Belly is a book about a man named Belly. Belly aka William O’Leary is a grandfather now, just out of jail after four years in for illegal bookkeeping, but he used to be a real big shot in Saratoga Springs. He was also a drunk, cruelly dismissive of his family and torn up by the death of his third daughter. When he arrives back home he finds that his old stomping grounds have changed and that his three surviving daughters are wary of his presence. The book encompasses Belly’s first week of freedom and is more a character study of this difficult man than a plot-driven novel. Because Belly is so stubborn and belligerent, it is difficult to commiserate with his bitterness about the incursion of WalMart and fancy chain coffee shops. In fact, I found Belly, the man, to be so repugnant that I thought that Lisa Selin Davis was trying to point out that he was wrong, that those chain stores aren’t so bad, but based on this interview, I can see that that is not the case. Belly is an admirable debut, with a handful of well-crafted characters, especially Belly and his oldest daughter Nora, but I would have more enjoyed reading about these characters in a more dynamic plot.
There's a scene early on in the mini-series version of Generation Kill in which Lee Tergesen, the actor who plays Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright, wins over the Marines from 1st Recon Battalion with whom he is embedded. Recon is the eyes and ears of Operation Iraqi Freedom and one of the forwardmost units to push deep into Iraq in the first days of the war. The jarheads address Wright simply as "Reporter," and treat him with a cool saltiness - until he lets slip that he used to write for Hustler. The soldiers, their raunchy humor already established, instantly warm to him. As the mission unfolds, Wright becomes the eyes and ears of the folks back home, evoking for his readers the cultish fraternity of American warriors on the front line of a strange war. HBO's Generation Kill was based on a New York Times bestseller by Evan Wright, and it was adapted for HBO by David Simon and Ed Burns, the architects of The Wire. For his new collection of reported pieces, Hella Nation, Evan Wright breaks the ice in much the same way. In the introduction, he discusses his early years, a slow metamorphosis from shiftless slacker to crack reporter, starting with the unlikely gig as Hustler's entertainment editor. "My career at Hustler began with an overdose of Xanax," he writes, and we're off and stumbling. Wright's back-assward path into serious journalism makes for entertaining reading, and there's an important point to it. In the early 1990s, his life was a parade of blurry tableaus: blackouts, bar fights, stealing cars, and "waking up in vacant lots or hospital emergency rooms not knowing how I had gotten there, or sometimes what my name was." In journalism, Wright found a way to cope with his demons and overcome his youthful conviction that "failure was a sort of philosophy to live by." He accomplished this turnaround by focusing on the lives of other people who lived at the margins of American society. In these remote places on the cultural map, the rivers run deep, the currents are swift and unpredictable, and people need a skillful guide if they wish to know what it's like to ride the whitewater. His background as something of a misfit has enabled Wright to gain amazing access to the lives of other misfits. More than once, almost by chance, he has crossed paths with characters who live in parallel universes where values are warped and decorum non-existent. In "Portrait of a Con Artist," which first appeared in Rolling Stone in 2000, Wright wrote about Seth Warshavsky, a dot-com whiz kid in Seattle who founded an online porn company, Internet Entertainment Group. By the late nineties, IEG was being touted by Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal as the porn industry's version of Microsoft, supposedly earning revenue of $100 million in 1999. Following his departure from Larry Flynt's Hustler, Wright moved from LA to Seattle and went to work for Warshavsky, a tourettic, human growth hormone-addicted porno-nerd-cum-Internet mogul. As chief Web editor, Wright soon learned that IEG was a sham, built around little more than smoke, mirrors, and Warshavsky's pathological relationship with the truth in all of his business dealings. One thread that runs through all of the pieces in Hella Nation is Wright's straightforward, almost deadpan descriptions of scenes that are perfectly absurd. During his ill-fated tenure at IEG, such scenes were common. One unfolded when Warshavsky had Wright meet with a group of analysts from an investment bank that had agreed to underwrite IEG's initial