Joy Williams is late to the post-apocalyptic party

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No critic can resist her shades. The Paris Review: “Joy Williams couldn’t find her glasses before a lecture some years ago and used prescription sunglasses instead.” First Things: “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.” Bookforum: “Joy Williams wears sunglasses day and night. She does not own a computer and she corresponds by postcard.” The New York Times: “The sunglasses seem like an act of disregard for everyday comfort, an eccentricity that makes everyone else uneasy but Williams more secure.” Ploughshares: “It occurs to me that Joy Williams in her sunglasses might be a walking metaphor. It occurs to me that in Williams’s world, God is also wearing a pair of mirrored sunglasses.” The Wichita Eagle: “This method of being engaged but obscured seems an apt description of her writing.”

Harrow, by Joy Williams. Knopf, 224 pp., $26.

Joy Williams is 77 years old. An environmental advocate, she has spent an enviable amount of time outdoors. She enjoys cross-country drives. Her father was a congregational minister, but she is, by her account, far too shy for that kind of public speaking. Given all this, are the shades really so mysterious? Far from making everyone else uneasy, they offer reassurance, disguising Williams as a familiar figure, the quirky tough-old-broad literary icon. She wears Chuck Taylors, too.

The shades are the least interesting thing about Williams but the most telling preoccupation of her cult fandom. James Wood, the rare critic to write about Williams without logging this fashion tic, called her work “easy to enjoy and harder to absorb.” She is a “vibe” or even a “whole mood.” Her celebrated short stories and novels are, like Flannery O’Connor’s, heavy on deadpan humor and unforgettable grotesques, so that many readers will fall in love with them without registering their essentially religious or philosophical bent. We call her inimitable, even as her most imitable qualities are blown across the literary landscape as wantonly as dandelion pappi.

Williams is known primarily as a master of the short story, though she has produced as many novels (five) as short story collections. Probably this is because the startling or at least startlingly utilized scenarios in her stories become the stuff of zany picaresque when strung together at length. A novel like The Quick and the Dead (2000), in which three motherless teenage girls, one of them a budding eco-terrorist, have misadventures in the Texas desert, can feel as aimlessly episodic as Charles Portis’s Norwood or Tom McGuane’s The Bushwhacked Piano. Like those cult favorites, The Quick and the Dead is delightful but wrought with less economy and control than the best of Williams’s stories.

Cult novels tend to age badly. They set out like three boisterous children stacked inside a trenchcoat and end up just a trenchcoat discarded in the weeds, a striking cut but long out of fashion. Williams’s new novel, Harrow, her first since The Quick and the Dead, feels thus fated. Its rapturous reception is understandable, given the long wait and Williams’s well-deserved reputation, but it’s hard to imagine many readers revisiting it after the collective reverie has subsided. Harrow is another plotless picaresque, but it’s also a post-apocalyptic plotless picaresque. Here is a genre so overworked that not even Williams can save it from exhaustion.

Harrow has much in common with The Quick and the Dead and shares elements with some of Williams’s stories. Again we have a precocious girl, the keen observer, the Dante to whom every other character must play Virgil. Her name is Khristen or “Lamb.” She is endowed with cod-mystical significance; her mother believes, against credible medical opinion, that the girl died briefly as a baby and came back to life. Williams has used this mythopoeic tidbit before, in her short story “Train,” but it is less interesting this time. We are in the realm of the quest, where heavy symbolism is to be expected. Evil stalks the land, in the form not of a black plague or blacker magic but rather an ecological devastation that is more hinted at than described. Again, eco-terrorism is in the offing, but if the world is over, then the stakes must be something less tangible than saving the planet — something like spiritual salvation.

No two apocalyptic visions are quite alike, but as with snowflakes, one quickly tires of playing “spot the differences.” Harrow, with its disjointed narrative and poetically irradiated language, feels at first like Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, a true masterpiece in a language entirely its own. Harrow’s fantasy of a repurposed school-cum-hotel, a retreat for survivors and reluctant visionaries, recalls Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins. Its ecological consciousness, its sensitivity to an inexorably changing climate, feels like a fanboat cruise through J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World. As picaresque, it’s a sophisticated answer to The Walking Dead. Fine, up to a point, but it hurts to say of a Williams book that it feels uncharacteristically derivative.

The problem is that post-apocalyptic, dystopian, and cli-fi literature is now as common as kudzu — it can’t help feeling derivative. Nor can it help feeling awfully like young adult fare. There is something inherently juvenile about doomsday certainties, the belief that things have never been, and could never recover from being, quite this bad. That Williams doesn’t really share these beliefs is evident in the fact that Harrow never tells you what went wrong. But she is working in a genre that has grown too brittle and formulaic to support weighty ambiguities. It’s comfortably edgy, like an old woman who refuses to take her sunglasses off.

Williams does, however, devoutly believe that we must be stewards of our physical world, communicants in a sacred order that we tamper with at our peril. That it may survive our tampering is beside the point. Here a medical advance is described as an absurd violation of nature and thus a suitable target for terrorist violence:

They’re harvesting wombs from brain-dead donors to have on hand for uterine transplants. Fertility doctors want to offer their patients more opportunities. They’re inspired by those women who want the experience of pregnancy even if they have to borrow a dead girl’s womb. Another remarkable example of civilization unraveled, in irreversible decline. By hitting a bunch of womb storage facilities Grayson will be sideswiping at least one aspect of the irresponsible future.

When Williams rails against, say, the ubiquity of advertising, we feel at ease. When she mentions ads plastered on windmill blades, we think of a grotesque shopping trip in White Noise or of Infinite Jest’s corporate-sponsored calendar years. When Williams makes one of her characters direct this contempt at a fertility treatment, we’re in more exotic and puzzling spiritual territory. Is the problem that we seek to control nature, or is it simply that we’re making too many human beings? “The underlying assumption in giving blood,” one character thinks, “was that the invisible ones, the unknown ones who received it, were necessary. But that was a false assumption. They were not necessary. No one was necessary.”

At its strongest and strangest, Harrow is unmistakably the work of the Williams who wrote such numinous, unsettling stories as “Taking Care,” “Marabou,” and “Brass.” But Williams is too late to the post-apocalyptic party. Nothing in the public’s masochistic appetite for doomsday stories can be squared with its tireless pursuit of individual recognition, status, and power. We perform our pious climate anxiety while enacting private fantasies, abetted by books such as Harrow, about being the special, gifted, chosen observer, the one who bears witness to catastrophe without bearing responsibility for it. In a demystified world, faced with one’s own transience and insignificance, the end of the world isn’t a tragedy. For many, it’s a guilty relief.

Stefan Beck is a writer living in Hudson, New York.

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Tags: Books, Book Reviews, Fiction, science fiction, Climate Change

Original Author: Stefan Beck

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