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“A little dirty thrill”: The sly, wry danger of Diane Williams’ short fiction

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Image: Karl Gustafson

To call a writer a stylist can be a backhanded compliment. One is acknowledging their skill, while at the same time implying there may be something masturbatory in that skill. Over time, “stylist” has increasingly come to signify an author who’s a little too fond of the sound of their own voice, the kind of person who cares more about how their house is decorated than whether or not the roof’s intact. But for Diane Williams, one of perhaps only a few living authors with so unique a voice that you could recognize her grocery lists, the manner in which she goes about what she goes about is inextricable from her whole enterprise. For Williams, style doesn’t trump substance; style is substance.


This becomes especially clear when considering her entire body of work. Throughout The Collected Stories Of Diane Williams—an essential volume of more than 300 of the author’s new and previously published short stories, spanning her nearly 30-year career—her topical preoccupations may shift, but from the very beginning, Williams has demonstrated a horologist’s precision for how her sentences are made, down to the very syllable and phoneme. It’s a quality she shares with contemporaries like Christine Schutt and Gary Lutz, both of whom, like Williams, once studied with Gordon Lish—a man who surely sleeps with a red pen around his neck, the better to edit his dreams. Williams has no less exacting an eye as the founder and editor of the avant-garde annual NOON, one of the most carefully curated and consistently excellent literary journals published today.

One reads a Diane Williams sentence—each a charged, quaking world unto itself—as one reads each individual story: with little sense of where it will go. Each opening line throws the reader into an uncanny conflict, a tilted mood, a precarious predicament. “I had just met them—the brother and the sister who had fucked each other to see what it would be like,” begins the particularly loaded “The Kind You Know Forever.” The stories’ extreme brevity (they average around one and a half pages) encourages such immediacy. Narratives turn on a dime. Insights, such as they are, arrive suddenly, nearly jutting from the page—what novelist Ben Marcus describes in his introduction as Williams “bring[ing] down a kind of hammer.” Two problems or situations are often set down alongside each other in these narrow spaces, Williams sometimes returning to the first, other times releasing the narratives like arrows, leaving readers to wonder how the place where a story lands is connected to where it began. The stories that circle back on themselves are usually the most conventionally gratifying, their intent more recognizable; the others can sometimes feel arbitrary, or merely unknowable, and yet uncertainty is frequently the point.

By embracing confusion, Williams shows a commitment to her own singular vision, one that resists satisfying the expectations of traditional fiction. Tensions arise within sentences, and in the surprising leaps made from one to the next. In one story, a widow moves through an unremarkable day, then, as if out of nowhere, “clumsily prepares a miracle.” The miracle could be a mundane task, or the fact that she is able to go about her day at all, or something else entirely. That Williams slackens the reins enough to follow her intuition where it may lead while exhibiting such extreme control at the sentence level is nothing short of genius, and one of the great pleasures of reading her. Her stories are at once unhinged and rigidly coiled, suffused with play and self-awareness. It’s not a writer without a sense of humor, if a bone-dry one, who writes, “He moves around in his gloom and then he does something with something.”

Williams’ abstract language also supports her thematic concerns. Pronouns’ referents get muddled along the way or are missing altogether. Likewise, the first-person often bleeds into the third. “The woman, who is me—why pretend otherwise?—wants to love a man she cannot have,” begins “All American,” one of Williams’ best-known stories, in part for its inclusion in 2004’s The Anchor Book Of New American Short Stories (which has become a kind of bible for anyone who believes in the healing power of contemporary literary experimentation). These shifts mirror the indefinite, blurred positions her characters occupy. After looking at her dog, a wife commands her husband to sit in one story; a son and a lover get confused with each other in another; and when she is very young “All American”’s protagonist tries to kiss her sister: “[L]ike what did I think I was a man and she was a woman?”

Sex is one of Williams’ perennial interests, and one of her greatest sources for not just danger but also humor. Her treatment of the subject can read as if The Piano Teacher had been directed by the deadpan Yorgos Lanthimos. There are frequent affairs, tenuous relationships, and a desperate desire to just put one thing into another already. But Williams rarely details the specifics of sensuous pleasure. While other writers might delight in cataloging a series of titillating turns or breathless moments, Williams has a winking kind of fun. Body parts include “his very best flesh,” an “impressively distinct member,” and an “awry anus”; occasions for intercourse are “coital functions.” Especially in her later work, sex finds itself intertwined with aging and failures of the body. “[I]t is not too difficult for us to get up into an asshole, and yet it makes some of us say our knees hurt to just think of going up there,” Williams writes in “Very, Very Red.”


Power and possession upstage physicality, too—humper vs. humpee is often an important distinction in Williams’ work. These protagonists, these women, are proprietary, confident in their ability to charm, and always stirring up something or other. The smallest misplaced gesture might destroy everything, and they would be okay with that. Why? In part, merely because they want to. “I am so pleased to ruin them, you know,” one narrator explains. In their pursuit of “vicious pleasure,” Williams’ characters are forever making messes, just to see if they can. And they’re getting away with it. As the creator of what Marcus calls these “fictions of perfect strangeness,” Diane Williams is, too.