FAMED ODDBALL of modern American literature Diane Williams has spent the past 25 years writing unusual short-form work. Her latest, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, out this month from McSweeney's, is made up of 44 very brief stories, which are so unlike most short stories (and even most flash fiction and prose poetry) that trying to pin a genre on them is near impossible. They have a baffling accessibility once you get going, but even the work of Williams' closest writing relatives—Donald Barthelme and Lydia Davis—can't quite prepare you for their strangeness.
Williams' writing in Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine has the quality of a remixed remix. It reads like oddly translated noir, or erasures of romance novels. Much of it is built on bizarre statements like this one: "And that night—some progress to report. Something exciting afoot. She has a quarter-hour more to live." That, sitting between lines that are only remotely connected.
These humorous hints of plot or character are typically abandoned soon after they arrive, and what you thought might become a story turns out to be an impressive, very precise void. Almost all these voids begin with labyrinthine sentences. In one of them, Williams writes, "She bears the problems inherent in her circumstance that are not suddenly in short supply and she sways while guessing who really looks at her impatiently while she faces all of the faces—the multiple rows of the pairs of persons—the prime examples in the train aisle."
Whether a sentence like that is interesting or amusing to you might serve as a decent litmus test as to whether or not you should read Williams. These superbly uninviting lines quickly became my favorite part; when I finished the book, I gave it a reread as a collection of first lines and found it almost more enjoyable that way.
The "fine" of the book's title (a passing line from one of the stories) seems to be a reference to fine things, of which there are many. Williams' characters are inordinately preoccupied with well-crafted, expensive objects, some of which are interesting and add to her unsettlingly precise scenes. But more often, they're an exclusionary distraction, serving only to show that nearly every character in these 44 stories has wealth most of us will never know: a turquoise ring circa 1890, a fountain in the shape of a sun, Georg Jensen necklaces, boiled wool cloaks, a rare antique potato basket, an Opel, a whole room of antique red velvet. Williams is a writer who's acclaimed for shining a light on the absurdities of everyday life, but whose everyday life? In her details, I saw no resemblance to the lives of anyone I know, and I suppose that's fine (fine, fine, fine, fine). It just means that I can't recommend this gloriously unconventional, hilariously emotionally absent book to everyone who wants to get their odd on.