public stock offering. Taking the men inside IEG's video porn production warehouse, Wright was surprised to find that just one of the dozen or so booths that were supposed to be broadcasting live nude girls 24/7 contained an actual live nude girl. Far from being dismayed by the inactivity at the warehouse, the analysts gathered around the single booth, enthralled by a nude woman's desultory masturbation before a webcam in a faux bedroom. "The one with the MBA from Harvard," writes Wright, "suggested I had better insist on receiving stock options from my boss - Warshavsky - ahead of the IPO. He shot me a jocular smile." This is a deeper subtext that runs through much of Wright's work. As seemingly insane as many of his subjects are, their ridiculousness is often dwarfed by the ridiculousness of an American culture that is fascinated with, and eager to be taken in by, those risky characters who operate at society's margins. The credulous businessmen in "Portrait of a Con Artist" are in this way not unlike Wright's readership: ready, willing to be taken in. These are the stories that magazines like Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair live for. I, for one, was astounded and mesmerized by several of the stories in Hella Nation. I marveled at the access Wright was able to get and the thoroughness of his reporting. Only rarely did what he wrote strain my own credulity. Those moments were for the most part born of the skepticism of admiration. The stories include a dispatch from Afghanistan (Rolling Stone, '02), where infantry soldiers from the Army's 3-187th Battalion, Fifth Platoon Delta, are ostensibly battling the Taliban. In fact, they spend most of their days laboring in 125-degree heat, discussing the rumored existence of a McDonald's in Kandahar, debating techniques for wiping your ass without toilet paper, and marveling at the disturbing proclivity of their Pashtun allies in the Anti-Taliban Forces to fraternize with young boys in their camp. There are profiles of an alcoholic skateboard punk from West Haven, Connecticut (Rolling Stone '01), who won fame and corporate sponsorship in Hollywood by being featured doing never-before-seen tricks in underground skating videos, and a flamboyant Ultimate Fighting Challenge champ on whom the upstart blood sport had, at one time, hopes to pin (Men's Journal '02). In a breezy essay entitled "Scenes from My Life in Porn" (LA Weekly '00) Wright sketches some mostly humorous memories from his days working at Larry Flynt Productions. One of the oldest stories, first published in Hustler in late '97, is a profile of the rock group Motley Crue. At one point, the band's drummer, Tommy Lee, explains how he had once managed to run himself over with his own car: "'I pulled over to pee after drinking tons of beers,' Tommy relates. "'I left my Corvette in neutral, and it ran over both my legs. And dude, my leather pants fucking exploded.'" A lengthy piece that first appeared in Rolling Stone in 2000 follows the activities of a group of young anarchists, starting with the infamous Battle of Seattle during the World Trade Organization's conference there: "As Wingnut inevitably says, when asked by police who his leader is, 'I work for Mother Earth, arrest her.'" Wingnut's other hero, we learn, is Ted Kaczynski. Wright travels with Wingnut from Seattle to a tree-sit high above the ground in the old-growth Douglas firs of the forest outside Eugene, Oregon, then down to LA. Wright covers a lot of ground, and he seems to prefer to treat every story as an embed. There are two stories in Hella Nation that I found particularly engrossing. The first is an investigative piece about a young San Francisco gym teacher who was attacked by her neighbor's dogs in the hallway outside her apartment and killed. I remembered this gruesome story from when it happened in late 2001. Wright fills in astounding details. The dogs, rare Presa Canarios, were procured by a white supremacist while he served a life sentence in California state prison, and were being cared for by his lawyers, a married couple who had also legally adopted him. The couple exchanged pornographic letters with their "son," and, it was rumored, photographs of the wife engaged in sexual acts with the dogs. The final story in the collection is a 25,000+ word profile of Pat Dollard that appeared in Vanity Fair in March '07. Dollard was a Hollywood agent and producer until he dropped out of sight around Thanksgiving of 2004, only to resurface in Iraq, embedded with Marines in Baghdad. He returned to LA with a self-shot documentary film about his experiences and a desire to become a "conservative icon, the Michael Moore of the right." Dollard's late sister, Ann, was a