The Prophet of Nothingness

With Harrow, her first novel in two decades, Joy Williams stares into the abyss.

Images of field and man on bike
Joe Sohm / Universal Images / Getty; Getty; Catherine Falls / Getty; Cedric von Niederhausern / The Atlantic

In Joy Williams’s 1988 novel, Breaking and Entering, a drifter named Willie finds himself, inexplicably and as if against his will, saving people. A young man is struck by lightning and Willie gives him CPR. An elderly couple drives off a boat ramp and Willie pulls the door open. Willie isn’t actively looking to help anyone; he just kind of falls into it. As Williams writes, “He had never had a penchant for the saving. It was the details of final things to which he’d always been drawn.”

Over almost half a century, in five collections of short stories and five novels, Joy Williams has been drawn to the details of final things, too. Her writing wears the trappings of realism: Her characters have unsatisfying jobs and love affairs; they go on long road trips and drinking binges. But she’s always been most interested in endings. Almost everything she has written has been haunted by death. With Harrow, her first novel in 21 years, she imagines the death of the world itself.

To read Williams is to look into the abyss. She places her characters against bigness—the Arizona sky, the rocky Maine shoreline—in order to show us exactly how small they, and we, are, “tramps and drifters and vagrants in this life, nothing more.” In all of her work, from the short stories collected in The Visiting Privilege to her nonfiction jeremiad Ill Nature, Williams is made ecstatic by and humbled before wildness. There’s divine wildness, her vision of “a God of barbaric and unholy appearance, with a mind [so] uncomplimentary to human consciousness” that it almost nullifies earthly existence. There’s natural wildness, a world of oceans and deserts, all exhibiting inscrutable intention. And there’s human wildness, again and again. Her characters fire guns and crash cars and drink gin and long for escape.

Williams’s father was a Congregationalist minister, and her books have a fundamentally religious vision. When she writes of “that great cold elemental grace that knows us,” though, she doesn’t intend to comfort. As Williams writes in Ninety-Nine Stories of God (2013), “We must push our minds to the limits of what we could know, descending ever deeper into the darkness of unknowing.” For Williams, unknowing is the route to God, and grace’s gift is to remind humanity of its insignificance. Nothingness provides Harrow with its most consistent drumbeat. Sentimental language, our profit-maximizing society, and the ravaged world it has left behind: All must be purged before new life can reappear. Grace comes only after harrowing.

Williams is best known as a writer of stories, and hers tend to share a few features. They center on would-be pilgrims: a grieving father who attends group meetings at an Episcopal church; a mother whose son was a serial killer; a couple who wander from hotel to hotel in search of drink and some kind of manageable oblivion. Something—an explosion of violence or a painting in a roadhouse—pierces the veil of the ordinary. Time and causality become scrambled. The past leaks out of its borders; the future contracts and expands. Then, without preamble, the story cuts off, leaving us in a cloud of unknowing. “There were tenses that human speech had yet to discover,” Williams writes in her third short-story collection, Honored Guest. Somehow, she has discovered those tenses, creating in her fiction a grammar capable of expressing time’s awesome strangeness.

Every lover of Williams has a list of favorite sentences. From “Craving”: “She felt a little Februaryish, as she always did in that forlorn, short, spiky month.” From Breaking and Entering: “He had a wet small mouth within his beard, a mouth such as bearded people often have.” From “Congress”: “He emerged from rehab with a face as expressionless as a frosted cake.” These sentences exhibit the minimalist style of 1980s dirty realism (think Raymond Carver and Jayne Anne Phillips), and that label has been affixed to Williams’s work. It makes a certain amount of sense when you consider the grungy motels and roadside museums her characters congregate in, and the understated perfection of how their lives are rendered.

By another and truer light, though, Williams is the furthest thing from a minimalist. Many of her stories, and especially her novels, feature fantastical transformations: children turning into beasts; women turning into ghosts; seemingly banal lives turning mythic. In an echo of Wallace Stevens’s poem “Sunday Morning,” Williams has said that “what good stories deal with is the horror and incomprehensibility of time, the dark encroachment of old catastrophes.” Hardly a manifesto for the pared-down, Stevens’s poem concerns modernity’s attempts to find an adequate substitute for religion’s transcendent extravagances. If Williams works in any tradition of realism, it’s something like visionary realism: a style that sees the transfigured as the truest apprehension of the real. For these writers—I’d number among their ranks Marilynne Robinson, Annie Dillard, and the late Robert Stone—the visionary mode isn’t an addition to, or critique of, realism. It is realism’s truest form.

