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Convention crasher

It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature A Novella and Stories; Diane Williams; Fiction Collective Two: 132 pp., $17.95 paper

December 23, 2007|Matthew Sharpe | Matthew Sharpe is the author of several novels, including, most recently, "Jamestown," and the story collection "Stories From the Tube."

"Habitualization," said the critic Viktor Shklovsky, "devours works, clothes, furniture, one's wife, and the fear of war. . . . And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life." That the devouring of one's wife -- and one's husband -- is a topic vigorously taken up by Diane Williams let's put to one side for a moment to contemplate the pitfalls of habitualization and the ways art may or may not help us to overcome it. I think Shklovsky means that it can be pretty hard to remain alert on a daily basis to the intense, complicated and seemingly endless variety of stimuli that constitute experience and that it's natural to start substituting what we expect to see for what we really see, just to be able to get to work on time or not want to jump out a window once we arrive there.

Luckily, there's literature to help us reverse the substitution by making the familiar unfamiliar again. But a potential problem for avid readers is to become habituated to various techniques meant to help them transcend their habits of perceiving, thinking and feeling. In the 19th century, when European fiction writers developed a set of techniques we now think of as realism, those techniques may have seemed an unfamiliar way to depict the world. By now, they have become so much a part of what we expect when we read that they strike us as quite natural, and much realist fiction these days reinforces our habits of perception rather than encouraging us to free ourselves of them.

One of America's most exciting violators of habit is Williams, who has written six books of fiction, beginning with 1990's all-encompassing story collection "This Is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate." Following is a brief and necessarily incomplete catalog of ways in which Williams, throughout her career and especially in her latest book, "It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature," pushes beyond convention.

1. Titles (not only the books but also individual stories): "I Was Very Hungry!," "Well, Well, Well, Well, Well," "The Easiest Way of Having," "Both My Wife and I Were Very Well Satisfied."

2. Unexpected nakedness of bodies, emotions and behavior. Though characters have committed adultery, fought, killed and had antisocial feelings since the dawn of literature, in Williams' stories people do these things frequently; and even when they don't, they seem about to -- in the next sentence or the next clause of the same sentence. This is actually somewhat less true of the current volume than of her previous ones. In "Pornography," a notorious story from her first story collection, a woman experiences something akin to sexual excitation upon seeing a boy on his bicycle hit by a car. Such shocking things don't happen as often in "It Was Like," though characters readily feel animal impulses and often act on them, as in the novella, "On Sexual Strength," in which the narrator receives a visit from his neighbor, Blanche, and, moments later, he says, "It may have been that I opened my trousers and I regarded my long penis," and, moments after that, a Clintonian stain appears on Blanche's beige slacks. Later still, her husband tells the narrator he's excrement and beats him. Still, what is strange and shocking in Williams' work has as much to do with how it is written as what is being depicted.

3. Her stories and novellas are very short, but they imply a tremendous amount of thought and offstage action. The spaces between sentences are themselves active elements and meaningful events, and the distance from a period to a capital letter often marks a discontinuity in standard narrative logic: " 'We'd all be blamed,' my wife said, 'if we were never misunderstood.' To my credit, at the factory, the in-rack was filled."

4. Williams is also quite the aphorist, as in the wife's Dantean remark above, the question "Where does one end begin and the other end end?" and the comment "Nobody thinks of a ghost of a chance as a real chance."

5. As in the above aphorism about the ghost, she likes to reinvigorate idiomatic expressions, cliches and dead metaphors: "Inside their house Blanche was breaking new ground. She was hard up against her value as a human being and she could not last much longer."

6. The paragraph above continues: "She wore a middy and fashionable Bermuda shorts. The buttoned breast pockets of her husband's shirt were packed with things." This comes in the middle of a chapter of the novella describing a physical fight between the narrator and Blanche's husband. This is an unconventional place for a description of a character's outfit, a violation of standard narrative syntax, in which clothing is supposed to be described at the beginning of the scene and should only be described during a fight if it gets torn. So Williams intentionally puts things in the wrong order.

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