prominent liberal activist, well-known in elite Hollywood circles, but this is not the only thing about him that made his new direction surprising. As Wright writes, "When you consider that just eighteen months earlier Dollard was a confessed whore-loving, alcoholic, coked-out Hollywood agent, his transformation into the great hope of conservative America is nothing short of astonishing." Wright was first introduced to Dollard by a friend who believed Dollard could help him get Generation Kill made into a movie. The back of Hella Nation has a quote from Newsday: "[Evan Wright's] style owes more to Hunter S. Thompson than to any sort of political correctness." I sort of disagree, and so does Wright. "Gonzo journalism was born and died with Hunter S. Thompson, and lives on only in his writing," he writes in the introduction. There's no gonzo to Wright's straightforward narrative approach - no madcap prose fraught with the writer's own drug-fueled lunacy, a staple of Thompson's work. Wright got that mostly out of his system before he became a serious journalist. Where Wright's writing is reminiscent of Thompson's is in certain conclusions about American culture that he leads the reader to. Wright's subjects are outsiders, but an Evan Wright story is itself a subversion. The mainstream magazine reader is the one on the outside looking in.
The Hidden Reality, we begin to realize, is a manifesto for a particular conception of science—one in which the possibility of other universes is worth investigating to the fullest, even if we can never experimentally detect, let alone visit, those realms.
Don DeLillo builds his novels and stories out of glittering set pieces. The long baseball scene that opens Underworld (reprinted in a standalone edition called Pafko at the Wall), the mass Moonie marriage in the prologue of Mao II, and the encounter with the Airborne Toxic Event in White Noise are all brilliantly conceived and expertly rendered, stretched taut between the real and the surreal. These set pieces are the most memorable parts of his work, but it’s the places between, among, and beneath them from which the transcendent and the ineffable emerge. From the abduction of a child in a park at dusk, to an earthquake ripping through sweltering Athens and two strangers meeting in a gallery of paintings depicting the fates of the Baader-Meinhof terrorists, each of the nine stories in The Angel Esmeralda (collected for the first time from original publications dating back to 1979), is wrapped tightly around its own diamond-cut set piece. Almost all of the stories privilege quiet, introspective spaces within and underneath the insane bustle of the modern city -- an art gallery, a convent, a philosophy course, a white-collar prison. In “The Starveling” (the collection’s only new story), a man spends his days haunting a network of New York movie theaters, where he ruminates on the interplay of light and dark, in life and onscreen, wondering, “was it about the universe and our remote and fleeting place as earthlings? Or was it something much more intimate, people in rooms...?” Once inside these sanctuaries, the characters seek contact with a more ancient and immutable form of existence, one that the city obscures but cannot extinguish. They find their way into these modern sanctuaries through a desire to escape from the chaos of the city outside, and yet only by opening a door to a deeper, more innate chaos, beyond the stories’ perfectionist architecture and impeccable phrasing, does the transcendent emerge palpably onto the page. In the moments when it does, the stories achieve the staggering beauty and strangeness of DeLillo’s best work. All told, The Angel Esmeralda contains three stories in which the transcendent succeeds in breaking through. In these instances, we’re right there along with the characters, in the place of apparition, watching as the secularism of modern society, and the hyper-refined veneer of DeLillo’s prose, vanish like sand blowing off a tomb in the desert. In “Human Moments in World War III” (1983), two men orbit the earth in a military satellite. As a reprieve from the job’s boredom, one of them takes to looking out the window, back at the Earth where, “The view is endlessly fulfilling...it satisfies every childlike curiosity, every muted desire, whatever there is in him of the scientist, the poet, the primitive seer, the watcher of fire and shooting stars...the neural pulse of some wilder awareness...whatever indolent and sybaritic leanings -- lotus-eater, smoker of grasses and herbs, blue-eyed gazer into space -- all these are satisfied, all collected and massed in that living body, the sight he sees from the window.” There’s nowhere to look in the satellite except out the window, and yet the character’s decision to do so and the Earth’s appearance when he does come as hard-earned and long-denied revelations. In “The Ivory Acrobat” (1988), an American woman in Athens in the aftermath of an earthquake examines a carved Minoan figure of an acrobat leaping over a bull. As she tries to reckon with this alien object, she feels the broken record of her self-consciousness slowing to a halt: “There was nothing that might connect her to the mind inside the work...