IIn a bowling alley somewhere in post-apocalyptic rural America, a 10-year-old scholar celebrates his birthday. His mother chose this moment to tell him, via the unusual method of rendering a murder scene as icing on her cake, that her father killed his grandfather. The baker, however, got it wrong and garnished the cake with an edible version of Saturn devouring his son Goya., an image so disturbing that it leads the child to wonder about his own existence. “Saturn”, a guest at the party usefully informs him, “represents Time, which, with its voracious appetite for life, devours all its creations”. Later, we’ll learn that bowling never existed, and some or all of these characters may very well be dead.
Welcome, if you’ve never been here before, to the world of Joy Williams – widely praised, unfortunately not as widely read. My dazzling vintage 2001 The Quick and the Dead paperback contains admiring quotes from Don DeLillo, Raymond Carver and Bret Easton Ellis, but in the UK it is hopelessly out of print. The Williams 2015 News Collection The Visiting Privilege was hailed by all who read it as a major literary event, but it took the tiny Tuskar Rock imprint to bring it to the UK market.
At first glance, Harrow, her first novel in over 20 years, seems unlikely to broaden its audience. That’s not to say the book isn’t brilliant – it is. It’s just that Williams didn’t make any concessions; it remains wonderfully and resolutely itself. What might be a little different, however, is the world in which her work emerges and the reality that she so boldly alchemizes in her vision.
Attempting to give an overview of this novel sounds exactly like the kind of misguided effort Williams would despise, but let me give it a try. Harrow takes place in the near indefinite future in which the global environmental situation has gone from a “point that people thought would last forever” to total catastrophe. Khristen, the not quite central character in the novel, died briefly as a baby, or so his mother adamantly believes, and may never have fully returned. After the disaster, in the middle of hallucinatory terrain which may or may not be a beyond, she finds herself at the Institute, where a cowardly collective of geriatric terrorists “in poor health but with the heart of a suicide bomber” plots missions suicides targeting vivisectionists and pesticide vendors. in the hope that it will “refresh, with insane violence, a plundered land”.
The Williams method is a method of contiguity rather than linearity. Language, not narrative, is connective tissue. To read it is to be thrown in all directions: from the deep spiritual to the ridiculously bizarre. One minute we observe “unprepared souls, moments from the clarity of their death.” Next we are invited to consider the condition of a very old man’s penis: “She wondered if his penis was as shredded, nibbled and nicked as the rest of him or whether it was hanging down wonderfully, incredibly smooth and distant.” , his oak head. “
Each sentence is shot in elegant and surprising perfection. In bowling, serious bowlers “took the rest of their poses for a vanity of time.” A crashing car flies away “like a crumpled Kleenex in a cement utility pole through which it has been trepanned with sparkling efficiency.” A salesperson is so talented that he “might sell a doberman a shock collar.” Even seemingly flippant sentences shine with wit. Admire if you want the sung perfection of “Eddie Fucking Emerald offed by a grass in a Caddy”.
Focusing on our collective complacency and denial, Williams is both ironic and ruthless, bemoaning “twelve lane highways with bicycle surcharges” and people “who think they can still save the earth by crushing modest nuts or beans for a pancake meal “. Pre-collapse environment lecture includes lecture titled The Potentiality of Landscape Emptiness: The Integrity of Half-Measures. A television channel only broadcasts minutes of silence.
“We all lead three lives,” says Khristen. “The true, the false, and the one we are unaware of.” This life we are not aware of is Williams’ big topic. It peels away the visible and the known, revealing the death and chaos below. While walking through a bird rescue center, Khristen comes across “an old oil barrel, overflowing with amputated wings.” A grove of trees is “surprisingly green and freshly pleasant, except for the bundles of meat thrown into it.” What appears to be a live broadcast of a nesting bird is actually a recording, the bird having flown in a truck long ago.
Part of what makes Williams’ work so unsettling is that the agency is almost irrelevant. Navigating a world that makes no sense, his characters are lost and bewildered, their actions and ideas meaningless. These are people who “suspected they were meant to be more or different but groped in the smoky light of half-realized lives.” With free will in question and the boundaries between life and death or reality and illusion almost blurring, individuality itself begins to unravel. “Each person,” Williams tells us, “considered themselves unique as snowflakes, but overall they were a blizzard, a veil of swirling expectation and denial.”
In his remarkable Hawk essay, on a beloved dog who inexplicably attacks him, Williams writes: “The experience is fundamentally illusory. When we experience pain or emotional grief, it feels like everything that happens in life is unreal. And that’s a good understanding of life. Harrow reminds us that in the aftermath of climate collapse, trauma and grief are the condition of our collective existence. As our world disintegrates, it will take with it what we consider to be reality. Addressing this in fiction will be the work, in part, of some type of modern mystic. Williams – a great virtuoso of the unreal – is one of them.