Take Williams’s story “Congress.” It opens simply: “Miriam was living with a man named Jack Dewayne, who taught a course in forensic anthropology at the state’s university.” Characters clearly introduced, a state-university setting—this is the stuff of realism. Slowly, though, almost without our noticing, Williams weirds things up. Small details, precise and perverse, filter in. Jack’s familiarity with death attracts others to him like moths to a flame. Miriam has a predilection for petty theft as well as “a fondness for people who vanished, though she had never known any personally.” A student named Carl shows up to Jack’s house and offers him “four cured deer feet. ‘I thought you’d like to make a lamp,’ Carl said.” Why the deer feet? Why a lamp? Because that’s the way the world is, awash in death and oddity.

A lot happens in the story’s remaining 14 pages. The deer-hoof lamp gets made; Jack suffers brain damage in a hunting accident; Carl and Jack become lovers, forming a family with Miriam and the inexplicably sentient, and well-read, lamp. The story ends with Miriam returning to the hotel room where she’s staying with the lamp.

Miriam continued down the corridor and opened the door quietly to her own room. She looked at the lamp. The lamp looked back at her as though it had no idea who she was. Miriam knew that look. She’d always felt it was full of promise. Nothing could happen anywhere was the truth of it. And the lamp was burning with this. Burning!

So much of Williams’s genius is distilled here: the control of syntax, as her rhythms rush by and accumulate at the same time; the liberty that comes from unknowing; the echoes of negative theology; the opening up of the dingy into the mystical.

Image of a harrow in a field
Laurent GrandGuillot / REA / Redux ; Slava Mazai / EyeEm / Getty ; Cedric von Niederhausern / The Atlantic

Williams’s first three novels—State of Grace (1973), The Changeling (1978), and Breaking and Entering (1988)—all were set in or near Florida. (Williams lived in Key West for years and now splits her time between Arizona and Wyoming.) These early novels have a clammy, claustrophobic atmosphere. Things rot quickly in Florida, and Williams makes you feel that most everything—marriages, bodies, souls—is just this side of corruption.

With The Quick and the Dead (2000), she moved things to the Southwest. There, we encounter a landscape of extremes. The heat during the day is so intense that a character’s “hair felt recently boiled”; the cold at night is so brutal that it seems extraterrestrial. This desert terrain is the world of Harrow, too; the novels form a diptych of devastation. In The Quick and the Dead, the world has come to the precipice of ecological disaster. Species are dying off, and the seasons are changing. The novel centers on a trio of girls: One dreams of becoming a full-blown ecowarrior, launching campaigns against hunters and bird-killing cats; another longs to winnow herself into nothingness, “tamp[ing] herself down, measur[ing] out her breaths until they were gone”; the third simply yearns for a life of American-style luxury. All three girls’ mothers have died; two of the girls are fatherless as well. Previous generations have destroyed the world and left the scene of the crime.

In Harrow, apocalypse actually happens—first slowly, thanks to a culture that produces crap and kills the world around it, then all at once. The days are hot and the landscape is barren: “The creatural companions of childhood, even then glimpsed only in zoos and aquariums, would no more have existed here than the griffins and dragons imagined by the ancients.” Much of civilization is gone, though “Disney World has rebooted and is going strong.” The novel’s title refers to humanity’s long plundering of the natural world. (It also alludes to the “harrowing of hell,” the period between Christ’s death and resurrection when he descended into hell.) But it has a more literal referent as well: the harrow, an old, toothed farming tool dragged over soil to remove weeds and break up clods. In the world of Williams’s novel, “worship is negligible. Art [is] decor, and is mostly confined to depictions of the harrow.” These drawings appear on train stations and government buildings. “Anyone could create art as long as it was for consumption in public spaces. But it all had to be of the harrow. Goddamn harrow was everywhere.”

The harrow could be seen as a symbol of renewal—the land has been broken but will now yield new life. Yet it’s hard to see what rebirth is possible when the surviving population appears “rigidly optimistic, uninhibited and chary of any devotion.” That last phrase exhibits a biblical cadence common to Williams’s writing, and the image of the harrow recalls a passage from the Book of Job. In it, God asks Job if he can make the natural world do his bidding: Will the ox follow your command? Can you force him to “harrow the valleys after thee?” No, you can’t, God suggests. But humanity tries anyway, arrogating to itself a power that doesn’t belong to it.

