More than any other writer today, Diane Williams understands the essentially tragicomic nature of the penis, human or otherwise. The penises in her very short stories never do what they are supposed to be doing, which is, in a word, fucking; or, rather, fucking well, fucking artistically. “His penis was sticking itself in between her breasts, as if a button were being pushed,” Williams observes in “A Contribution to the Theory of Sex,” the one-page story of a man or boy named Danny Ketchem and a female called—improbably—Nancy Drew. Like most of Williams’s stories, there’s only the suggestion of a plot, and the characters are barely sketched. “It is immaterial who she is,” the narrator insists of Nancy Drew. “She could be his wife, his mother, his daughter, his best woman friend, these, or any combination of these, or add in any other female you can think of that she could be.” Whatever the precise configuration of their relationship, Danny “was bound to get confused” about Nancy’s experience of his penis.
Males like Danny Ketchem, with their absurdly specific names, with their penises sticking in or out or jerking up and down like windshield wipers, frequently enter The Collected Stories of Diane Williams and withdraw with a dumb sense of self-regard; the females work hard to redeem their intrusions. “She will be encouraged when he plugs up her awry anus with his straight penis,” observes the narrator of “The Stupefaction,” a sixty-seven-page novella about a woman who has retreated to a cottage in the woods for a romantic weekend with a man’s “bobbing cock.” “Enormously Pleased” features a woman waking up, faintly heartened to realize that “with some encouragement, the penis of her husband had been leaning its head forward and plucking at her.” In one of my favorite stories, “A Woman’s Fate,” a woman confronts a sad, small animal sitting on a fence, its face averted. “Its penis was at an upturn, and she called the authorities to inquire about that one,” Williams writes. “There is something in her inquiry which is a shriek.”
Sticking, plugging, bobbing, plucking—the penises in Williams’s fiction are not just rigid; they are unsprightly, mechanical, prosthetic. Devoid of finesse and vitality, they don’t seem to belong to anyone, at least not anyone alive, anyone touchable. Like Brancusi’s “Princess X” or Duchamp’s “Objet-dard,” they are hardened matter, presented to the reader for intelligent contemplation, for arch laughter, chastening the imagined pleasure of physical connection as well as whatever meaning we may impose on it. “Where matter thus succeeds in dulling the outward life of the soul, in petrifying its movements and thwarting its gracefulness, it acquires, at the expense of the body, an effect that is comic,” writes Henri Bergson in Laughter, a passage that comes to mind whenever I happen upon a penis in one of Williams’s stories that hangs “like a mop,” or, better still, a pair of “dicks protruding,” quiet and grim.
Yet, as Williams knows, comedy is not a way of life but a temporary response to life’s ordinary tragedies. The comic demands “something like a momentary anesthesia of the heart,” Bergson observes—a callousness toward the reality of others, a spectacular indifference to their joys and sorrows, to the energetic responsiveness and vulnerability of their bodies. When the anesthesia wears off, as it invariably does, these unmoored men and women—leaning, pressing, straining, fucking, and somehow never getting any closer to one another across the nearly eight hundred pages of The Collected Stories—are infected by a monstrous human sickness, the source of all dysphoria and loneliness and remorse. “Everybody didn’t figure on being so tired out, so hungry, and so sad, and so lonely,” Williams writes in “The Easiest Way of Having,” the story of a couple who defer sex to work, eat, and “move their bowels twice daily if they can.” Her stories court laughter first, then, and only in retrospect, long-accumulated tears: tears of regret for opportunities lost, for people mislaid; tears of despair for the strangeness, the separateness that intimacy reveals and fails to overcome.
You don’t have to read all three hundred and five stories to get the point. (Though you should. Williams can do more with two sentences than most writers can do with two hundred pages.) Some stories stage the transition from laughter to tears more plainly than others. “The Penis Had Been Plenty Decent” opens with a perfectly dry overture:
The food broker, the housepainter, the swimmer and the husband’s friend had liked the husband’s penis very much.
The husband’s penis had been plenty decent.