[to] a knowable past, some shared theater of being. The Minoans were outside all this...lost across vales of language and magic, across dream cosmologies...her self-awareness ended where the acrobat began.” In the middle of her paranoid expat existence, she sees a void open that history and language cannot fill. In the title story (1994), the final pages of which rival any DeLillo has written, two nuns who’ve devoted themselves to what often looks like an irredeemable Bronx neighborhood see the shape of a murdered girl appear as an angel on a billboard advertising orange juice. “Her presence was a verifying force, a figure from a universal church...it had being and disposition, there was someone living in the image, a distinguishing spirit and character...a force at some deep level of lament that made [the nun] feel inseparable from...the awestruck who stood in tidal traffic..." These are rare moments when the ancient and the infinite erupt out of human production -- a spacecraft, an artifact, a billboard, and, of course, DeLillo’s own writing. He sets his stories in technological arenas that assert the victory of human reason over universal chaos, and yet, in the crucial religious moment, chaos looms back up, subverting the tools that humans have built to use against it. These appearances give way to disappearance and disappointment, but there are two kinds of disappointment here: disappointment in a reality that the story has meaningfully conveyed, and disappointment in the story for having shirked that reality’s magnitude. These three stories evoke the first and more cathartic disappointment. Leaving the place where the angel appeared, the nuns wonder, “...what do you remember, finally, when everyone has gone home and the streets are empty of devotion and hope, swept by river wind? Is the memory thin and bitter and does it shame you with its fundamental untruth...or does the power of transcendence linger, the sense of an event that violates natural forces...stand against your doubts?” In these three stories, you’re right there with the characters, shuddering with the shockwaves of impossible events, as sudden and devastating as a detonated bomb. All of the stories in this collection, even those that don’t reach these shivery highs, abound with brilliant ideas. But brilliant ideas alone are not enough to make them all work. Many feel stranded, like parts of a larger project that doesn’t exist. This is because DeLillo’s writing really comes alive not from the quality of its individual ideas, but from their shadows and echoes, the resonances of their “white noise,” magnified across a vast psychic and visual plane. In all of his novels, but not in all of his stories, these shadows and echoes mount into a chaotic force, rippling both across and underneath the surface. As it does, his vision spreads outward, encompassing ever more of the nuances and frequencies of an urbanized West that has maxed out on chatter and distraction, gorging itself on anxieties about the vanishing past, the splintering present, and the accelerating emergence of the future. It has to expand like this in order to express the burden of shepherding a lone self through a world of mass-consciousness, ruled by media and money, where terror is the only form of awe that has not been stripped and sold for parts. The novels’ plots are so all-encompassing that they send out and respond to hidden currents running through the heart of our culture, as dangerous and vital as the plots of terrorists -- as DeLillo imagines them -- have become. In Mao II, he writes, “...isn’t it the novelist...above all people, above all writers...who knows in his soul what the terrorist thinks and feels? Through history it’s the novelist who has felt affinity for the violent man who lives in the dark.” This is not to say that a great novelist like Don DeLillo shouldn’t write short stories, but I do think that his novelistic vision is ill-served by the story form, and that The Angel Esmeralda is not the product of a different, authentically story-sized vision. For all of their interest in apparitions breaking into the world, the stories permit few breaks in their own conceptual rigging, and thus often exclude the