Diane Williams, It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature: A Novella and Stories
Publisher: The University of Alabama Press
2007, 132 pages, paperback, $17.95
diane williams’ latest work of fiction, It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature, is a weird book. Jonathan Franzen, one of Williams’ celebrants, agrees-goes two steps further, even. Williams’ fictions, he says, “makes very familiar things very, very weird” (my emphasis).
Some of the “very familiar things” we see in this collection include Williams’ familial characters and their pedestrian situations-a husband in the process of cheating, a wife on the verge of leaving her “kind” man, a unmarried woman considering future prospects, and a daughter receiving marital advice from her father.
The “very, very weird” happens in the author’s experimental linguistic turns that throw a reader off kilter. Take the opening line of “The Philadelphia Story,” which begs to be read slowly, twice for good measure: “For several years now I have been a girl who is not married and I like to get married while I am still charming.” This is a new look at serial monogamy, and Williams’ use of present tense shows her understanding of it as the cultural practice as ongoing, driven by its practitioners’ hope and fear. The line marks Williams at the top of her challenging, playful game-when she’s able to limn, in a single sentence, not only her characters’ discomfort but her readers’.
Another “very, very weird” characteristic of Williams’ book can be attributed to her penchant for the ultra-short prose form that locates itself somewhere between full-blown story and feathery-edged prose poem. The collection itself consists of the opening 42-page novella “On Sexual Strength”-which comes in 36 numbered sections-and 41 additional one-to-two-page stories. Many pieces dare to carry fewer than 100 words while they develop, to varying degrees, plot and character. Take “To Squeeze Water,” a piece consisting of two paragraphs at a mere 38 words:
“You need to,” the woman said. “People should be made to say. People should be forced to say I am not a bad person,” the woman said. “Can you talk about that?”
“That’s very private,” the man said.
This piece speaks to the aboutness of the entire collection-the tension between affection, guilt, fascination and horror-what should remain silent-and-hidden and what is said-or-shown. The power of this piece-like the best pieces in this collection-is its brevity, crammed as it is with a peculiarity at once shockingly funny and surprisingly sad. As the bulk of these fictions explore family and sexual dynamics, subject matter ripe for both reactions, Williams pushes the limits of behavior, manners, and credulity. Sentences often have the effect of a brutal sneak attack. Her objective: to write what horrifies and disgusts even herself so that she might uncover shared human experience. In “Flower,” for example, she tells us:
“He is the only one you will sleep with and you two will consult with each other about everything!” her father said. “Go live with him. He will welcome you. I am certain. Do you want to be rich?” her father said.
“Yes,” she said. “I am sure.”
“Susan,” said the father.
He said, “To get that nipple to stand up, squeeze it.”
The effect of such a narrative that seems plucked from the air and that transgresses familial-sexual boundaries amounts to a funny, energized nightmare. Williams admits that scandal is her business: In a 1992 interview with John O’Brien about “Pornography,” one of her earlier stories about a mother’s feelings of guilt, rage and horror over her inability to get sexual gratification from the idea that her son might be killed, Williams said:
I am far from the only one who believes that experience teaches us that when you speak a nightmare and speak it to its limit, whatever it is, then that speech has a healing force. And if it’s speakable, if the configuration of feeling can be manipulated, can be produced, then it’s a true feeling, shared by many, and it’s the sort of feeling which should be utterly revealed. But I must say that for me-the respectable version of myself-there’s still fear, and a great deal of disgust when I see that story. Then I have to reassert myself as an artist, and say […] this is exactly my business.
Her business, then, is ambitious. Sometimes she makes this business beautiful and seamless, as in “Opening the Closing Mouth of the Woman.” In this piece, the architectural, ideological, metaphorical, and sexual mesh skillfully:
A penis leans on walls inside her. Faustine-that is her name-is dedicated to the rammers after she has been loaded with their meaning. A corner of her is being slightly shaped.
But not every piece in the collection fares so well.
Then again, my stupefaction at a few selections may be an indicator of Williams’ experimentation, her advancing the literary curve, or breaking it-as was said of Gertrude Stein in her day. Perhaps Jonathan Franzen’s claim that Williams is “one of the true living heroes of the American avant-garde” is exactly the reason I haven’t been able to sink my teeth into “Sweet,” which seems an exercise in language manipulation and pronoun usage-meta-fictional brio for brio’s sake. Take the piece’s opening third:
It was so sweet of you to come. I am glad you are here because otherwise I’d be so lonely.
To get me here they had to pick me up off the sidewalk and put me into the limousine and I tried to stop them from doing that.
One assumes there is an end to this initial phase.
I saw Lesley and asked to talk to her because she is usually nice. She just wants to be finished with this and to become a doctor. For some time now she’s been considering that employment.
The man remember I told you about?-who calls me?-called me and he wanted to come over and I told him that now really wasn’t a good time for me to have sexual relations but he came over and what we did was peculiar, not very good, very odd, not right.
He said, “I always tell them hot! hot! hot! Otherwise it’s cold. What is the matter with you?”
While this particular piece’s logic is opaque, impossible for me to identify or follow, at least one-the nine-paragraph “Dangeresque”-is worth the price of the book. It shows Williams at her affectionate, disconsolate, indecorous, meta-fictional best. The piece’s final line sums up for me at least part of what Williams, with a hidden smile and a fast wink to her reader, is attempting:
“See, I may have a childlike attitude, but a woman I once read about attempted a brand new direction with a straight face.”
A line like that makes me want to believe in a phrase like “true living hero of the American avant-garde.” Weirder things have happened.