Like everything Williams has written, Harrow is a deeply theological work—the desert fathers, Saint John of the Cross, and Julian of Norwich are all mentioned—and the world it imagines is fallen in several senses. Our main guide to this world is a teenager named Khristen. One night, as an infant, Khristen appeared to briefly stop breathing. Her mother, a spiritual dabbler, believes that Khristen died and then came back to life. “As I grew,” Khristen says, “[my mother’s] intention and need was to put me in touch with where I had been when I was dead, what I remembered of it and what I had learned.” For decades now, Williams has been consumed with this question: What will death be like, and how would we live differently if we knew? This is why ghosts populate her stories, why characters commune and bicker with the dead. “Isn’t that the great theological question,” someone in Harrow wonders, “what if this present were the world’s last night?” To live with the knowledge of death is our task; it’s just that it seems an impossible one.

Early in the novel, Khristen’s father dies—parents don’t tend to last long in Williams’s fiction—and her mother sends her to a boarding school in the West. Orientation begins with a reading from Nietzsche on eternal return. “This is such a tremendous lot to ask of us,” a student mutters. As the world continues to fall apart, the school closes and Khristen wanders the countryside. She eventually finds her way to a former hotel now called the Institute that has become a meeting place for “unseen oldsters and their extreme end-of-life plans.” The Institute’s residents are dedicated to destroying the “purveyors of war and the market … the exterminators and excavators, the breeders and consumers of every stripe, those locusts of clattering, clacking hunger.” They identify targets—fertility doctors harvesting the wombs of dead women; Big Agriculture, which remains in bed with Big Chemical—and plan violent action. The problem is, taking such action is hard when your joints are creaky and your mind is going and the world seems over anyway. At the Institute, Khristen also meets Jeffrey, a precocious boy staying at an adjoining motel who plans on going into law. (Precocious children are as common as parentless children in Williams’s universe.)

In The Quick and the Dead, a character observes, “We are in exile here. We are strangers and pilgrims in this place.” This place is Earth, and Khristen is an exile in a world of exiles. She’s (maybe) exiled from life into death and then back again; she’s exiled to boarding school; she’s exiled to the Institute; when the Institute folds, she’s exiled again. After an unclear amount of time, she wanders into a rundown town and is informed that she must report to the courthouse. She does, where she finds that Jeffrey is the presiding judge. In a world without a future, he somehow has found his way to the career he dreamed of. He loves wearing his robes, though he’s overwhelmed by his caseload. He refers vaguely to “his masters,” not knowing what they want from him or even if they care.

If that sounds a lot like Kafka, it should. When Khristen presents herself to the court, Jeffrey asks her to read Kafka’s “The Hunter Gracchus.” The story is tailor-made for Williams’s purposes. In it, Gracchus arrives at a port borne on a bier. He’s deceased but somehow still capable of speech; he knows that he has died though his sense of exactly when is sketchy. When someone reasonably says, “But you’re also alive,” Gracchus answers, “To a certain extent … to a certain extent I am also alive. My death ship lost its way.” The same could be said of Khristen and of the world she lives in—and the one we live in too. How much longer can our death-in-life last? How might death—our own death, perhaps; the death we’re bringing to the rest of the world, certainly—change us if we saw it for what it is? After reading Gracchus’s story, Khristen thinks, “I felt the story was revelatory while being impossible to interpret”—an apt description of Williams’s own death-haunted and perfectly indescribable fiction.

Toward the end of the novel, Jeffrey sits in his chambers, staring at a cup of water, and thinks of ancient Greece, where “oracles of the dead appear[ed] as visions in pools or certain pans of water.” In his own world, the oracles are departed; they have left no address. Jeffrey laments that he has “never been granted such a vision, not so much as a peek. He had to be content with the constant revelation that most of what passed as the substance of life was nothing.” What Jeffrey understands as a lesser revelation though is, for Williams, real wisdom. We are dust and to dust we will return. One of the epigraphs to The Quick and the Dead comes from Thomas à Kempis’s 15th-century devotional, The Imitation of Christ: “And whatever is not God is nothing, and ought to be accounted as nothing.” Williams remains our great prophet of nothingness.