San Francisco, CA: McSweeney’s, 2016. 136 pages. $20.00.
It’s difficult to describe a Diane Williams story. Over twenty-five years, the author has crafted hundreds of fictional worlds that exist as if in their own universe, one where she continually tinkers with logic, welcomes the unexpected, and questions the traditional requirements of what we call narrative. Her stories feel like fragments of half-remembered dreams, and despite their deceptively small size, they require close, careful reading for full appreciation, a quality of meditation that most contemporary fiction fails to elicit. Her work, in a word, is refreshing, and with Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, her latest, Williams continues to enthrall, offering forty new tales that comment on aging, love, divorce, and death.
In summary form, a Williams story rarely turns heads. Take, for example, the very short “Personal Details,” in which a woman, caught in a sudden wind storm, takes shelter in a luncheonette where she observes people and considers her own memories. To the average reader, this plotline may feel bland or generic. Yet Williams immediately destabilizes our expectations by opening, as in most of her stories, mid-scene: “On the avenue, I was unavoidably stuck inside of an uproar when the wind locked itself in front of my face.” The uproar trapping the narrator is never explained; instead, Williams uses the immediate confusion to pivot from the mention of wind to an image of a “child in the whirlwind who was walking backwards.” This sight leads the narrator into a diner, where the overheard phrase “Yes, I do mind” sets off memories—rushing by like the wind—of trysts and love. Williams then returns to the outside world, as her narrator watches two men in a salon across the street blow-drying a woman’s hair—once more, wind comes into play. The story ends with the narrator’s comment that the men seem to be performing magic with their hands, and that their customer is burdened by “the golden hoard—for future use—of bullshit.” With memories piling up in her head, the narrator observes another woman troubled by a wealth of nonsense that is “weighing down her shoulders.”
In this brief story, Williams employs a pattern of wind imagery to link every action on the page and to illustrate her narrator’s struggle to settle her own thoughts. The author’s verbal acrobatics infuse life into a flat plotline, adding complication and encouraging a close reading of the material. “Personal Details” is the first in a triptych of stories that take place in diners and feature female protagonists dealing with memory, love, and personal choices. In fact, as one reads Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, narrative links and associations between stories are impossible to miss, and the collection evolves from forty individual fictions into forty fragments of one whole. Some pieces, such “Specialist” and “Living Deluxe,” signal plot turns by using nearly identical phrases (“An hour passed. Why not say twenty years?” vs. “I took from my family one hundred thousand dollars—say fifty thousand. Say it was three million.”). Others hover around similar themes, be it the dying, elderly parents found in “Lamb Chops, Cod,” “A Mere Flask Poured Out,” and “Bang Bang on the Stair,” or the characters stuck in unfamiliar settings, such as in “Lavatory,” “Of the True and Final Good,” and “Sigh.”
This last story recounts the first meeting between a man and his ex-wife’s new husband, and it’s a good illustration of how Williams uses dialogue to introduce jarring plot swerves. These swerves increase the energy of each story and serve to discombobulate the reader, disrupting any expectations of linear narrative. In “Sigh,” after a fair amount of awkward banter, the conversation proceeds:
“Did you imagine me the way I am?” the man asked the new husband, who answered no.
“What do you mean?”
“But I am not against you,” the husband said.
“Say a little more.”
Sirens in the street produced a brief, headstrong fugue.
“Say a little more,” said the man.
The exchange is oddly phrased and prickly, but the ultimate response of the new husband—“Wah-aaaaaaaat waaahz it ligh-ike, with herrrrrrrrr-rah, for you-ooooooo—?”—mimicking the sound of a siren, thrusts the story into a fresh, bizarre direction. Like her adoption of wind imagery earlier to complicate a banal scene, the author takes a flat exchange and deepens it by having her characters leap into the realm of heightened, unanswerable questions, ending in verbal chaos.
Williams achieves similar surprise by beginning her stories with dialogue. “Try” opens in medias res with a character asking, “Is this what you don’t want?” while “People of the Week” starts with four lines of dialogue that pull the reader in four different directions:
“She can’t hop over the ocean. She has small children,” Petra said.
“I didn’t think you even knew what Ethelind looked like.”
“I saw her up front. I thought you saw her. Let’s go see Tim.”
“I don’t want to see Tim. Why would I want to see Tim? Who is Anita? I want to thank Anita.”
It’s impossible to know what prompted this conversation—or who Ethelind is, as she never reappears in the story—but complete knowledge seems counter to Williams’s objectives: she is more interested in plucking the reader from the familiar, the comfortable, and placing her into a situation where vivid language constructs its own unique experience. While fragments of narrative pepper the page, the real value of a Diane Williams story comes not from its plot, but from its ability to engage the emotion of the reader (be that happy, sad, angry, or confused). Her stories offer the same gut-punch immediacy of other writers of dense, evocative prose—like, for example, Susan Steinberg—yet Williams unsettles the reader’s feelings by making her uncomfortable from the start through both dialogue and repetitive imagery, forcing her to enter the unknown without a clear sight line of what awaits. This unease offers the reader a chance to, rather than follow a straight narrative thread, experience the work as complex linguistic embodiment of emotion.
Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine’s closing story “Human Comb” pleads with both the story’s characters and readers: “I am unemotional about the abrupt ending of friendships and there’d be no purpose, no benefit, none to exploring these subjects further—such as: have I come clean enough?” It is a blunt yet powerful question, and it emphasizes the collection’s achievement as a complete, expressive unit. In Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Diane Williams remarks on the pitfalls and pratfalls of an adult life with a mix of absurdism and startling honesty. She hurtles the reader through the Williams universe, where truth is always worn as a loose shawl, able to fall to the ground at any moment. And isn’t that enough?