Ninety-Nine Stories of God
by joy williams
tin house, 168 pages, $19.95
Joy Williams has often been celebrated, but it seems safe to say that her prose is more feared than loved. A master of the short story, a novelist nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and an essayist on environmental matters, Williams is now being feted with long, generous, yet generally bewildered tributes to her work.
Almost invariably, these retrospectives allege her misanthropy. In the New Yorker, James Wood characterizes her writing as “brutal, . . . severe, high-handed, ruthless,” and “bleak.” The New York Times calls her “one of the greatest chroniclers of humanity’s insignificance.”
Williams has indeed cultivated the image of curmudgeon. Gaunt and leathery, her skin tanned after decades in the Florida Keys and desert Southwest, she sports dark glasses as her signature accessory. The story goes that she once lost her eyeglasses just before a university lecture and donned instead a pair of prescription sunglasses—and now she is never seen without them, day or night. One is tempted to think these sunglasses represent isolation and grief, a variation on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil.”
But I think the big secret about Joy Williams—one that most of her readers have missed—is that she writes out of love. In the title story from The Visiting Privilege, we are introduced to a preacher who “has been in love all his life.” That love, we are told, “is much too apparent and arouses neglect.” The preacher’s love is likened to an animal in a traveling show who, “through some aberration, wears a vital organ outside the skin, awkward and unfortunate, something that shouldn’t be seen, certainly something that shouldn’t be watched working.” Williams’s love is less obvious than the preacher’s, cloaked in layers of irony and indirection, appearing only fleetingly amid all the venality, narcissism, and absurdity shown in her fiction. But it is there all the same.
We see it in her most recent publication, Ninety-Nine Stories of God. The stories in this collection are brief; they range from a single sentence—“We were not interested the way we thought we would be interested” (museum)—to three pages. They often take the form of parables, fables, or Zen koans, and their titles, printed beneath the text and set in capital letters, occasionally function like snarky Aesopian morals.
In #28, a man who takes part in a church-sponsored dramatic reading of Dante’s Inferno (his section being the circle of those who are “violent against God, Nature, and Art”) leaves the church only to be confronted by a BMW screeching through the parking lot. Without thinking, he gives the driver the middle finger. Williams titles that one “abandon all hope.”
Or take #64, which reads in full:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison:
“The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us.
Before God and with God, we live without God.”
Beneath these lines the title reads: “i pity the fool.”
Is Williams accusing Bonhoeffer of being foolish? Or could this be an allusion to Psalm 14: “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God”? Perhaps. But given her elliptical irony, it’s also possible to imagine an off-centered meaning. It’s just possible that Bonhoeffer’s dark, paradoxical insight into the Deus absconditus is a sign that he is a holy fool—someone who, through suffering and reflection, has arrived at a state of childlike openness, privy to truths hidden from the wise.
There is plenty of violence and the grotesque in these prose ditties, from drive-by shootings and Nativity-scene thefts to a school’s educational field trip to a slaughterhouse and beyond. Some of the tales, it must be said, are flatly moralizing, but many contain twists and oddities that tease the mind into thought. An intellectual goes camping in the woods, but at the sight of her own excrement, she experiences a sort of gnostic revulsion, abandoning her career and becoming a recluse. In another story, the parents of cognitively disabled children seek out plastic surgery to make their children look younger than they are.
It’s easy to read these stories and imagine that they are more or less tossed out at random. But there are patterns in the chaos, pairings and clusters that are tied together by theme or image or tone. In #18 there is an image that at first appears to be a maze. The title is “this is not a maze.” It is, in fact, a labyrinth, rendered in the Cretan pattern that once ensnared the Minotaur. Then, in #19, we have a story about Chartres Cathedral—the site of the world’s most famous labyrinth.