The wife would have walked around with the penis inside of her if that had been possible.
There are lots of reasons to laugh: the deadpan list of people who had “liked the husband’s penis very much”; the deprecating, colloquial insistence that the penis had been “plenty decent”; the wife’s wistfulness; her longing for closeness thwarted by the impossibility (to the best of my knowledge) of literally “walk[ing] around with the penis inside of her.” And then comes a punchline of sorts:
The husband was dead, the husband who had not been dead for very long.
It’s easy to praise Williams’s work for what it does not do, and harder to describe what it does. “When I first encountered your sentences, my reaction was almost entirely physical,” an interviewer once wrote to her. “My heart started pounding and there was an electric prickling at the back of my neck.”* “What a blessing that you’ve told me this,” Williams replied. Learning about the erotic charge her words carried had made her heart pound and her skin prickle in return, and she thought, perhaps, that her stories had invoked Robert Graves’s White Goddess, “the Muse…the ancient power of fright and lust.” After all, fright and lust were precisely what the bobbing, plugging, plucky penises in her fiction failed to deliver. Language had to rush in to fill the void.
Consider the flicker of terror that opens “Screaming”: “I thought she had grabbed her whole pearl necklace in a fist to stop it at her throat so that we could speak, because it had been crashing into itself, back and forth across her breast, as she was moving toward me.” All this promises conflict, contact, something violent and lurching. But just as quickly as the promise is issued, it is shrugged off, fumbled by an absent-minded narrator who confuses the name of the woman’s daughter with the name of her dead dog. (“‘Your daughter is Heidi?’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘that’s the dog.’ ‘Oh, and she’s not living,’ I said.”) The pearls are unclutched, the dramatic tension dissolves into a comedy of errors, and the narrator, dissatisfied by the dull pulse of the conversation, wanders off to talk to the woman’s husband.
The force of the beginning gives way to the impression that something significant should have come to pass, though it’s hard to know what that is, or how long we should linger in possibility. Yet linger we do, through the faux pas of the dead dog, through some cocktail-party banter, until the end when, just as the wild arousal of the beginning has faded, it returns:
Then someone was at my back, tugging at my hair, moving it. I felt a mouth was on the nape of my neck. It was a kiss.
I did not have the faintest idea who would want to do that to me. There was not a soul.
When I saw him, when I turned, his head was still hung down low from kissing me.
Thank God I did not know who he was.
I kept my face near his. I liked the look of him.
I was praying he would do something more to me.
The prayer goes unanswered. We are flooded with anticipation of “something more”: more story, more sex, more meaning, “anything” to scratch the itch of narrative desire. The end is not really the end but an exquisite suspension of time. Time throbs, then stalls, then hangs before us, the future just out of reach, dilated into an experience of near sublimity—what the religious philosopher Louis Dupré once described as “the time-image of infinity, the instant, the moment.”
“Moment” is one of Williams’s favorite words. Her stories draw attention to “enjoyable moments,” “repulsive” moments, “embarrassing moments,” “odd moments,” “nice moments.” They pinpoint “a moment of panic,” “a moment of horror,” “the moment of discovery,” “the moment of parting” on which the plots of her stories could turn but never do. “Has there been one grand enough moment of either sex, or serenity, of soothsaying, or of silliness at the tragedy, during which time we paid homage to one object, or to a notion, or to one of us?” asks the narrator of “Going Wild.” It’s a bit of a trick question. Sex and silliness stage the opposite of tragedy’s peremptory tidying up of events, its representation of the world as ordered and whole. Williams’s stories, with all their sex and silliness, their unanswered prayers, draw our attention to the moment as a false prelude to revelation, the split second when meaning looks like it will cohere but then retreats, leaving behind experience without beginning or end—a wrinkle in time that refuses to be ironed out.
