The story itself seems to take place in this weird, liminal space. The narrator’s home life is in disarray. His wife has left him. He’s caring for their young son, Colson, alone. And both his parents have died. Or have they? Because, later, Colson seems to be able to channel the voices of the narrator’s dead parents. There’s a strange in-between-ness to everything. The landscape is at one point referred to as a “bustling wasteland,” this odd, paradoxical construction. There’s a sense of everyone going mad in a mad world.
I’m not sure Williams is exactly trying to answer the question Why are we here? the same way her characters are in “The Country.” I do think of her as being a very theologically engaged writer, one whose work is focused on diving into those most central and recurring questions of the fact of our existence. But, in my mind, this story demonstrates how wrestling with that question of why we are here is really an impossible pursuit. That’s captured in a line I love, where Colson seems to be speaking through the voices of the dead parents:
“We are here to prepare for not being here,” he says. “Then you’re in the other here, where the funny thing is no one realizes you’ve arrived.”
I love the koan-like, contradictory logic of that phrase: We are here to prepare for not being here. But the beautiful thing about “The Country,” though it’s a story reckoning with the anxiety of mortality, is that Williams doesn’t really let us know if we’re here or there, whether the characters are alive, or in a place beyond life, or somehow straddling the line. Instead, Williams is interested in exploring the hallucinatory quality of grief, how states of mourning can make things feel ravaged, surreal, and hyper-vivid—the story dramatizes the profound weirdness and dislocation of having lost someone. And it just lets us sit with that.
That’s so much more to Williams’s project than drawing any sort of clear conclusion about why we’re here, or where we go when we die. She doesn’t want to disclose, instruct, or advocate—she transmutes and disturbs. It’s about locating the reader in these intensely dynamic spaces, and letting us navigate them without much hand-holding or explaining. Evocation is definitely prioritized over explanation. She just puts us in there—in that space of terror, and bewilderment, and strangeness, and beauty, and grace.
I think, as a writer, I’m less interested in resolving questions than I am in working with them—sort of sitting with the questions, the way I’ve learned to do by reading Williams. In The Third Hotel, my narrator Claire is wrestling with this sense of perpetual unfinishedness. She’s trying to make sense of her husband’s death, how someone’s life can just stop and not continue, and of the lack of resolution in her own inner life. She’s struggling with all the unclosed loops, the knowledge that undone matter will be forever undone. What do you do with that, the fact we can be here, and then not here? At one point, she remembers a line from Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich that sums this feeling up so neatly: “I was here, and now I’m going there! Where?”