The Stories in Diane Williams’ Latest Collection, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine Don’t Resemble The…
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What to make of a Diane Williams story? They don’t resemble other stories, though some of the ones in NOON come close. NOON is a literary annual that regularly features a cabal of out-there authors; contributors include Lydia Davis, Rebecca Curtis, Tao Lin, and Sam Lipsyte. Williams just so happens to be NOON’s architect, purportedly editing each issue with slicing-dicing verve. (“Clancy Martin and I now laugh about how she will take forty pages of writing and slash it down to two pages,” Deb Olin Unferth has said, sounding like every other NOON writer. Unsurprisingly, Williams was a student of Gordon Lish.) The result makes NOON one of the only lit mags whose every issue is worth reading cover-to-cover.
The stories — NOON’s and Williams’ own — are weird, elliptical little gems. They — Williams’ especially — seem designed to confound. So yes, the stories in Williams’ new collection, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine don’t resemble other stories. They are governed by a free-associative logic. They are replete with non-sequiturs and ungainly phrasing, and they revel in uncanny banalities. Of the 40, three or four edge close to 1000 words; most are half that, or shorter. They eschew the conventional pleasures of literature: narrative and character development, as well as the insights they provide.
And I must confess, though I just finished the book, I don’t recall much of what happens in it, nor. The stories take the form of a fleeting thought, and who remembers each thought that passes by? What sticks in the mind are the sentences.
Williams’ sentences have an unpremeditated quality, the kind indicative of laborious craft. Look at the harried opening of “Cinch.”
My back started killing me and Tamara asked what else did I want and why?
Oddly, she was suddenly unenthusiastic about me and she revealed resentment, of all things, and possibilities for her revenge.
But how busy I was! — building the twelve-by-sixteen rec room at the rear of the house.
Punctuation’s deployed in manner akin to musical notation, rather than as a tool for syntactic clarity. The first sentence does not have commas and periods where it should; there’s just that incorrect question mark at the end. It disorients but still gives the sentence a rather clear tempo. And the second and third lines defy the half-baked dictums everyone hears in freshman writing seminars: instead of using adverbs and exclamation points sparingly, she puts two adverbs at the front of one sentence and an exclamation point in the middle of the other. When the style works, as I think it does here, it’s sort of brilliantly awkward. It sounds like someone thinking to herself.
Often these stories are awkward in another way. Williams excels at the comedy of inconsequence, uncovering humor in the inane not through exaggeration or cloying commentary, but by mere presentation, as in the drolly repetitive party dialogue in “People of the Week.”
“I didn’t think you even knew what Ethelind looked like.”
“I saw her up front. I thought you saw her. Let’s go see Tim.”
“I don’t want to see Tim. Why would I want to see Tim? Who is Anita? I want to thank Anita.”
“Dale, is that you?” a woman called. It was Tim who turned, thinking someone had mistaken him for Dale.
The damage from that misunderstanding was irremeable…
Many acolytes of Williams are aficionados of the sentence. Indeed, she has cultivated a singular style, and the brevity of her stories serves to highlight that style, but it is so potent that it might distract a reader from what she’s doing to narrative.
A Diane Williams story resembles a story as it exists in the mind at the moment it reifies from abstract brain activity into concrete language. Her stories — events, “slices of life,” human things — are free from the interlocutor of literary convention. They are just being, and they are about just being. Williams shows what it is to be a woman, to be a wife, to be bored in a roomful of strangers, to be bowled over by despair. If I asked you, “What is it to be walking down the street?” something like the story “Personal Details” might roil in your mind before you can spit out an answer.
This is an interesting narrative project, and when it’s paired with the unwieldy precision of her sentences, along with volume after excellent volume of NOON, you begin to apprehend the unique contours of the space in literature Diane Williams has carved out for herself.
Art is, among other things, an expression of individuality. It is a stepping forth from the crowd. And one of the hallmarks of a great artist is that you sense no one could else could’ve produced her work. This admirable idiosyncrasy is how Williams gets away with something like “The Skol,” my favorite story in the book, reproduced below in its entirety.
In the ocean, Mrs. Clavey decided to advance on foot at shoulder-high depth. A tiny swallow of the water coincided with her deliberation. It tasted like a cold, salted variety of her favorite payang congou tea. She didn’t intend to drink more, but she did drink — more.
Who else would have chosen such an unsettlingly formal tone? Rather rather than telling a story, she relays information.
Who else would have compared the ocean’s taste to payang congou tea, the soothing stillness of the drink at odds with the force of the ocean, the Chinese words at odds with the English, all dissonance?
Who else would have used that dash there at the end, an awful final flourish, stuck in like a pin between your ribs?
Click here to read a story, “To Revive a Person Is No Slight Thing,” from Diane Williams’ collection as part of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading.