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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.