Dick and Jane, Forcibly Drowned and Then Brought Back to Life


Arts & Culture

Diane Williams has spent her long, prolific career concocting fictions of perfect strangeness, most of them no more than a page long. She’s a hero of the form: the sudden fiction, the flash fiction, whatever it’s being called these days. The stories are short. They defy logic. They thumb their nose at conventional sense, or even unconventional sense. But if sense is in short supply in these texts, that leaves more room for splendor and sorrow. These stories upend expectations and prize enigma and the uncanny above all else. The Williams epiphany should be patented, or bottled—on the other hand, it should also be regulated and maybe rationed, because it’s severe. It’s a rare feeling her stories trigger, but it’s a keen and deep and welcome one, the sort of feeling that wakes us up to complication and beauty and dissonance and fragility. It’s a sensation we can get only by reading (that’s the only place I’ve ever found it), and once you’ve had it, you want to keep having it again and again. This feeling avows the complexity of life; it does not flinch from our harder suspicions about how vulnerable and brutal our enterprise is. Such work feels—I don’t know how else to say it—brave. It is difficult to encounter the world as it is experienced by Diane Williams, but this difficulty seems necessary.

So how does she do it? What is this literary approach? What is her trick?

Williams’s unusual literary method reveals the thin rigging of most narrative, and then deploys that rigging to make spectacular shapes—abstract, maybe, or realistic. Who can say? Every shape is abstract in the end, and every shape is familiar and intimate in the right context. Yes, she’s using the tools of narrative, and her language often is plain in that it sounds spoken rather than labored over and page bound. There’s a Dick and Jane quality to the prose, if Dick and Jane had been forcibly drowned and then brought back to life, maybe starved for a while, induced with madness but warned, at pain of death, to conceal it. 

The conventional narrative tools Williams uses to bring her fiction to life are disfigured here. It would seem that she’s melted them down and made them into new weapons. Sharper, weirder, more brutal. They get the job done, and they make a kind of blood sport out of the domestic scenes she so often creates. We recognize this sort of fictional material—families in crisis, romantic partners at each other’s throats—but there’s so much that is creepily detuned, so much that is just alien and odd. These mad, unsettling texts wear the costume of short fiction, but that costume has been torn up and sewn back together. A stitchwork disguise, a masquerade. Is it poetry, what she does? Is it prose? Is it magic? Is it biological weaponry? Is it real? Is it a sham? Well, yes to all of these questions. Yes, I think so.

These are some of the most defiantly resistant texts (resistant to easy understanding, I mean) that I have read, even while they seduce and beckon. They are intimate and dark and intense, often, but they remain cryptic and removed, as if they are being told in a language we don’t quite speak, or as if they’re driven by a deeper code that we can’t crack, a code that governs the composition of these stories and determines what they will be and how they will operate.

I’ve been a pusher of Diane Williams’s work since her first book came out in 1990. You’d think I would have developed a slicker pitch about it by now, a quicker sell. You’d think. But woe to anyone who tries to summarize the uncanny attacks on reason that constitute this body of work. And yet it is still tempting to try to make sense of it all, not just because most of us are doomed to hunt for sense, to douse ourselves with certainties and clear points and meaning. It’s that the stories themselves flirt so wickedly with sense but rarely quite build it, rarely quite commit to an entirely coherent scene or moment in narrative time. This is part of the shock to reading Diane Williams for the first time. Her stories end so soon after they’ve begun, and we readers are thrust back into ourselves to wonder and worry. What was that we just read? What did it mean? What happened? What was it about? Each sentence becomes a piece of evidence, designed to mislead as much as it is designed to clarify. On the one hand, these stories would seem to give so little, at least in the quantitative sense. Yet how is it that they resonate so profoundly? How is it that they endure?

Well, I don’t know. I just don’t, and this ignorance does not really trouble me, because it does not keep me from a profound enjoyment of this work. These stories matter because they derail us from our expected feelings and belief and, in so doing, put us face-to-face with our world, undisguised. These stories work the way art does: with great mystery, and, you know, why do we need to mess around with that?

It could help to say what these damn things are about. They are about people. Foolish, foolish people. In other words, all of us. The stories chart the kinds of behavior we show the world when our desires get the better of us. Desperation is on terrible display, and who isn’t a culprit when it comes to rash acts? These stories are comedies of manners, or tragedies of the absence of manners. They document desire gone wrong, which is to say that they document desire. In a Diane Williams story, there is frequently a narrator who surprises herself, who comes to revelations as if by accident, and who encounters the world at large with awe and wonder. Wisdom is rarely handed down by a narrator. It is stumbled across, discovered accidentally, or missed entirely. Wisdom is in the next room. Innocence and confusion reign supreme, but these states are always one thought away from some kind of difficult revelation, and it is this territory that Williams stakes out as her own. The threshold before understanding.

What’s often slippery and mysterious in a Diane Williams story are not the individual sentences—although these can be stunning, and indeed they traffic in sharp and unexpected syntax—but the eerie and sometimes inscrutable transitions between the sentences. This is where wild leaps take place, where logic falters and gives way to something more impressionistic and disruptive. We can’t help but look for one thing to lead to another, and here one thing does lead to another, but it’s such a funny another, such an unexpected one, that the result is often bracing and can be wholly, deliciously disorienting. In a Diane Williams story, we think we know something, but we certainly don’t know the next sentence, and it’s an uncertainty that Williams exploits to great effect.

Stories is a strange term for what Diane Williams writes. We might not read them for plot or sequence or narrative, exactly, even though those things rear up sometimes. In the earlier stories especially there is a kind of narrative continuity, an adherence to plot. But not so far into her career, she tinkered with the machine, and the texts took a turn toward the cryptic. I used to think she was making prepared texts from unexpected source material: turn-of-the-century gardening books or etiquette manuals, that sort of thing. Found texts. Now I’m not so sure. And the truth here might not matter. Even if there is found language afoot, Williams had to unearth it, and she had to put it in the order we now hold in our hands. It’s been masked and cut up and proofed far beyond recognition, resulting in something that is her very own. She saw something in the language that no other writer could see.

In many of these stories, a character speaks, something happens, objects in a room are described. But Williams is so restrained and selective that we see just slivers of her world, and soon enough she brings down a kind of hammer, and the story has ended. The abruptness and anticlimactic quality of some of her endings can be challenging, but they ask us to reflect in different ways, to feel resonance where we may not have initially been alert to it. It is tricky for a writer to end such short texts. One expects that there would be a temptation for revelation, a lowering of the boom, and this happens now and again in a Diane Williams story. But sometimes, too, these endings misbehave and chart an unsettled space that is rarely explored in fiction.

In the end, maybe these stories enact the dark impossibility of true understanding. They show us how little we can know, how doomed we are when we seek absolute comprehension. Yes, they are funny and manic and unexpectedly entertaining, but beneath their antics rests a grim view of human congress, a kind of inevitable despair around life among people. However much we puzzle over these stories, Diane Williams knows perfectly well what she’s doing, and that’s perhaps all we can ask of a wholly original literary artist.


Ben Marcus’s most recent book, Notes from the Fog, a collection of stories, was published in August. Marcus’s story “Notes from the Fog” appeared in the Summer issue.

© Ben Marcus, 2018. This essay appears as the introduction to The Collected Stories of Diane Williams, published by Soho Press on October 2.