In a recent interview with The New York Times, Joy Williams was asked what she wanted to receive from a great story. Her reply was simple: “I want to be devastated in some way.” Readers familiar with Williams’ work will know that what she seeks in fiction is also what she delivers.
With The Quick in the Dead, Williams’ novel from 2000, the author took readers into a bizarrely deserted landscape. Death won. In The Changeling, another one of her most cherished works, she introduced us to Pearl, an isolated, lost figure. Again, the concluding feeling wasn’t one for the faint of heart. Her short stories follow the same path to heartbreak and destruction. In The Visiting Privilege, her latest collection, bringing together Williams’ old and new stories, readers can once again find pain and an odd sense of comfort in the master’s words.
The Visiting Privilege is about the lives of outsiders—misfits lost amid worldly ordinariness. Many of the adults are divorced or widowed. They are usually poor. Most are scared of what awaits them or can’t move on from the very past that haunts them. The children are in similar predicaments, being abandoned, lost, afraid, and hopeless. Even the dogs are searching for some kind of peace.
Williams wastes no time in establishing her devastation. In fact, she tells us that her characters are troubled in many of the stories’ openings. In “The Lover,” Williams begins, “The girl is twenty-five. It has not been very long since her divorce.” In “Shepherd,” Williams opens with a death: “It had been three weeks since the girl’s German shepherd had died.” “The Excursion” has a Williams-feeling in its first lines: “Jenny lies a little. She is just a little girl, a child with fears. She fears that birds will fly out of the toilet bowl. Starlings with slick black wings. She fears trees and fishes and the bones in meat. She lies a little but it is not considered serious.” With beginnings being as downtrodden as these, we might expect that things have to get better. Well, they don’t. Remember, this is Williams’ view of the world.
All of these references to darkness and despair shouldn’t cause skepticism among readers who like a little fun. Williams taunts us with her wicked sense of humor that serves to humanize many of the stories most unsettling situations.
Williams is at her best when she’s exploring the concepts of illness and impending death. The ways she categorizes relationships, specifically those of parents and children during such a fragile time, somehow feels calming amidst the chaos of anger, bargaining, and depression.
“Honored Guest,” a story that focuses on terminal illness, is one of the collection’s standout pieces. In the story, Lenore, the slowly dying mother, and Helen, the occasionally caring and often uncaring daughter, try to deal with the situation. Neither do a good job. When we meet Helen, she is so overwhelmed by her mother’s condition that she wants to commit suicide, but she finally rejects the notion, saying that it’s simply “too corny” of an idea. Helen’s plan might seem selfish, but it’s important to know that Lenore tells her young daughter, “When I die, I’m going to forget you.” Hand holding and comfort aren’t popular in the house shared by the two woman in “Honored Guest.” As the story unfolds, Lenore and Helen try to come to terms with how to treat the other. Although they are fractured, they do bond. In typical Williams’ form, the meshing together of mother and daughter is in thinking about murdering a woman who looked at Lenore the wrong way at a coat store. In speaking of the woman, Lenore says, “I’d like to murder her.” Helen replies, “I would too,” and she continues, “I really would.” Lines like the ones exchanged by Lenore and Helen prove that love does exist in Williams’ worlds. Love is tougher, more earned, but it’s still very much present. The nearness of death is what seems to invoke it.
Another way the author succeeds in looking at death is through a religious lens. In “Taking Care,” the collection’s opening story, Jones, a preacher, tries to navigate his upended world of a dying wife and a neglectful daughter. Jones doesn’t fit into the world he now has to live inside. Williams describes Jones as “an animal in a traveling show who, through some aberration, wears a vital organ outside the skin, awkward and unfortunate.” He’s a kind man who “has been in love all his life,” and he’s now surrounded by doctors who are too “severe and wise.” Jones, the man whose entire livelihood is about trying to save people, can’t save his wife or his daughter, and, even more importantly, he can no longer save himself. He’s consumed with the darkness of the world, and he can’t escape it. Even on long drives with himself or in soft conversations with his sick wife and daughter’s newborn child, Jones can no longer focus. He’s a failed shepherd with lost sheep. Still, though, Jones does not give up. In fact, it is his resilience that proves that maybe life does have a point. Perhaps Jones can one day, in time, find his redemption—find his path back to enlightenment.
The Visiting Privilege explores the layers of duality that exists in life. Sure, there is devastation all around, but there is also disguised love and wonderment if we look hard enough. Williams writes, “The child would not go to sleep. She was upstairs, wandering around, making ‘cotton candy’ in her bone-china bunny mug. ‘Cotton candy’ was Kleenex sogged in water.” We can see what we want to see. It’s up to us. Joy Williams’ The Visiting Privilege asks us if want to settle with just a wet Kleenex or if we want to look a little deeper and find the magic—or, you know, the cotton candy.