IT COULD EASILY BE SAID that Joy Williams is one of the most influential short-story writers alive today. With her work praised by four decades' worth of writers—from Raymond Carver to Karen Russell, Ann Beattie to Bret Easton Ellis—the extent of her influence isn't in question. But despite Williams' acclaim, her work remains relatively unknown outside of literary circles. And her idiosyncrasies—living in harsh rural landscapes, wearing sunglasses all hours of the day, not participating in the internet, using a typewriter for all her work and correspondences—have kept her even further out of the spotlight, while adding to her enigmatic appeal.
The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories, out this month, is a loud acknowledgment of Williams' importance. Published more for the bookshelf than the casual reader, the weighty 500 pages-plus tome is a career-spanning collection that displays the extent of her powers. A literary event, to be sure, but one that undercuts the greatness of the 13 new stories—thematically connected enough to be worthy of their own book—at the end of this collection.
Populated by characters set apart from society—out of place, rejected, unwelcome, or just uninterested—these stories are wild and unpredictable worlds of their own where anything can happen and death is always close at hand. A child channels his grandparents on a near-daily basis. A grown son accidentally sleeps in his car through his father's funeral. A woman in an assisted-living facility speaks openly about her younger self's habit of drowning cats. The mothers of celebrity killers all move to the same town by chance. Williams' universe is bleak, but outlandish and beguilingly hilarious.
Her greatest gift is her ability to simultaneously horrify and amuse, to fully embrace such opposing forces. Contradictory emotional states are constantly colliding in her work, battling for supremacy but mostly coexisting. A line from the new story "Revenant" best captures the world you enter in Williams' work: "Life seemed sweet and carefree and cruel, futile, almost comprehensible."