very forces they’ve summoned. What does appear, if one reads the collection in chronological order, is a portrait of DeLillo himself, as the author who most compellingly captured the mental life of the Western world in the late 20th century. In both the novels and the stories from this period, one can hear a city, maybe a whole civilization, speaking and even thinking through him. It’s no coincidence that the collection’s three best stories date from the '80s and '90s. In these stories, as in Libra, White Noise, Mao II, and Underworld (spanning the period 1985-1997), there are passages that move beyond the synthetic and into the prophetic. One gets the sense that he not only saw what was going on at that time, on an absurdly grand scale, but that he saw into it, farther in than anyone else could. These passages feel like the incarnation of something way beyond the scope of an individual mind. For all the control and precision in his language, chaos breaks through in these passages. In his famous crowd scenes -- at sports games, political rallies, fanatic religious ceremonies, and panoramas of mass squalor and degradation -- human consciousness breaks down and is overcome by something non-human, a singular psychic totality that exists beyond the infinite. In “The Ivory Acrobat,” a line of traffic in Athens “resembled some landscape in the dreaming part of us, what the city teaches us to fear.” A new state of being emerges from the mob and the traffic jam, from the novelist conjuring up ghost cities and the terrorist burning down real ones. This more primal chaos, underneath the daily chaos of the city, ends finally in unity, and perhaps also in peace. DeLillo will always be a master stylist, but this only magnifies the difference between the times when this spirit breaks through his style, and the times when it does not. As the West’s relation to terror and art, and to mass communication and solitary insight, shifts in the early 21st century, this prophetic voice has shifted away from DeLillo. In retrospect, his best work shares the billboard angel’s overwhelming but transitory power: impossible to deny when it’s there, impossible to believe when it’s gone.
● ● ●
I left New York for Windhoek in early October, exchanging the end of an Indian summer for the beginning of an African summer. Around January, I began to despair of my lost winter, and I experienced that peculiar disorder in which the current season obliterates the memory – indeed, the existence – of all other seasons. Maybe John Crowley felt the same way when he wrote: “Love is a myth, like summer. In winter, summer is a myth. A report, a rumor. Not to be believed in.” I bought Crowley's Little, Big shortly before I came to Windhoek. After special-ordering it from my local bookstore, I waited patiently for it to arrive, sustained by Harold Bloom’s assurance that it was a book he “regularly reread[s].” The family tree in the introductory pages, the flowery miniature work throughout, and the headings (“Sylvie and Destiny,” “Some Notes About Them,” “Lady with the Alligator Purse,” and “Still Unstolen,” among others) within chapters within books immediately won my heart. But Little, Big was not such an easy conquest, especially for a reader like me who loves devouring books whole and quick. For the first hundred pages or so, I felt the way I feel when I eat a hardboiled egg too fast and I have to stand still, sipping water until the thickness passes through my gullet. I foundered, starting and stopping the book numerous times over the course of three months. Its extended, reproachful presence on the windowsill next to my bed began to undermine my vision of myself as a diligent and avid reader. Finally, I cut the nonsense and undertook one of my approximately bi-monthly, epic reading nights, in which I stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning finishing a book, then stay awake another hour thinking about the book. (George Eliot’s Middlemarch inspired the last such night.) Little, Big squeezed the sides of my brain and fought me for each page. In one story line, Sophie Drinkwater, a probable descendant of fairies, unknowingly goes for years without sleeping, only to have her sleep finally returned by the child who was once stolen from her and replaced with an ancient baby-like creature who eats coals. That’s a fair interpretation of what it felt like to read and finish the book. The book truly is little and big at the same time: relationships fated for a hundred years last for one month; the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa is resurrected as a New York-based political leader who fights for a kingdom the size of a thumb; Smoky Barnable is instructed to travel by foot, not