Stuff by Joy Williams, 2016
The magic trick:
Telling a story about a man’s life and fears by skewing the reality of the narrative so that the reader worries less about the life and more about the fears
Only tangentially a Christmas story, “Stuff” finds a writer absorbing a terminal cancer diagnosis just before he is to write his annual Christmas column for the local paper.
Or does he?
Joy Williams is very good at being weird without being weird.
The story takes the reader in – or at least I was taken in – only occasionally thinking that some of the interactions seem a little off. The doctor is very flippant. That woman at the Christmas tree farm sure was mean. I’m thinking these things but not really making any sense of them as I read.
Then we find our protagonist questioning himself about the furniture in his mother’s room. It doesn’t add up with her biography. Something definitely is off here.
What I really admire then is the restraint by Williams to not explode the story’s reality at that point and project it off into another surreal direction. It never is clear what reality is in this story. It is only clear that you should question it.
But no, that isn’t the effect. See? That’s the cool thing. It becomes clear that there is no point in determining what is real and what isn’t. Regardless, these are the images and people and conversations and fears that exist in this man’s head. That is the story. And that’s quite a trick on Wiliams’s part.
He was the little boy who had once bought an instructional record: “How to Teach Your Canary to Sing.”
Now he was going to die.
Only last year, he had been on the cover of the telephone directory, looking kind, fit, and comfortable. This was an honor that continued to elude Yolanda and her group of thuggish youths. He had been supplanted this year by an artist’s rendering of a new wind farm. Green pastures, sleek white blades, blue sky—a pleasing evocation of the extraterrestrial and the ecologically sound. Except that little appeared freshly green or white or blue anymore. Everything looked increasingly worn and shorn, though no one was saying anything about it. That was why his columns were still being tolerated. He wasn’t bringing it to anyone’s attention, either.
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