Giving Realism the Side-Eye: The Fiction of Diane Williams

“Water is a burned substance.” This strange line comes from nowhere to conclude Honoré de Balzac’s “Gambara,” one of the real-est short stories I have ever read about art. And the line is made mystifying by what we call Balzac’s realism: the material descriptions, psychological observations, and sociological inventions that conspire to submerge the reader in a world with depth.

You might also call them “familiarizing conventions” because, as writers like Tom McCarthy often tell us, realism is merely the set of such maneuvers (rather than a way of tapping into the real). But the immersion of the reader into Balzac’s “world” of literary depth halts when you read this final line. Eventually, it’s intelligible: water is a product of the burning of hydrogen, and the man who speaks the line is crying. The tears in his eyes as he speaks, then, are a product of his inner burning. Still, the effect of the encounter with the sentence, the way it defamiliarizes the world Balzac has created, lingers after its romantic metaphor dies on the page.

The death of metaphors, the pruning or framing of ridiculous language: much of this marks the fiction of Diane Williams, one of our most persistent side-eyers of realism over the last twenty-five years. This to say that where Balzac or Dickens — those paradigmatic authors of 21st century TV realism — go deep, Williams instead lingers on surfaces. Where they work to build houses for the reader to enter into and reside in, Williams works alongside them, constructing an edifice that estranges the neighborhood, a home that only looks familiar insofar as it has one window and a doorknob.

But after reading Williams’ new collection of 44 stories — titled Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine — much of my above description feels inadequate. Words like “strange” and “unfamiliar” and “weird” aren’t altogether strange or unfamiliar or weird; just as bad is the lightly academic “defamiliarizes,” which appears to lean on some literary-historical authority but doesn’t. This because Williams’ anti-realism, or whatever you want to call it, tends to deflect description and summary; compare this to the rise of “Golden Age TV,” where the “recap” has become a common form. This also proves why Jonathan Franzen, the godhead of televisual prose, describes Williams’ fiction like this: “Her fiction makes very familiar things very, very weird.” He can’t stop himself from transcribing her work into comfortable, realist terms, but when he can’t pay the word “weird” a high enough wage, he has to bring in “very” twice to finish the job.

Just take the epigraph to Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine: “How long will Harry Doe live?..Who will win the war?…Will Mary Jane Brown ultimately find a husband?” This reduction of lives to plots marks non-art narrative across decades. Later, in the story “Head of the Big Man” (there are lots of heads-as-totems in these stories), she puts the lie to this form of narrativizing altogether, whether it’s a BBC drama or A Little Life, by redescribing it into absurdity:

None of this would have been possible without the involvement of morally strong, intelligent people who were then spent.
Young farmers and rural characters, obstetrical nurses, scholars, clergy — all the rest! — will have their great hopes realized more often than not — unless I decide to tell their stories.

“[U]nless I decide to tell their stories,” she writes. In Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Williams doesn’t avoid telling their stories; nor does she always shy away from shrinking her subjects into types (of emotion, of occupation). Here, though, it’s usually a matter of abstraction, of making room for shocks of exacting emotional description that are all the more exact because they don’t always aim to conjure up the emotion itself. How often is greed the result of longing for some emotional memory? In a story called “Greed,” a character who wants to keep her mother’s diamond-sapphire ring explains her impulse like this:

I had to have it. It was phantasmagoria. I selected it after my mother’s death, not because I liked it, but because it offers the memory of my mother and of the awkward, temporarily placed cold comfort that she gave me.

There is something here more artful than contemporary realism. The cold comfort of a memory, of a mother’s disposition, of a phantasm, of a diamond-sapphire ring: they’re equalized. Instead of Franzen’s realism, or even Bolaño or Knausgaard’s flat, anti-rhetorical prose, we’re dangerously close here to the pure rhetoric of fiction, which is to say that if you’re not careful, your entire notion of fiction as an art that rejects easy answers may come to resemble a Diane Williams story.