When a short story is successful, a reader ends it feeling certain that it could not have been a novel or novella; feeling certain that, though it might have been better if it were a bit longer, it should not have been more than a page or two longer than it is. One of the pleasures of reading a short story lies in beginning with doubt as to whether the feeling will arrive, and then, looking back, wondering why and how it has.
With the short stories that fail entirely, the feeling is rather wonder at why it was written at all; but, to be generous to all of the very good author whose short stories leave me with that unfortunate wonder, I suspect their stories’ reasons-for-existence would have been apparent in longer form; they wanted to be novels. At any rate, I’m interested here in short stories that work.
Joy Williams is a first-rate writer of short-stories. Her stories need to be short stories; they are possessed of the same necessity as the stories of Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Maupassant.
In an old post on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, I proposed that his “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was the prototype of the modern short story: a tale circling around, and determined by, guilt and judgment whose nature and circumstances were not entirely comprehensible. Guilt, shame, judgment appear in novels also; but they appear in novels rather than normally sustaining them; the novels move from them, or towards them, through other experiences, and they are made sense of by that movement of the narrative. The exception, and it qualifies the novel as the longest short-story of them all, is Kafka’s The Trial.
Joy Williams makes me think something else, something broader, is required to account for a short story. Or else, she has found her success by renovating the tradition.
Unlike the other writers I’ve mentioned, she is not a neurotic in her stories. Like some of the other writers, her stories revolve around events that might be interpreted as judgments, that might evoke shame or guilt; but unlike those writers, she does not insist on any of these. Some, like Maupassant or John Cheever, dwell on them with a smirk; others, Kafka and O’Connor, with a dead-pan irony. Williams does not dwell at all; often, shame, guilt, and judgment are absent entirely.
She writes about losses and displacements, in the wake of which people cannot see life as a whole, cannot tell a story of how they came to be where they were, or where they are going. The relationship to the Ancient Mariner ought to be apparent; but neither a Joy Williams character nor Joy Williams herself has the sense (sometimes it is a faith, sometimes an unconscious intuition imposed by an author, or imposed by the world within the story) of life’s purpose and sanctity, divine, historical, or social. Consequently, they do not fret; instead, they grieve. Her stories apprehend mourning, its weird shifts in feeling, perspective; the accompanying urges to go on and not go on; the startling focus into which objects that have faded into the background emerge again, and then recede; the lacuna in time and self-awareness; the peculiar consciousness that the world is ripe for ironies that are neither tragic nor comedic.
As in one of her best stories, “The Skater,” the loss is often a death; but not always. At times, it is not named; nor does it have to be. “Death” is name that says little, and Williams’ stories do not bring us into direct confrontation not with the events of loss, which are as unclear and numbingly painful as the judgments and sins that sustain the stories of Flannery O’Connor. Instead, Williams’ stories register loss by presenting the displacement of the whatever, whoever, remains; lives that are displaced from the full arc of narratives, lives that might have been the stuff of novels, but no longer (at least not yet) are.
Towards the end of an early story, “Train,” Williams writes of a young girl alone at night on journey down the east coast; the girl, Dan, has summered with her friend’s family and is now returning to her mother, dog, and her mother’s new husband:
Dan sat in her seat in the quiet, dark coach and looked out at the night. She tried to recollect how it seemed dawn happened. Things just sort of rose out, she guessed she knew. There was nothing you could do about it. She thought of Jane’s dream in which the men in white bathing caps were pushing all her grandma’s things out of the house and into the street. The inside became empty and the outside became full. Dan was beginning to feel sorry for herself. She was alone, with no friends and no parents, sitting on a train between one place and another, scaring herself with someone else’s dream in the middle of the night. She got up and walked through the rocking cars to the Starlight Lounge for a glass of water. After 4:00 a.m. it was no longer referred to as the Starlight Lounge. They stopped serving drinks and turned off the electric stars. It became just another place to sit. Mr. Moorhead was sitting there, alone. He must have been on excellent terms with the stewards because he was drinking a Bloody Mary.
The early stories center more often on children than the later, but she continually takes advantage of what the effect we see here, an effect that depends both a truth about childhood and on a truth about how adults remember childhood. On the one hand, growing up through childhood involves a process of tinkering, with aborted attempts at outright failures, at narrative-construction: children build up stories about who they are, what they have done, and what they will do, and knock them down like towers of blocks. Sometimes, they abandon their projects. Sometimes, their ambitions exceed their abilities. At other times, they do not know where to begin. The effects of loss on children, and the displacements that children experience, frustrate the precarious achievements and nascent strengths of childhood narrative-construction; but because children are accustomed to failing, to destroying, to tinkering with narratives, the experience of loss, and the fact of displacement, does not imperil a cherished and long-sustained sense of self. That is the one hand.
On the other hand, Joy William does not write from within the perspective of childhood entirely; she narrates from within and without. And in her narration she is conscious, and finds power in, the peculiarity of adult memories of childhood, thanks to which adults both yearn and recoil: the surprise and amazement of childhood (and it doesn’t take faith in Wordsworth to recall childhood joys that feel irrecoverable) is mixed with a dim terror at the disorientation, the sheer mistakenness, and the confusion that accompany childhood and that adults, bereft of the resources of their younger selves, no longer could manage or navigate.
The two hands are always at work in her stories. But she does not have to write about children only because she knows that mourning makes everyone into a child again, displacing adults from the stories they have told, from their normal routines of storytelling, forcing them to tinker again and build new stories up, if they can. (Some of Williams’ characters, in “The Blue Men” for instance, do not seem able to do so.) At the same time, as an adult who has passed through mourning, she looks at those in its midst from a perspective akin to an adult looking back at childhood: the terrors of mourning feel beyond what we can cope with, and yet there is also a memory of the stunning heat of thawed feelings, intensity of love, and intimacy, that is likewise absent from normal life.
Williams looks onto her mourning characters with frightened admiration and detached bewilderment; they could not be the stuff of novels, so she serves them as she knows how. The short story might be the most generous of all literary forms: finding sympathy for people and events that cannot go anywhere, that are stifled by incomprehensibility, severed from the life they once had and might have had. They are to life as a wakeful hour at 4 a.m. is to the rest of the day.