‘What am I – I wonder, dear god – now best known for?’ It is a question asked at the end of ‘Gladly!’, one of the American author Diane Williams’s mercurial, light-footed short stories. The narrator in existential crisis has just bumped into a man she ‘once engaged with for years, amid scenes of nearly religious significance’; has found a discarded, brand new pair of ‘canvas All Star high tops’; and witnessed a boy picking up nuts that were ‘meant for squirrels’, and decided that in later life he will be renowned for either ‘gluttony’ or ‘enterprise’. The drama of these occurrences and the self-questioning take place over no more than two pages. The story, and the lives it tells, could be read in the time it takes to gulp some coffee.
There is, then, no question of what Williams, now in her seventies, is best known for. She writes an unmistakable type of story: short, tightly wrought, each sentence a small masterpiece – a three-act play in miniature. ‘Keepsake’ is told in a single 23-word sentence:
I received a strong smooth cock that had nearly lifted itself out of itself – such a feat – but I could not keep it.
The collection is replete with moments when she mixes the sexual with the absurd: husbands are ‘scrappy foxes’; a kiss is twisting, grotesque ‘calisthenics’. In one story, an entire relationship stems from a night of bad sex. Many of them verge on the surreal. With flying narrators and women whose hair drags on the floor as they walk, there’s something of Leonora Carrington’s visions about the stories. But amid baffling, bizarre images and seeming non-sequiturs, Williams captures the mundanity of every- day life in surprising and electrifying ways – from the mother who says it will be her ‘turn to cry’ when the baby stops, to the woman who, after unpleasant sex, smashes a vase into ‘sad, but very sparkly charms’.