The Quick and the Dead. Joy Williams.

The Quick and the Dead. Joy Williams. Vintage, New York, 2000. Hachette Digital retrieved for Kindle. F; 8/14.

Another book I found reading the author’s interview in The Paris Review (number 209). Pictures of Joy Williams show a nice-looking woman and suggest, confirmed by some biographical information, that she aspires to and probably belongs in American literary aristocracy. How difficult it must be to square one’s philosophical curmudgeonism with one’s professional and social success…

In interview, she tells us that “what good stories deal with is the horror and incomprehensibility of time, the dark encroachment of old catastrophes — which is Wallace Stevens, I think.” I was impressed with this for some reason although it doesn’t make much linear sense. Time is though, I reflected, kind of horrible and incomprehensible all right. But in the end I sense an aesthetic and logical pulling-the-wool-over-the-eyes to Joy Williams, which would be one way of describing what bothered me about this strange story.

Sixteen-year-old Alice ends up the main protagonist, a troubled girl obsessed with a left-wing-canonical dislike for America and its environmental irresponsibility etc. In Alice, I’d say I encountered the best of Joy Williams, which is a wild irony encompassing horrible deaths and death-images so they are both hideous and very funny. I thought that with Alice, Williams was just making a political correctness statement, until I realized that Alice is also an awful joke about political correctness statements.  Neighborhood cats are serially disappearing because Alice is doing away with them.

There certainly isn’t much of a linear plot to hang onto, Alice and two other motherless girls hanging out together, becoming more or less involved with one girl’s father (a shallow well-educated fellow only partly liberated from heterosexuality by the death of his wife who returns to haunt him), a young stroke victim whom they torture, a suicidal piano player interested in Alice, a successful entrepreneur big-game hunter preoccupied with an eight-year-old girl, and others.

I was hooked on the first page: “So. You don’t believe in a future life. Then do we have the place for you!” But a few sentences on I spat the hook: “A hare is the determinative sign defining the concept of being. Say you catch an actual hare of the desert and place a mirror to his nose; you will observe that a moist breath mark will appear on the glass. The moisture comes from the hare, though there is not a drop of moisture going into him. Does this disprove the axiom “Out of nothing, nothing comes”?” Wha? I wanted to find out about the (metaphoric, spiritual-inferno) place they had for those of us who don’t believe in a future life, not to have to find excuses for the author’s wooly connection of her metaphor to logic and math.

And maybe eventually we do find out about such a place. Green Palms is a deliciously horrifying nursing home, “state-of-the-art End of the Trail” where “there was a sense that salvation was being deliberately, cruelly withheld.” This place “had been the destination all the while”, all of the hapless inmates’ experiences and accomplishments “matter(ing) not at all.”

Joy Williams I sense sees herself as very deeply into ambivalence. The device is that same seriousness plus wild irony about all sorts of things: the environment, death, animals. “The desert was unexpectedly beautiful and horrible at once.” Aesthetically it might be an Escher print, philosophically an attempt to apply Russell’s paradox to art and life. Not everything is or isn’t, some things are and aren’t at the same time. And that’s interesting in an abstract way. But the writing while at its best is arresting and funny ((nursing home resident) Ottolie… still formulating another tomorrow for Alice. “You could be making a sandwich and accidentally set yourself on fire.”) enters a tedious ill-conceived tangent often enough to break the spell:

Paul suggests the dead are resurrected… pneumatically? The thought of Ginger being pumped up by the whispering breath of a caring supreme being discouraged him. What a carnival everything was, one big lurid carnival. He sighed and turned on the television. “I’m going to kill you,” one half-naked person was saying to another, “but I’ll refrain from eating you because of your rank.” They seemed to be Druids meeting in some sacred grove. But did Druids talk like that?

And then, as part of what I suspect may be a generally-followed literary device, the book just ends. This occurs as Alice is walking away from another male charlatan, “Candleman” ‘s shallow call to ideology. I’ve heard it commented that Joy Williams’s short stories are better than her longer fiction. It seems that talented Williams, along with her Alice, is still reaching for the right idea, the right perception, and the right literary inspiration, to create a novel that really works. And of course also for the right man. Good luck. 6.2/8.3.



About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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