In a bowling alley somewhere in postapocalyptic rural America, a 10-year-old savant is celebrating his birthday. His mother has chosen this moment to tell him, via the unusual method of having a murder scene rendered in icing on his cake, that his father killed his grandfather. The baker, though, has erred, and topped the cake instead with an edible version of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, an image so disturbing it causes the child to question his own existence. “Saturn,” a party guest helpfully informs him, “represents Time, which, with its ravenous appetite for life, devours all its creations.” Later we will learn that the bowling alley never existed, and that some or all of these characters may very well be dead.
Welcome, if you have not been here before, to the world of Joy Williams – widely praised, sadly not quite as widely read. My Vintage paperback of 2001’s dazzling The Quick and the Dead carries admiring quotes by Don DeLillo, Raymond Carver and Bret Easton Ellis, yet in the UK it is unforgivably out of print. Williams’s 2015 short story collection The Visiting Privilege was heralded by all who read it as a major literary event, yet it took the tiny imprint Tuskar Rock to bring it to the UK market.
On the surface of it, Harrow, her first novel in more than 20 years, seems unlikely to broaden her audience. This is not to say the book is not brilliant – it is. It’s simply that Williams has made no concessions; she remains wonderfully and determinedly herself. What might be a little different, though, is the world into which her work emerges, and the reality she so daringly alchemises into her vision.
Attempting a precis of this novel feels like exactly the kind of misguided endeavour Williams would scorn, but allow me to try. Harrow is set in an undefined near future in which the global environmental situation has gone from being on “the verge that people thought would go on forever” to all-out catastrophe. Khristen, the novel’s not-quite-central character, briefly died as a baby, or so her mother adamantly believes, and may never have entirely returned. Post-disaster, amid a hallucinatory terrain that may or may not be an afterlife, she finds herself at The Institute, where a loose collective of geriatric terrorists “in the worst of health but with kamikaze hearts” plot suicide missions targeting vivisectionists and pesticide salesmen in the hope that this will “refresh, through crackpot violence, a plundered earth”.
Williams’s method is one of adjacency more than linearity. Language, not narrative, is the connective tissue. To read her is to be flung every which way: from the spiritually profound to the farcically bizarre. One minute we observe “unprepared souls, moments from the clarity of their deaths”. The next, we are invited to consider the condition of a very old man’s penis: “She wondered if his pecker was as shredded and gribbled and nicked as the rest of him or whether it hung wondrously, impossibly smooth and aloof, its head like burled oak.”
Every sentence is lathed into sleek and startling perfection. At the bowling alley, serious bowlers “held the afterward of their poses for a vanity of time”. A crashing car flies “like a crumpled Kleenex into a cement utility pole by which it was trephined with glittering efficiency”. A salesman is so talented he “could sell a shock collar to a Doberman”. Even seemingly offhand phrases glitter with wit. Admire if you will the sing-song perfection of “Eddie Fucking Emerald offed by a fatty in a Caddy”.
Zeroing in on our collective complacency and denial, Williams is both wry and merciless, lamenting “twelve lane highways with bicycle supplements” and people “who think they can still save the earth by grinding up some modest nut or bean for pancake meal”. A pre‑collapse environmental conference includes a talk entitled The Potentiality of Landscape’s Emptiness: The Integrity of Half Measures. A TV channel streams nothing but minutes of silence.
“We all lead three lives,” Khristen is told. “The true one, the false one, and the one we are not aware of.” This life we’re not aware of is Williams’s great subject. She peels back the visible and known, revealing death and chaos beneath. Wandering around a rescue centre for birds, Khristen stumbles across “an old oil drum, brimming with amputated wings”. A grove of trees is “surprisingly green and freshly pleasant except for the packages of meat dumped there”. What seems to be a livestream of a nesting bird is in fact a recording, the bird having long ago flown into a truck.
Part of what makes Williams’s work so destabilising is that agency has almost no significance. Navigating a world that makes no sense, her characters are lost and baffled, their actions and ideas stripped of meaning. These are people who “suspected they were meant to be more or different but fumbled about in the smoky light of half-realised lives”. With free will in question, and the borders between life and death or reality and delusion queasily blurred, individuality itself begins to fray. “Every person,” Williams tells us, “considered themselves unique as snowflakes but in the aggregate they were a blizzard, a whiteout of swirling expectation and denial.”
In her remarkable essay Hawk, about a beloved dog that inexplicably attacks her, Williams writes: “Experience is fundamentally illusory. When one is experiencing emotional pain or grief, one feels that everything that happens in life is unreal. And this is a right understanding of life.” Harrow reminds us that, as a consequence of climate collapse, trauma and grief are the condition of our collective existence. As our world disintegrates, it will take what we think of as reality with it. Addressing this in fiction will be the job, partly, of a certain kind of modern mystic. Williams – great virtuoso of the unreal – is one of them.