by bus or train, from New York City to Edgewood – a house that swallows people up in its architectural mishmash – in order to marry Daily Alice Drinkwater, another fairy descendant; their son, Auberon, meets a girl with a Destiny in New York, while he writes the story of his fairy-sprinkled family into the plotline of a soap opera. They are all part of a tale that is foretold in a stack of cards. I was often lost in the book’s epic relationships and murky details, in the same way that visitors to Edgewood become lost within its endless corridors and transient doorways. I don’t think I could say what the Tale exactly was, what fairies are, or who won the final battle. This thin veil between knowing and not knowing seemed natural, deliberate, and inevitable with a book whose subtle magic lies in leaving patterns half-obscured and cataclysms unrealized. Harold Bloom is right. It is a tale that requires multiple readings, whose story lines will alternately disappear, expand, and fluctuate with each return. But I think I will wait to come home from dusty Windhoek, where I first met this book, until I can sit down in the enclosure of a deep American winter to return, by foot, to Little, Big. By then, my endless summer will be a myth. A report, a rumor. Not to be believed in. Bonus Link: Celebrating the anniversary of Little, Big
● ● ●
The book opens with a story about a woman's ritual of ordering the same cake to mark her dead son's birthday year after year, and closes with a story with a woman discovering the body of the first woman's son. Somewhere in between these bookends, the work morphs into a metafictional ghost story.
Diane Williams’ latest collection of stories, Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty, is a slender volume, whose small width, girth, and abundant white space would lure even the most timid reader. Weary of long-term commitments? By all appearances, Williams’s book beckons and says enter. Come sit with stories that begin halfway down the page and run over to the next, and seldom stretch beyond that. The author greets the reader before the stories begin, not with a quote to demonstrate erudition, but rather with a signal that all’s clear: “Perfectly safe; go ahead.” This is the first hint that something is off kilter. If you abide by the tropes of American horror film, this is the cue to shut the cover and run for the hills. But, of course, from a reader’s perspective, the implication that things may get hairy only heightens the intrigue. Williams’ book, like her stories, aren’t obvious. Had she written, “Danger ahead!” her point would be overstated. Instead we’re given the hint that we’re entering territory where the ground might unexpectedly shift, where anything might occur. Williams’ stories are sly little creatures who thrive in domestic settings; they are fixated on food, fucks, illness, and death, and the peculiarities of social interaction. The characters who inhabit these stories often appear curiously, media res. Introductions include a woman admitting she’s fallen in love with her neighbor, a mother accusing her daughter of thinking herself a do-gooder, a crestfallen man searching for a better belt buckle, a woman seeking the services of a man with a habit of sharpening knives. And while these acts sound fairly insignificant when rattled off like this in a list, in Williams’ stories the significance of each action is anchored and amplified. That neighbor? Neither woman can get his penis to do anything. “Do-gooder” becomes a slur in the mother’s mouth. The man who sharpens knives? Despite his humility (about the superior state of his lawn), and his kindness (leaving Band-aids with the knives he services), he dies. With these contortions, Williams reveals the essential strangeness in the the everyday. Getting one’s nails done or running into a recently divorced acquaintance at the grocery store provide windows that open to a larger world of human desire, disappointment, and misunderstanding. The recent divorcee is recognized with delay -- “They had been the Crossticks!” -- the narrator suddenly realizes, as if she’d know him in an instant, if he were with his wife. The encounters are estranged from their everyday backdrops, and this perspective sears through habituation. It’s a wake-up call to the way we accrue so many details that blunt our recognition of the peculiarities of existence. In life we often hit cruise control to make sure we arrive at to our next destination. This might make us more functional human beings, but it also dulls our perception. We can’t escape eccentricity, but we can become habituated to it, which is one of Michael Martone’s points in his introductory essay to Not Normal, Illinois, a