Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams
It is tempting to resist reviewing Joy Williams’s ninety-nine stories of God. Some books lend themselves to summary and analysis while others stubbornly and mysteriously resist it. Williams’s book falls in the latter camp. Donald Barthelme, to whom Joy Williams has been compared, wrote in an essay of a rage in contemporary criticism for “a refusal to allow a work that mystery which is essential to it. I hope,” he went on, “I am not myself engaging in mystification if I say, not that the attempt should not be made, but that the mystery exists. I see no immediate way out of the paradox—tear a mystery to tatters and you have tatters, not mystery.” If I had my way (and could avoid violating copyright law) I would give you Williams’s books in its entirety here. Or I would just keep repeating, “Take a leap of faith and read it! Take a leap of faith and read it!” and hope that my refusal to play by the rules might pique your curiosity. These stories are of God, after all, and therefore, this is a book that circles around the most profound and enduring mystery: “We can never speak of God rationally as we speak about ordinary things, but that does not mean we should give up thinking about God,” Williams’s narrator comments in the 49th story. “We must push our minds to the limits of what we could know, descending even deeper into the darkness of unknowing.”
What can I say, then, without giving you tatters? Williams offers us a collection of modern-day parables and vignettes, stories of writers and philosophers, on the one hand, and demolition derbies and hot dog eating contests on the other hand, all concerned with God. Do note: these stories are of God rather than about God. While I am no grammarian and could find no good explanation of the difference between of and about, the difference seems important. The stories do not pin down God like a specimen as much as they offer glimpses of our world (a world created by God, in Williams’s view) and God’s place in our world. Williams’s God is not omnipotent. Instead, this God lives among us, getting shingle shots and planning dinner parties. Often bewildered, horrified, or even worried by the state of things, He cannot right our wrongs, or save us from destroying the world and ourselves. In one story, we find this God hanging out in a cave with a colony of bats who get shot and killed by two boys playing with their with BB guns. God likes the bats—in fact He prefers the company of animals to humans—but He does nothing to drive away the boys: “He was getting harder and harder to comprehend,” the narrator deadpans. In another, He tells a pack of wolves He’s really sorry that humans want to exterminate them. The wolves thank God for having a plan for them, and God thinks, “[He] did not want to appear addled, but what was the plan his sons were referring to exactly?”
The book’s preference for non-human animals is clear, its critique of human affairs often withering. Like Flannery O’Connor, another writer to whom Williams has been often compared, Williams has a knack for skewering the falsely righteous. In a story about two women discussing the drowning of a child, one woman feels nothing and keeps changing the subject while the other feels dreadful and says she tried to pray for the family “but didn’t know what to say.” The story aligns us with the second woman, even after she picks up a stone and kills the first woman. Good riddance, we might find ourselves thinking, the first woman was a horrible gossip. But then we read the story’s final sentence: “There were two funerals but only one trial.”
Likewise, ninety-nine stories of God calls into question the wisdom of human intelligence and reason. Sometimes Williams’s acerbic wit is the means through which she mounts her attack. In number 37, a woman “responsible for Victoria Secret’s water bra marketing fiasco” can’t believe a married couple would put up bird feeders where people can’t enjoy the sight of the birds feeding. The water bra alone is funny. Elevating the failure of a bra marketing scheme to a fiasco more so. The story sets us up to laugh at the woman’s pronouncements and then delivers. Nature for its own sake is “contrary to the very wiring of the modern brain,” the Victoria’s Secret exec says. She knows because she attends seminars on the brain: “She did grant, however, that there was a great deal about the brain and consumers’ buying and leisure habits—particularly consumers who owned their own homes—that she did not know. That was why hers was such a fascinating field.” Elsewhere, Williams turns her attention to technological or medical “breakthroughs”: a story about South Korean scientists using cloning techniques to make dogs glow red ends with one of the scientists commenting, “What’s significant in this work is not the dogs possessing red colors but that we planted the genes into them.” Here, the narrator need not comment; she simply lets the absurdity, or even cruelty, of the scientist’s actions speak for themselves.
More often than not, however, these stories resist such pithy little summaries. (Just read the book!) Williams has used numbers instead of titles to organize her work; after the conclusion of each piece, she includes a word or phrase. Some of these function as titles, some like punch lines; some are ironic, and some rather earnestly redirect our attention back to something in the story we might have overlooked. Finally, there are many occasions when the concluding titles flummox, prompting us to question of our understanding of the piece and then revisit it again (and again). Take number 55:
The Lord was asked if He believed in reincarnation.
I do, He said. It explains so much.
What does it explain, Sir? someone asked.
On your last Fourth of July festivities, I was invited to observe your annual hot-dog-eating contest, the Lord said, and it was the stupidest thing I’ve ever witnessed.
Considered as a whole, these stories repeatedly show us the violence and viciousness of human ways and God’s powerlessness to change our course. Williams lightens the blow by combining the sacred and the trashy, using prosaic language to talk about God and sarcasm to undercut some of our most revered beliefs and thinkers. You’ll laugh and feel heartsick at the same time. Though Williams’s God sometimes “hangs with the animals” or “can’t get excited about any of the [the dinner guests],” He is also a mysterious force. In the first story, a woman sends a postcard to her dead mother, and a week later, receives a letter in return, “the writing on the envelope unmistakably her mother’s.” She never opens it. “What she wrote was not important. It was the need that was important.” In ninety-nine stories of God, it’s clear we must send off missives to the otherworld, with no expectation of receiving answers we can possibly discern, if we hope to find love and grace in our lives.