“How do you beat time?” asked Williams in a notebook she used to chronicle her private sessions with Gordon Lish, her editor and teacher from 1987 to 1995. Then on the next page, an answer, three sentences grouped with a wide, emphatic circle: “Suspension of time. Suspend meaning. Transcendent fuck.” A good writer, she believed, could make the reader the “fuckee of time.” Getting fucked by time was not rude or mechanical or sheepish—the kind of fucking that prompts the already retrospective, out-of-body narration of what-is-going-on-here—but totally immersive, a heightening of perception and pleasure shuddering toward one grand, messianic moment. “We comingle with time,” Williams wrote in the notebook. “We are ancient…. A perfect singularity inside.”
One gets fucked relentlessly by time in Williams’s collections, often in stories that have titles about sex but feature nothing overtly sexy—just experiences of supernatural intensity that peak, threaten to fade, and by the sheer force of Williams’s prose are made to endure. In “Pornography,” the narrator watches, stunned, as an old man drives his car into a boy on a bicycle. “That little old man did more for me than any sex has ever done for me,” she recalls. “I got these shudders.” She feels them again when she sees the body of a little boy covered by a sheet on a playground, but this time she tries to hold on to them:
Same thing, shudders that I tried to make last, because I thought it would be wonderful if they would last for at least the four blocks it took me to get home and they were lasting and then I saw two more boys on their bicycles looking to get hit, not with any menace like they wanted to do anything to me, because I wasn’t even over the white crossing line, not yet, and the only reason I saw either one of them was because I was ready to turn and I was looking at the script unlit yellow neon l on the cleaner’s marquee which was kitty-corner to me, when just off that l I saw the red and the orange and my driver’s leg struck up and down hard on the brake without my thinking, even though I think I was ready to go full out at that time, because where was I going, anyway?
It is an extraordinary sentence: reckless, swerving, a seemingly endless collision of colors, sensations, and movements that, on their own, would seem listless and plain but run into one another with an uncontainable energy. The story concludes with the narrator watching her five-year-old son on his bicycle as he pedals toward danger, ignoring her screams: “I can’t—there is no other way to put it—I can’t come.”
In “Pussy,” a woman walks up the staircase of her house, hot and bothered and susceptible to pathetic fallacies. The “stairs glow for her eyes.” At the top, she sees a man who undresses himself then walks into her room. “Upon entering her room after him, the woman does something significant and full of meaning,” Williams writes. We are never told what that thing is—we may guess—but are left to bask in its afterglow:
Albeit, the orange orange, the thin, dry, oval slice of gray bread—oh no, there was even something more concealed in some silver foil—the elixir the woman knows emanates from those hors d’oeuvres which are all hers, on her tray, on the table, at the end of her bed—amounts to what the woman is if I say so. She equals anything at all on my say-so. The woman is a little dirty thrill.
The orange orange, the gray bread, whatever is hidden in the silver foil, the portion of hors d’oeuvres—there is a bewitching intensity to these ordinary things, an aura conferred by the hangover from pleasure, the stain of attention. The delight we take in them, Williams reminds us, is the product of her “say-so,” as is our belief that they may add up to something more: a character whose story will satisfy the craving for meaning. Like the woman, these things are fictions, and the experience of fiction is nothing more, and nothing less, than a little dirty thrill.
“Screaming” and “Pornography” come from This Is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate (1990). “Pussy” comes from Some Sexual Success Stories Plus Other Stories in Which God Might Choose to Appear (1992). These are Williams’s earliest collections and, to my mind, her best for how precisely they calibrate ecstasy with comic deflation, danger with desire. “I wanted sex. Write it out,” reads a note from a session with Lish. “Turn it into a problem—solve it—make it triumph.” The triumph is aesthetic: the form of the stories, their arc of mystery, desperation, and infinite delight, is the literary equivalent of the best sex you will never have.