Several reviews have pointed out the parallels between Ninety-Nine Stories of God and volumes by experimental writers such as the Austrian Thomas Bernhard and minimalist Lydia Davis. Those formal analogies are all well and good, but for my money, the deeper kinship—the one on the level of vision and sensibility—is with British satirists such as Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, and Alice Thomas Ellis. These literary Brits combined a sardonic Catholic gaze on human folly with a deadpan style, cataloging a panoply of horrors and inanities in clipped prose.
Williams, of course, is American and Protestant and not always as broadly satirical as the comparison might suggest. But the similarity to Waugh and Co. seems clear. As the daughter of a Congregational minister, Williams expresses mordancy with a distinctly New England accent. It isn’t hard to see why many readers see Williams as cold-blooded. Still, to say that satire has no emotional impact isn’t quite right. At its best, satire can evoke a delayed-reaction gasp of morally inflected dismay—the stiletto between the ribs that you barely feel at first. Then there’s the flipside of dismay: laughter, which can certainly be broad and hearty but is often accompanied by a nagging sense of unease.
If irony tends to focus on the dark space in the silhouette, it can nevertheless lure us into a longing for what is absent, the elusive human or divine presence barely visible at the edges. Williams writes what might be called “apophatic fiction.” She provides a clue to this genre within the pages of Ninety-Nine Stories of God. In #49, at the precise midpoint of the book, we read: “We can only know what God is not, not what God is.” That’s the traditional definition of apophatic theology, also known as the “way of negation” and closely associated with the Eastern Orthodox tradition and certain strands of Western mysticism. “We must push our minds to the limits of what we could know,” she continues, “descending ever deeper into the darkness of unknowing.”
Throughout Ninety-Nine Stories there are references to the mystics whose visions guide her, from Bonhoeffer to Jakob Böhme, Meister Eckhart, Kafka, and Simone Weil. In his New Yorker review, Wood points to an Eckhart quotation cited in one of Williams’s stories. A mother, speaking to a daughter, blurts out: “God is nothing. OK? That’s Meister Eckhart. But whatever is not God is nothing and ought to be accounted as nothing. OK?” Wood says of Williams: “If she has a metaphysics, it’s a very bleak one.”
What Wood misses in the Eckhart quote is the theological paradox at its heart: God is “nothing” in the sense that he is the ultimate mystery, completely Other, whereas whatever is not God is “nothing” in that it cannot compare with God’s glory.
As a few observers have noted, Williams shares much with Flannery O’Connor, who once said of the writer, “A purely affirmative vision cannot be demanded of him without limiting his freedom to observe what man has done with the things of God.” Throughout her writing, Williams contrasts what the Gospels call “the world”—the realm of not-God, where man has ruined many of “the things of God”—with “creation,” the world of nature given to man in trust. Her endless preoccupation with the fate of animals and the environment stems from a sense that man’s treatment of nature is the fundamental test of character.
“Why does the writer write?” Williams once asked. Her answer: “The writer writes to serve—hopelessly he writes in the hope that he might serve—not himself and not others, but that great cold elemental grace which knows us.” Her vision is not bleak, but it is certainly bracing. “The good piece of writing startles the reader back into Life.”
Ninety-Nine Stories of God dances on the edge of bleakness, but in its apophatic way, it hints at glories we too often miss. The final story, #99, has the Lord sitting in a dingy house in backwoods Maine with a fortune-teller who’s having a hard time seeing into the Almighty’s secrets. “You always wanted to be a poet,” she hazards. One might miss a throwaway line inserted partway through the story: “Still, some solitary bird was flinging out its frail song.”
The story is titled “the darkling thrush,” after a poem by the notoriously bleak Thomas Hardy. The poem depicts a dark, miserable landscape, rather like the one in Williams’s story, and yet in the midst of that drear scene, Hardy hears a thrush pump out “a full-hearted evensong / Of joy illimited.” He puzzles over how the bird could manifest such joy, concluding it might have “Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew / And I was unaware.”
Joy Williams is that thrush, hinting at hope, struggling with faith, and, yes, bursting with love.
Gregory Wolfe is editor of Image.