The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories
by Joy Williams

"There is no recovery. There is no happy ending."

Before reading Williams’ latest collection, you’ll pass through the tripwires of fabulous commentary. “Immaculate artistry [and] one of the most fearless, abyss-embracing literary projects...” says The New York Times. “Four dozen stories by one of the form's greatest practitioners,” says Kirkus. “To read Joy Williams is to be arrested in a state of relentless awe and wonderment,” says Vanity Fair. Wow, such a burden of expectation before we digest the first word. The commentary goes on and on. The race to lather praise on this book appears to be a literary event of its own.

Joy Williams, 72, has been writing stories for decades. The Visiting Privilege is a progression of new and earlier stories. As in some of the best literature, many of her stage players enter broken but working it out, while others pass through to offer speed bumps at best and completely derail the course of events at worse. Meanwhile, Williams’ characters are wanderers of their own thoughts. Abandoned children, forgotten women, and damaged men strive for more, without an articulated goal. This road, even in a short piece, can seem endless.

Much of the collection involves the American struggle with processing sadness and troubled circumstance. As a result, the characters are miserable, even if they don’t know it, and most of them don’t. Emotions rise within the mood of each piece, which is perhaps the best weapon in Williams’ arsenal. Active denial isn’t the default course of the soul. Her characters are not conscious of their search for meaning and therefore avoiding the message. Through fluid and irrational thoughts, they fit and turn. They love and disconnect. They miss their marks. Like one character’s description of animals, Williams’ players “are closer to God than we... but they are lost to him.” Often, the only joy appears in the byline of each piece.

Williams’ lines can be clever and funny. It is what passes for brilliance today, and her slice of life pieces are certainly what passes for high literary art now. The verisimilitude and voyeurism of watching her players at work is reward enough. Typically no one’s life or fortune hangs in the balance. The “abyss” is an emotional pit, and we often learn as humans after falling into a cerebral hole that, well, we are still here, that we are still our inescapable selves. We can choose to end it all, and sometimes her characters do.

Tossing the hype aside, these aren’t arcing tales in structure, but a collection of moods and moments with an occasional dark phrase of comedy. The writing is clean and straightforward with an attention to detail that feels exact enough to go unnoticed. In that way, her prose is reminiscent of older more classic writers, even as she embraces the modern sensibility to mine every fraction of feeling. What you’ll get is insight to the unperceptive—the way we discover ourselves before awareness. It is indeed a book to be shelved among your collection and to be slowly savored over time.

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