Even My Hair Feels Drunk

Adam Mars-Jones

  • The Visiting Privilege by Joy Williams
    Tuskar Rock, 490 pp, £16.99, November 2016, ISBN 978 1 78125 746 3
  • Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams
    Tin House, 220 pp, £16.95, July 2016, ISBN 978 1 941040 35 5

Hard to imagine a brisker, bleaker opening than this one from the title story of Joy Williams’s 2004 collection, Honoured Guest:

She had been having a rough time of it and thought about suicide sometimes, but suicide was so corny in the eleventh grade and you had to be careful about this because two of her classmates had committed suicide the year before and between them they left 24 suicide notes and had become just a joke. They had left the notes everywhere and they were full of misspellings and pretensions.

Helen’s mother has a terminal illness – no wonder Helen is ‘having a rough time of it’. Mother and daughter alternate between considerateness and bickering, confrontation with what is happening and evasion of it.

The mother’s dog gets the mourning for his mistress in early:

The dog had begun growling at her. It was a secret growl; he never did it in front of anyone else. He had taken to carrying one of her slippers around with him. He was almost never without it. He cherished her slipper …

There were only so many dogs in a person’s life and this was the last one in hers. She’d like to kick him. But he had changed when she’d gotten sick, he hadn’t been like this before. He was bewildered. He didn’t like it – death – either. She felt sorry for him. She went back into her bedroom and he followed her with the slipper.

There’s any amount of exact notation here of the way death, as it approaches, changes everything and nothing. Helen sends off for recordings of the music that will be needed for the funeral service – Verdi, Scriabin. Her mother nags her to have her hair cut, something Helen dislikes, but it’s hard to oppose the blackmail of ‘Can’t you do anything for me?’ The dying woman feels time as an active force: ‘It seemed more expectant than ever. One couldn’t satisfy it, one could never do enough for it.’ She lets one of her carers take the dog, a less traumatic move in her lifetime than the same change made posthumously. Less traumatic for the dog but not perhaps for the daughter. She loves Helen but can be vague about her – a daring touch – though she has no difficulty in remembering the dog’s birthday: ‘It was the girl who loved to iron. She’d iron anything. What’s-her-name.’ Yet there’s also a complex undermining going on, very characteristic of Williams, of the story she seems to have chosen to tell. She’s an unusually conflicted Penelope, fingers itching to set about the unweaving of her web.

The mother’s name, for a start, is Lenore, and therefore, thanks to two famous poems by Edgar Allan Poe (the name features in ‘The Raven’ as well as ‘Lenore’ itself), steeped in death as a set of literary conventions, something that happens in books. The associations are all the stronger for not being commented on – there’s no weary acknowledgment of her parents’ love of Edgar Allen Poe. The arbitrarily invoked Gothic strain is taken fairly far: ‘Sometimes in the night she would call out this name, her own, “Lenore!” in a strong urgent voice, and Helen in her own room would shudder and cry a little.’ Then there are heightened coincidences, with Lenore dreaming of getting a full-body tattoo, and Helen dreaming that her mother wants to be tattooed all over, ‘but no one would do it’. In waking life Lenore suggests they both have tattoos, small ones (‘I think you’ll be glad later’), but the plan founders when it turns out the only tattooist willing to make house calls won’t work on drunks or the dying. It doesn’t occur to Lenore to lie.

When Helen reluctantly goes to the hairdresser she finds herself in the hands of Mickey, a crimper who proclaims herself one-18th Ainu (how ‘one-18th?’), and launches into a set speech, ten lines long, about the Ainu tradition of treating a bear as an ‘honoured guest’, according it human status and then ritually slaughtering it. Texturally this is at odds with the rest of the story; thematically it fits almost too well. What to make of such an interposition? The short story form is well suited to provocation and extremity: Shirley Jackson’s horror story ‘The Lottery’, published in the New Yorker in 1948, got the biggest postal response in the magazine’s history, while readers of Flannery O’Connor’s short fiction – whose Catholic agenda could hardly be fiercer – are familiar with the feeling of being tied to the tracks while the Redemption Express thunders round the bend. What makes Williams unusual is that she plays a double game, giving precise directions – then rolling boulders down onto you as you follow them.

Williams’s stories, which have been published since the early 1970s, have always contained an element of refusal, but in the work reprinted here from her first collection, Taking Care (1982), the refusal comes early and in a way that rules out much emotional involvement. Motivation is attenuated or omitted. In ‘Preparation for a Collie’, for instance, a young family seems resolved to dispose of their dog, for no particular reason except to ‘simplify their life’. The boy, David, of kindergarten age, can hardly share this hope but makes no plea in the animal’s favour: ‘The dog has crammed itself behind the pipes beneath the kitchen sink. David squats before him, blowing gently on his nose. The dog thumps his tail on the linoleum. “We’re getting rid of you, you know,” David says.’ Perhaps he thinks it’s a game his parents are playing, and perhaps it is, since they reject all applicants, including a woman who gets her little daughter to display an injury in the hope of changing their mind: ‘The girl rolls up the sleeve of her shirt. Her arm is a mess, complexly rearranged, a yellow matted wrinkle of scar tissue.’ They claim to want a good home for the dog, but this desire is expressed rather sardonically: ‘Where will he inspire the most contentment and where will he find canine fulfilment?’ There is certainly some resentment being projected on the dog (drain cleaner is added to his hamburger at one point), possibly because the wife ‘brought him with her into this marriage, along with her Mexican bowls and something blue’ – but that was years ago, and there’s a forced quality to the story’s mystery.

The protagonists of the early stories can seem to have had their characters blurred or hollowed out, so that experiences conventionally regarded as unforgettable make no impression. The main character of ‘The Lover’ (unnamed like a number of others in the early stories – including that collie) is only 25, and not long divorced, but she ‘cannot remember the man who used to be her husband. He was probably nice. She will tell the child this, at any rate.’ Her amnesia isn’t straightforwardly self-protective, since one of the things she does remember is her husband saying, when she was in hospital to give birth: ‘Now you are going to have to learn to love something, you wicked woman.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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