Object Lessons

The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story

The Paris Review

Picador

Daniel Alarcón
on
Joy Williams’s Dimmer
 
 
Joy Williams is one of those unique and instantly recognizable storytelling voices, capable of finding the mysterious and magical heart within even the most ordinary human acts. Her stories begin in unexpected places, and take surprising turns toward their eventual end. She doesn’t describe life; she exposes it. She doesn’t write scenes, she evokes them with a finely observed gesture, casually reinterpreted to provide maximum, often devastating, insight:
He had straddled the baby as it crept across the ground as though little Mal were a gulch he had no intention of falling into.
The baby in this startling image is Mal Vester, the unlucky and unloved protagonist of “Dimmer.” He is a survivor, but there is no romantic luster to his suffering. Mal is rough, untamed, stricken, desperate, and alone. His father, who never wanted him, dies in the first sentence; his mother, the only person who loved him without restraint, dies in the second. Her death haunts this beatiful, moving story, right up until the very last line; but what keeps us reading to the end is the prose, which constantly unpacks and explains Mal’s unlikely world with inventive and striking images. Williams has done something special: she makes Mal’s drifting, his lack of agency, narratively compelling. Life happens to Mal; it is inflicted upon him, a series of misfortunes that culminate in his exile. (A lonelier airport has never appeared in short fiction.) Mal never speaks, but somehow, I didn’t realize it until the third time I’d read “Dimmer.” I knew him so well, felt his tentative joy and fear so intimately, it was as if he’d been whispering in my ear all along.


 
Copyright © 2012 by The Paris Review