Encountering the Divine and Mundane in Joy Williams’s Ninety-Nine Stories of God
By Eshani Surya
Joy Williams gives her Antigone Bookstore reading with sunglasses perched on her face, though it is evening and we are inside. Perhaps this is enough to give a sense of the confidence that Williams exudes and lends to her collection of stories. Outside, Tucson rumbles on a Friday night—I can hear the streetcar honking, music blaring from the cars that whiz by a little too fast, patrons making their way to the bars on 4th Ave. This is the land of college students back from summer break just a few weeks ago. But Williams’s voice keeps a steady, calm pace as she reads the micro-fictions that make up Ninety-Nine Stories of God.
She ends her reading with one of my favorite stories, number 98. In it, the Lord—a recurring character throughout the volume—tries to adopt a tortoise. The Lord asks, “May I have two?” He is denied for fear that the tortoises will breed. He is told to find a square of grass from Home Depot. On the way home, both the Lord and the tortoise brood about “this adoption business.” The title, “A New Arrangement,” comes at the end of the story, as all the titles in this collection do.
How ridiculous this premise sounds, and yet what Williams achieves in one succinct story is mighty. In this story and throughout the book, Williams considers human institutions/social niceties, benevolence, and control. She asks what constitutes as God’s intervention? What makes up a story of God? Where is God in stories of tragedy?
Even with the heavier questions, the stories—ranging in length from a few sentences to a few pages—are funny, even funnier when read aloud, as evidenced by the raucous laughter in the bookstore, where Williams is able to make every line a joke just by the weight she gives each word. And she likes making people laugh—I can tell, because when they laugh, she smiles a little below the sunglasses. Humor is integral to this collection; it keeps the stories fun and allows them to explore strangeness, like the Lord never being able to come up with twelve guests for His dinner parties (from number 31). Williams’s descent into peculiarity heightens some of her thematic preoccupations: loneliness, discomfort, imperfection.
This isn’t to say all the stories work. Some don’t quite come together, like 18, which includes drawing of a rolled up tarpaulin and explains that the drawing is not a maze. These are the stories that read like good beginnings or witty one-off observations. With these, the title, which often works as a punch line, doesn’t seem to add much. One might be left asking, “Well, so what?” And sometimes the perfection of each line feels too manufactured, too measured. The distance does make sense for a collection that is about looking at faith, miracles, and the relationship humans have with God and the natural world, but it can also lack energy. Generally, the best stories are the ones that include the Lord, a grounding character who is puzzled by his own creations. The detached tone—one of matter-of-fact confusion—serves these stories the best, by giving a satirical edge to anything the Lord observes.
Still, Joy Williams is a master of language and sentence construction, and for that reason alone it would be worth picking up this collection. Past that, one can enjoy the challenge of encountering the divine in the mundane and the mundane in the divine. Though the book could easily be read in one sitting, a better reading experience would likely be reading a few of the stories at a time, as a sort of amuse-bouche before sleep.
Eshani Surya is a current MFA student in fiction at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she also teaches undergraduates. A former Associate Editor of SmokeLong Quarterly, her writing has appeared in Ninth Letter Online, Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment, First Class Lit, and Minetta Review. Eshani also serves as a reader of fiction at Sonora Review. Find her on Twitter @__eshani.