In her short story collections, Escapes (1990) and Honored Guest (2005), Joy Williams explores loss in provocative and disturbing ways, exploring suburban dystopia through strained human relationships. Her stories address in between spaces: spaces between question and answer, possession and loss, and life and death. As I reread her work, I noticed some ways in which she investigated and defined these liminal spaces through her emotionally intense narratives:
1) In Williams’ stories, things that used to be sacred are destroyed, creating a void of meaning. By building meaning around these voids, Williams allows these absences breath through her narration. In “The Skater”, the narrator depicts a young girl observing her parents on an ice rink alone, grappling with the loss of their daughter (her sister):
From a window, Molly sees her father on the ice. After a moment, she sees her mother moving toward him, not skating, but slipping forward, making her way. She sees their heavy awkward shapes embrace.
Molly sees them, already remembering it.
As Molly watches her mother “slipping forward”, trying to approach her father, the physically hard-to-navigate ice represents the mentally even harder-to-navigate loss of a child. The parents’ awkward embrace shows their struggle to find closure in a dystopian suburbia; the lack of reconciliation creates an emptiness around which Williams creates the story.
2) Asymmetrical comparisons reveal provocative truths. Williams’ short story “Congress” deals with an unhappy marriage, a brain injury, student-teacher relationships, taxidermy, hunting, spectatorship, and deep existential questions, all in 20 pages. All these things are asymmetrical, and resist comparison and interconnection– yet Williams pursues the connections, creating a network of strange parallels that draw the readers attention to the reality of strains and disconnections. By comparing things that are, by nature, difficult to compare, Williams draws her readers’ attention to the omissions and silences that take place in the world.
3) People speak past each other, not to each other. Williams writes dialogue which sounds pedestrian and believable, but if you take a closer look, you notice that characters speak around ideas and past each other, not directly. This kind of “speaking past” can be seen in Williams’ short story, “The Little Winter,” in a conversation between a child, Gwendal, and Gloria, a woman dying from a brain tumor:
“You drink too much,” Gwendal said. “You’re always drinking something.”
This hurt Gloria’s feelings. “‘I’m dying,” she said. “I have a brain tumor. I can do what I want.”
This exchange is asymmetrical. Gloria’s rebuttal doesn’t correspond to Gwendal’s accusation, but it comes close. Because of that, it gives the reader the illusion that she is directly answering Gwendal, even though she’s changing the subject. Gloria, too, thinks she is providing a direct answer to what she believes Gwendal wants to know, adding another layer of complication. This dialogue reveals information about the space in between the accusation and rebuttal.
Williams creates spatial agency by bringing together very different people, concepts, and objects around these in between spaces, both to coexist and communicate. These coexistences constantly approach reconciliation, but never quite reach it. In the end, the reader is left to find his or her own sense of reconciliation.