collection edited by Martone that features stories written by native midwesterners, including Rikki Ducornet, Laird Hunt, Ander Monson, Deb Olin Unferth, Steve Tomasula, and Diane Williams. How bizarre that the state of Illinois, and specifically a city named Normal, home to Illinois State University, has been such a hotbed of experimental and avant-garde fiction. Both The Dalkey Archive and FC2 presses have at some point called Normal home. David Foster Wallace taught at Illinois State, and former FC2 managing director Curtis White still does. Is this merely happenstance? Martone says no, and pinpoints this prolific outpouring as a distinctly regional reaction to the “normalcy” of midwestern culture. He states, “The midwesterners have been normal for so long that it seems normal that they are this way, and the details of normalcy, the construction of what is normal, becomes so, well, normal as to be a cunning transparent disguise. These stories are designed, then, to defamiliarize us to us. By design, they are made to make you see, really see, the things you take for granted all the time for the very first time again.” Diane Williams is definitely an author who, as a good Russian Formalist might say, defamiliarizes. Her stories are distorted mirrors of domesticity, not because they skew the world but because they provide a magnified lens through which we can see what’s always been present but generally escapes notice. This happens quite literally, in the story “This Has to Be the Best.” The narrator goes to a sex shop, greets a familiar saleswoman, but the saleswoman exclaims, “I have never seen you before in my life!” The narrator dismisses this lack of recognition as a result of poor lighting. Does she truly not look herself? Does the saleswoman suffer from prosopagnosia? Is there some ulterior motive? We’re left to wonder. And yet, we’ve all been on one side of this kind of interaction, either failing to remember a face, or encountering an acquaintance who has no recollection of meeting us before. Williams is also masterful at orchestrating exquisite contrasts, such as in the story “Glee.” If one forgets for a moment the popular television show, the title conjures good feeling, and begins: “We have a drink of coffee and a Danish and it has this, what we call -- grandmother cough-up -- a bright yellow filling. The project is to resurrect glee. This is the explicit reason I get on a bus and go to an area where I do this and have a black coffee.” It’s not joy, but glee that the narrator has lost and seeks to recapture, by way of coffee and a danish with custard like cough-up and conversation with this friend. Williams strings words in a way that thrills the ear. The syntactic play within the sentences shouldn’t be underestimated in providing their own form of readerly delight. Here the sentence riffs on the repetition of the hard "e" combined with the resonance of coffee and cough-up. And yet disgust is served alongside this happiness, a joyful meeting over grandmother’s cough-up? Such specificity brings forth abstracted feelings. When the narrator in "Glee" later turns on the television, and watches a show where a suitor proposes marriage and is turned down, the narrator thinks, “when something momentous occurs, I am glad to say there is a sense of crisis.” The sense of catharsis received from watching someone else’s staged tragedy heightens a sense that something of significance is occurring even if this isn’t the case, and Williams captures this sentiment oh so succinctly. As readers we are twice removed, making this a meta-commentary on the role that stories play in our own lives. Throughout Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty, there’s a pervasive fear of disappearance and self-ablation; a character fears being forgotten, a daughter and husband disappear, and yet another character cancels her own appearance. We exit, however, with an awareness of Williams’ authorial wand waving over the dark linguistic matter as she acts as the conduit through which these words and images appear: “The star! The cross! The Square! A single sign shows the tendency. Can people avoid disaster? Yes. I leave my readers to draw their own conclusions.” Williams’ endings often leave the reader with more questions than conclusions, and yet it’s this openness that allows her stories to inhabit dimensions of experience far vaster than their petite packaging would suggest. Even without the cameo appearances by the character “Diane Williams,” it’s unlikely that anyone who’s attempted to tease apart a handful of Williams’ stories will forget her linguistic precision, the ways she whittles sentences into solid gems, or her wonderfully strange way of seeing.
● ● ●
● ● ●