Williams’s middle period, which is less erotic and more anxiously metafictional, includes The Stupefaction (1996), Romance Erector (2001), and It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature (2007). Many of the stories concern the sheer weirdness of writing fiction—the practice of inventing people, giving them names, burdening them with consciousness, with conflict, with choice, and offering them up to the world in the hopes that they will speak a human truth. “My name is Valery Plum,” opens “I Am a Learned Person.” “There is something funny in that. I cannot presume how true to life I am.” “The Revenge,” about a woman who looks out a window “to think sad thoughts and weep,” offers a droll rewriting of Virginia Woolf’s “An Unwritten Novel,” a gentle parody of novelists who idolize the characters they have invented. “I know what she is thinking, and am envious of her,” Williams writes of the woman she has created. “But I am shitting on it.” “Ore,” the tale of a husband and wife discussing their most excellent sex life, is interrupted by an irritated exclamation: “No, no, no, no, no! This discussion never occurred…. These people are annoying.”
Why fill pages with annoying, unreal people when there are so many real things to occupy our attention? The stories from Williams’s middle period are full of indulgent descriptions of objects, not as the aftereffects of sex, but on their own, singular, luminous, minimally attached to character, happily divorced from plot. “That night, after I bathe, I put on my sumptuous robe, brocade,” she writes in “The Everlasting Slippers.” “I spoon raspberry sherbert into my mouth with a sherbert spoon. I drink wine from a fine glass. I take a piece of fruit in my hand, not to eat it, to gaze lovingly at it! It is made of stone.” The material vitality of the brocade, the sherbet, the wine, the fruit made of stone, the ease with which they occupy space—all this rewards the writer’s perceptual gifts more than the characters who own them. “There should be no additional people here at all, doing things, causing problems, that are then solved,” concludes the story.
Part of what’s funny here is the very common misspelling of “sherbet” as “sherbert”—the slightest thickening of language, easy to miss if you’re not gazing as lovingly at the word as the narrator gazes at the fruit in her hand. Language is as strange and wonderful a material as any, and Williams demands that you slow down to appreciate it, that you luxuriate in every letter, every word, the spaces and silences between them. “Eero,” about a pair of Eero Saarinen chairs, doubles one consonant in each word of every sentence except for some words that already have double letters, so that the story literally stretches out, stuttering: “Thhe chairrs neverr beckonned tthe litttle girrls forr sitting.” In “Okeydoke,” Williams replaces one word in each sentence with the phrase “the man lied,” so that a string of apparently unrelated sentences all bespeak the same act of betrayal: “The man lied is the best ingredient in my veal steak deluxe. I am going to vacation in the man lied. I never will the man lied for the third time.”
There is something gimmicky about stories like “Ore,” “Eero,” and “Okeydoke,” which read like classroom exercises: unfinished and strictly regimented experiments with form, reminiscent of the point-of-view exercises Williams assigned when she started teaching writing in 2001. “I am very afraid—more afraid of you than you are of me,” she told the students in her first class at Bard. She did not know them or their experiences. She had no interest in reading stories with descriptions “of how anyone feels.” Instead, she asked them to begin the class by listing all the scars on their bodies. “Select a scar, go to the moment it happened, describe the moment,” she continued. “Imagine walking into a room filled with people—that your first concern is that this scar be undetected—speak from the point of view of the scar…. Become the perpetrator of the scar—speak in the voice of the nail or the person who hit you, or in the voice of the barbed wire.”
The transformation of the narrator into a bystander, her body an alien object for people or things to act on, to punish, to pleasure, emerges as one of Williams’s favorite techniques in her middle period. It is most startling when she imagines people having sex with her—or, technically, with a character she calls Diane Williams. “How much fun I had with my prick up inside of the great Diane Williams,” boasts the narrator of “The Festival.” “She held the tip of the prick firmly. She is pleased to feel.” Williams’s game is fun to play: try describing sex with yourself from another person’s point of view. You will see how impossible and ludicrous sex’s approximation of intimacy is; how disingenuous to write about how anyone else feels. Here is the entirety of “The Helpmeet”:
To my surprise, Diane Williams wants me to hold her fucking ass. I am an annoyance rather than a deep disturbance. In other words, I go to my room when I am told to, shut the door, and I stay there until I am given my permission to come out.
