being, composed of an infinitude of deaths! Nature. Gliding… bewitching… majestic… capable of universal catastrophe! The lamp was eating it up.
There is nothing supernatural about the lamp; it is merely a part of life. Nor is there anything supernatural about the oracle she meets later, a taxidermist tucked in the room of a museum featuring gloriously stuffed animal bodies. People travel from great distances to meet him and ask him a question. His power seems to come from being in the palace of dead animals, since Miriam will be his replacement. It doesn’t matter if she’s qualified. She’s got her lamp, and she’s among the wisdom of preserved carcasses and halted motion. Any answer will do, since her words will be heard differently, with reverence, there.
The animals, only the animals, can reflect back to us our own failings and dishonesties.
When I met Joy Williams, it was over animals. I approached her sheepishly, stupidly, with a story I’d written about a woman who’d turned into a white dog. I was in grad school, and Joy Williams was giving a reading. I hadn’t known then that she’d written an entire novel featuring a white dog. I’d always been scared of them. Recurring nightmares. At that point, I’d only read The Quick and the Dead, which had changed me entirely. I’d never read anything like it, and I never will again. It was unbearable; it grew through me, the way grass forces its way through a sidewalk.
If you haven’t read anything by Joy Williams yet, do it. Confound yourself. If you are a writer, beware. She is a “writer’s writer.” What that means is: terror. When you read Joy Williams, there’s a feeling of terror. I might have written, “delight”, but let’s face facts, for writers, those are the same thing. I might have also written “wildness.”
It’s too much for most of us. A few sentences and off you will go, into a universe, wanting to write your own work. Needing to. If you can, stifle the urge to write, and finish her story, or worse, novel, and hum in your cells, wanting to do something. It’s the feeling Colin Wilson wrote about when looking into the Grand Canyon. It overwhelms you, but how will you resolve it? There are only two options: hold onto it or give in to doom and throw yourself in.
“Thank you,” I said, “and here.” I handed her my story (used-up dead ideas, pressed with ink onto paper: dead, flattened plants). I told her not to worry about responding; I just wanted to give it to her.
“What’s your address,” she asked suddenly, and I wrote my email address down on the back of the story. She laughed. “My boy, you know nothing of me, do you?”
I wrote down my postal address, which looked lonely on blank white paper, like the name of someone I’d forgotten. I don’t think it looked that way to her—I think to her it looked healthy or at least normal.
Months passed and then, like a shell on the sand, a letter appeared in my mailbox. Typewritten on the back of a galley page of The Quick and the Dead. I won’t tell you what it says, except that it is kind, it is caring and encouraging and also a bit mysterious. It’s a story.
The next year, she returned to Amherst and we sat outside with her German Shepherds and talked about Gurdjieff and Edmund White and animals, of course. She was like a tarot card to me, sitting in that chair, with blue behind her and a giant dog on either side. She became friendly, personal. Not that she said it explicitly, but I learned then from her the lesson every writer needs to learn but never will. You can do anything when you write. If you’re writing and you think of a painting, have the painting appear. If the painting needs to talk, so be it. If, at the end of your work, you have a heavy impulse to let the lovers die suddenly in a toy store fire, destroy them. If the wolves need to speak to God, as they do in 99 Stories of God, well then:
“Thank you for inviting us to participate in your plan anyway,” the wolves said politely.
The Lord did not want to appear addled, but what was the plan his sons were referring to exactly?
Characters are not people, after all (they’re not wolves, either, though they are closer to animals), though we must show compassion to whatever they are. They don’t need to “make sense,” even if we need to try and make sense of them. In fact, definitions, which claim total understanding, will likely fail us when we write and read. Here’s the Lord again, in Ninety-Nine Stories of God:
The Lord was trying out some material.
I AM WHO I AM, He said.
It didn’t sound right.
THAT’S WHO I AM. I AM.
It sounded ridiculous.
He didn’t favor definitions.
He’d always had the most frightful difficulties with them.
Little symbols, strung together, just like the ones in this essay, are what make characters. They’re shapes the djinns are cast through. They are not alive/they are alive in us. So the writer’s responsibility is to write them into being through that liminal space: dead and alive, sleeping and awake, animal and plant, drop and ocean, symbol and gesture. You can do anything. This is not an easy thing to remember as a writer. It’s a bit like sitting up straight: You have to keep reminding yourself to do it. Once you do it enough, writing becomes a place for wildness in a world where wildness will appear to be killed. Reading Joy Williams is a brush against this sublime evasiveness, this animal behind the trees. She doesn’t control each word, as some people might think. She just becomes some sort of medium, just tightens the bow and touches the spine so that the sound and the golden glow come through.
And what is wildness if not the Living and the Quick and the Dying and the Dead, all at once?