The Collected Stories of Diane Williams

Image of The Collected Stories of Diane Williams
Release Date: 
October 1, 2018
Soho Press
Reviewed by: 

Diane Williams’ work represents a genuine avant-garde in American short fiction. A longtime editor of experimental short fiction through her literary annual NOON, Williams has unerringly identified brilliant, often brutal work and published it. Her own stories, evolving since her first collection was published in 1990, represent the eerie, damaged rivers lurking just beneath American middle-class serenity.

The Collected Stories is massive, almost 800 pages long. (Only the last 16 stories are new.) The book’s scale is all the more daunting when you consider that William’s stories border on micro-fiction: most are only a page or two long. The result is a book like a universe, in which every turn of the page reveals another possible version of the truth, as damaged as the version before, but both subtly and profoundly different from it.

Williams’ early stories already struggle against the label of “story,” but they still carry the elements of the genre: plot and characters, narrative leading to a climax. The book’s opening story, “Lady,” moves like a limping serial killer, addressing the world through warped but still-recognizable eyes: “Her skin was a bleak sort of skin, and there was no beauty left in her—maybe in her body.” But from that brief, sharp story, the first sequence moves into unstable glances at desire and violence. Dinner parties’ elegance cracks at the first clink of a knife. Sex breaks bodies open.

The book shows Williams’ experimental progress. She moves from sharp-edged micro-fiction into a realm beyond the borders of “story.” Some pieces, like “Naaa,” smirk at the borders they cross: “Here’s where the plot is thickening. Here’s the plot: When the baby was stung, at first no one was sure what had happened, but then the mother said, ‘His arm is getting all pink.’ Not to go on and on. . . .” Narrators speak in the voices of people recounting anecdotes in stilted conversation, but they speak through the mouths of bodies which have been stripped of their skin and used as puppets. It’s not that something is wrong; it’s that everything is very wrong.

In this skinless country, the reader is tempted to surrender all rules of fiction. Why should she read the pages in order? Will she devour the book instead of reading it? But the stories have insidious ties to one another. They hiss when disrespected.

Collected Stories offers Williams works up in a deliberate order: chronologically, by collection. The book titles, left in the pages like vestigial chapters, offer navigational clues. Yet clues can only carry a reader so far. The last 16 pieces in the book are new; the rest is a compendium of Williams’ career to date, and the themes that might have bound a smaller book together snap when asked to contain a mountain of micro-fiction.

Exhaustion sets in. Williams’ stories are enchanting in small doses, but the sheer mass of this book devours human attention without yielding up the revelation that surely (surely!) must lurk just beneath the surface. Such brief, odd stories must be Zen koans! If we struggle with them, will they reveal their secrets?

They will not. Williams’ works wear masks: short story, flash fiction, micro-fiction, deliberately difficult poem. Yet even difficult poems yield up meaning to the dedicated reader. Collected Stories mocks persistence.

Writers seeking to crack the shell of quotidian reality might dive into this book. There are wonders to be found. But the fact that the collection is introduced by Ben Marcus is a sign: Beyond this point lies deliberate obscurity, difficulty created for its own sake. A little is delicious, a necessary palate-cleanser, but beyond that is a feast of the flesh of the mind, devouring itself and yielding up disorientation and the blank continuity of the lobotomized: everything is here except the human.