99 Stories of God by Joy Williams
During the summer of 2011, I attended the Tin House Writer's Workshop in Portland, Oregon. Upon "his" return in 2010, my literary hero, Alan Heathcock (Volt), told me, "Whatever you do, you have to go to Tin House. And you have to work with Joy Williams." I had never heard of Williams until I met Heathcock, who talked wildly about her short story, "Winter's Chemistry" from Taking Care. After reading this "chilling" story for myself, I heeded Heathcock's advice and applied to the workshop.
Upon acceptance to Tin House, I made a call to the director of the workshop, Lance Cleland. He asked who I wanted to work with -- who was my first choice?
Byliner recently released Williams' first book in nearly a decade, 99 Stories of God. How does one write about their literary heroine? What words does one use to write about the empress of words? Who am I to write anything when Williams writing, in its venerable state, needs no promotion?
I hope you'll indulge me.
At the end of each story I found myself totally gobsmacked, in the best possible way -- the stories in God begin numerically, but end penultimate to the very (revelatory) "titles" in the collection.
"After the taping, the humanist/scholar, whose name was Charles Thaxter Ormand, the acronym of which, in the ever-evolving and vibrant field of text messaging, would be check this out... " This is Williams, punctuating her writing with humor, poking fun at a linguistic trend. She doesn't stop there. At the height of Williams's sense of humor in all of God is the subject, the Lord himself. Williams has a knack for taking life's most precarious moments and prodding them for laughs. Author Karen Russell (Swamplandia!) said, "Unlike any other writer I know, she can render the interior slide from grief to strange cravings to jokey observations to superstitious fears, all in the span of a single paragraph, or even a sentence."
On my first day at Tin House (and during cocktail hour), I anxiously asked Williams what she was reading/what I should be reading. Don DeLillo's Point Omega, she told me. This past fall I was reminded of Williams' recommendation in a class on postmodern literature in which my fellow students and I read DeLillo's most acclaimed novel, White Noise. After reading Williams' story "Aubade," which takes its smooth title from the word meaning "a piece sung or played outdoors at dawn, usually as a compliment to someone"; I couldn't help but be reminded of DeLillo's scholar in Noise. At the workshop Williams spoke fondly of DeLillo on more than one occasion. Could this be Williams's very own compliment or "piece sung" to DeLillo? The distinct parallels between the existential crises of both scholars (in both texts) are (I'm sure) entirely unrelated. My interpretation, entirely self-indulgent.
In "The Sword of Damocles," Anthony Doerr (The Shell Collector, Memory Wall), explains that "through story, we humans make attempts, several times a day, to connect with one another." When I read Williams I connect, simply put. She has, in some way, articulated my own anxiety about God in God. My religious baggage, as reader, is always in tow.
In God, Williams "transcends the barriers" between writer and reader, baring a bit of her soul and some of her own apprehensions about the Almighty. She writes in story 49, "One should not define God in human language nor anthropomorphize that which is ineffable and indescribable. We can only know what God is not, not what God is." The story is entitled, "Naked Mind." In it there are no characters, only the narrator, the "one" and the "we." "We," she writes, "can never speak about God rationally as we speak about ordinary things, but that does not mean we should give up thinking about God." This story - these stories -- read almost as scripture. Would I be less consumed in my own menial culpability had I attended the Williams school of thought -- "Sunday School" for the skeptic? For Williams's divine inspiration steers both reader and believer to question. Williams is both writer and prophetess.
Back in 2010, as I was preparing to apply to the Tin House Writer's Workshop, I stood in front of a classroom, teaching from Taking Care. I was a petrified newbie. I had no idea what I was even saying, and mostly no business saying it. I had students in a twirl -- a dance with both their own words and Williams. But I'll never forget the impact of Williams's words on the students -- on me! Impenetrable as they seemed, they also seemed to bow to capacity of language. As I have been blessed by Williams's instruction, so, too, have her students been blessed. There exists a humanity in her use of language that is startling - not just in God -- but in everything that she writes. Williams once wrote, "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 that knows us." I'd say that Williams knows the writer, the reader, that Williams -- and her words -- knows us.