JOY WILLIAMS' stories are dreams. As in dreams, corruption and purity exist in equilibrium, that state of
suspension we call the unconscious. Indeed, almost all of the characters we meet in Taking Care are, themselves, unconscious. In "Winter Chemistry," two teenage girls "could only infrequently distinguish what they did from what they merely dreamt about," and in the trance they call their waking lives, they move toward catastrophe. With prose of indiscriminate radiance, Williams creates a landscape for these tales at once geographic and spiritual: "Outside the sky was lightening. Daylight was just beginning to flourish on the city of Jacksonville. It fell without prejudice on the slaughterhouses, Dairy Queens and courthouses, on the car lots, sabal palms and a billboard advertisement for pies. . . . The bubble- topped cars (of the train) were dark and sinister in the first flat and hopeful light of the morning."
These stories seem closest in spirit to the fictions of Flannery O'Connor and Joyce Carol Oates. Madness, murder, the surrender of hope become commonplace rather than extreme behaviors, and even those characters who sustain the ability to love seem perplexed, even encumbered, by their triumph. In the title story, for example, "Jones's love is much too apparent and arouses neglect. He is like an animal in a travelling show, who, through some aberration, wears a vital organ outside the skin, awkward and unfortunate, something that shouldn't be seen, certainly something that shouldn't be watched working."
Williams' characters lack grounding, and he stories purposefully withhold any larger frames of reference which might accommodate, explain, help contain the formlessness of subjective life. In Taking Care, the world seems to exist only as each character imagines it to be. No person's reality is like another's, each man and woman and child dreams his or her own life. In "The Shepherd," a dog breeder observes: "We are all asleep and dreaming, you know. If we could actually comprehend our true position, we would not be able to bear it, we would have to find a way out." Whereas the characters in O'Connor and Oates tales move precisely to that comprehension of their true position, the people in Williams' stories seldom get that far. They remain inchoate. Death itself fails to jolt them into awareness and if it does, they sink again even more deeply into their private worlds. In these stories people do not change; they simply exist in the ongoing mysteries, tawdry or pure, that are their lives.
This vision is both comforting and disturbing, and one cannot leave Joy Williams' work without deep ambivalence. As in all myths--and these stories are modern myths--we are connected again to what is elemental. However horrific, the primal dramas speak to our yearning for what is authentic, for what exists beneath the name-brand patina, the media polish, the intellectual armor that defines and distorts our age. Transcending religious and political systems of belief, Williams speaks to us from a plane of pure feeling. Like fine music, these stories circumvent the intellect; Williams seems to make the works themselves transparent and we gaze directly into the souls of her characters. This opportunity for communion--with the writer as a kind of spiritual medium--is one of the gifts of good fiction. In "Summer," an anxious woman finds at least momentary peace with her second husband and their children from previous marriages: from the top of a lighthouse, "she saw the Atlantic fanning out without a speck on it, and her little family on the beach below, setting out food on a striped blanket. Constance inched out onto the catwalk encircling the light. 'I love you!' she shouted," and the power of her tenderness outshines the lighthouse beam. In "The Farm," a woman muddled by liquor and the memories of her husband's infidelities runs down a boy on the road and must confront the dead child's mother; they exchange commonplaces, but the real, unspoken, "conversation was illegal, unspeakable. Sarah couldn't imagine it ever ending." How palpable that woman's anguish. How wordless.
Yet the refusal of most of these stories to take us beyond states of feeling into conscious awareness, even change, leaves a reader disquieted. What can one believe in if people lose the will to believe, if they forget how to do it, if they can no longer manage it? Instead of being a communal solace, faith turns into a solitary ordeal, the dreamer alone forever in his or her own dream. Jones, the preacher, "is gaunt with belief." Yet the title story suggests that he must persist in spite of his doubt and exhaustion. Hs wife dying, his daughter lost to him, Jones leaps yet again in his life over despair into the delusion of hope. "For insurance purposes, Jones' wife is brought out to the car in a wheelchair. She is thin and beautiful. Jones is grateful and confused. He has a mad wish to tip the orderly. Have so many years really passed? Is this not his wife, his love, fresh from giving birth?"
Of course, we know that it is not. He is hallucinating, dreaming with this eyes opened. But his delusion empowers him and we support him in his fabrication. It is redemptive. It imposes meaning on a world infinitely indifferent to his needs. In one of the few rebellions in this volume against the world's fierce neutrality, "Jones helps his wife up the steps to the door. Together they enter the shining rooms." In these fragile gestures of Taking Care--a sick woman leaning on her husband's arm, a wife catching sight of "her little family," during a tense vacation, a girl mourning the loss of her dog--we glimpse, merely glimpse, an order of being that eschews randomness, that ascribes value, that insists on love in the face of destructiveness.