When I come back out, some secrecy is necessary. Nothing could have seemed more essential when I took off my peg-top trousers. I untied my shoes. Stood. I felt so tightly bound to her while we were stiffly rocking.
If I go away someday, I want to know how she will live without me.
I will ask her to go into detail about her sexual needs.
Why do I even care how many of her needs there are?
Just for conversation’s sake, let’s say there are just two.
The absurdity of “The Helpmeet” lies in its mismatch between tone and stance: a voice that speaks with authority but has none; the musings of a man—a boy maybe, but an “annoyance” in any case—sent to his room until he gets permission to come out and secretly hold Diane Williams’s ass, all the while wondering if she needs him or not. The story titillates at first, then mocks our incautious expressions of need: that we might need other people’s assurances; that they might need ours; that we may even know what they—or we—need in the first place.
What happens when you have no transcendent fucks left to give? When despite your best efforts at suspending the moment, time starts running out? “Human bodies are just not good enough!” exclaims the narrator of “Vicky Swanky Was a Beauty” to her friend Vicky Swanky, whose breasts and hips have gone flat and who looks older than her forty years. The title of Williams’s second-most-recent collection is Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty (2012), and the easy-to-miss verb change in the title marks how time passes no matter how hard we try to slow it down; how the body’s give and sag makes its materiality pitifully apparent. “My face had changed so much recently,” thinks the narrator of “A Little Bottle of Tears,” startled by the face he sees in the bathroom mirror. “The lines of age were drawn everywhere like the marks made by a claw, and they looked to me freshly made.”
Vicky Swanky and Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine (2016) are collections haunted by aging and death, by narrators who reluctantly measure the distance between what is and what was. They register the endings of things that once promised novelty, variety, pleasure. “I don’t like you very much and I don’t think you’re fascinating,” says a husband to his wife, Diane. “I am trying,” she responds, “to think of you in a new way. I’m not sure what—how that is.” But the emotional core of these collections is a response not to the ephemerality of experience, but to the impermanence of people: the parents who age and ail and grow increasingly childlike; the children who are left to bear witness to the cruelest reversals of time.
Many of Williams’s characters are women whose children have left home and whose parents have died, making them neither mothers nor daughters anymore. They are unsure what to call themselves, how to understand the temporariness of a relationship, an identity—motherhood, daughterhood—whose end no one can ever really see coming. “She’s so wrongly old and I’m her daughter, but can she still have children?” cries the narrator of “Common Body,” a lament that misleads us before making a sad sort of sense. In “Greed,” the death of her grandmother, then her mother, leaves the narrator with only a ring of diamonds and sapphires to console her. “I selected it after my mother’s death, not because I liked it, but because it offers the memory of my mother and of the awkward, temporarily placed cold comfort that she gave me,” Williams writes. “It’s hard to believe that our affair was so long ago.”
But we need not despair. Consider the end of “Comfort”:
Getting routine matters out of the way, she attained riches, social position, power, studied for an hour or so, cleaned up, took her family to a movie, after which she forecasted her own death with a lively narration that gave her gooseflesh.
She felt raw, pink and so fresh!
There is a glimmer here of the Muse’s ancient power of fright and lust—the promise of a story about death that “gave her gooseflesh,” that left her feeling “raw, pink and so fresh!” The act of “lively narration” does not suspend time. It undoes it.
The most recent stories are not elegiac or apologetic or anxious. They offer a small share of resistance against mortality. Death is a challenge but not an insurmountable one for Williams. After all, she has spent a lifetime crafting her very particular kind of pleasure. Why stop now when the future still beckons, when the ecstasy of art does not discriminate between young and old? “She feels the onset of arousal, of genital swelling that is triggered by no one in particular and she has the inability to think normally,” she writes in “The Great Passion and Its Context” of a woman floating alone in a pool. “What’s still to come?—a warm flat landscape?—a shallow swimming pool?—the complete ruin of her health?—her absolute devotion to anyone?” We do not need Williams’s answer. We know it is yes, and yes, and yes, and yes.