Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Review: "State of Grace" by Joy WIlliams

          Too often the review is dominated by strong opinion. "I loved it", "I hated it" hyperbole is standard in the review and thus becomes the new standard. It's the way to get your opinion across but at a certain point you have to wonder about the sincerity of it all. Do these reviewers actually believe every other book is the "best one they have read all year", "absolutely captivating" or "absolute trash, not worthy of being burned"? I think not.
I value the need to get an opinion across, and strongly if need be, but I value honesty above these. Having said this let me state, without prejudice, that "State of Grace" written by Joy Williams a writer celebrated by Carver, Lin and many others, and a novel written in the year 1974 then nominated for one of the most prestigious literary awards in the U.S. in that year left me feeling resolutely ambivalent.
          Perhaps I am too swayed by my own expectations. I intently picked up this novel after reading Tao Lin's interview with Joy Williams after being awed by his praise. I hoped to be blown away or at least feel "calmed" as Lin states. At first I was feeling it, really feeling it, but as the novel went on this feeling mellowed out into a cool chug, peppered infrequently by brief moments of excitement. Don't get me wrong: Williams is a solid writer, at least here: the novel is imaginative, sad, playful, and obviously shows master craftsmanship. But I felt like I was watching a master just...working to work. As if an excellent chef were mixing me up a bowl of cereal, or a celebrated artist was painting a basic landscape: everything is there but the work is uninspired and unprovoking.
        I found the novel to be primarily a portrait. A portrait of a woman in the south who has thrown away a socially acceptable life in order to life with her husband in ragged bliss. The story is put together achronologically and pieced together, and this is done well. Each time has it's own separate voice and feel which is disorienting in a good way. But I never felt connected to the characters and their motives were always distant. The landscapes, mostly of the south, are depicted vividly, as is the time (mid 70's?). The novel is broken up into three books a division which I found fairly arbitrary, then further into sections which varied in length. Many of these sections were similar to independent short stories and it seems Williams wrote them as such as some have that "magical last line" which can be so striking in a short story but, in this case, usually fall flat or at least seem extraneous. Much of the dialogue seemes stilted or odd, like in a bad movie, especially in the beginning. The themes of religion, the treatment of women. and the treatment of African Americans are woven throughout, but these seem to be thrown in casually and for effect rather than in deep consideration of the topics, and sometimes slip into shock factor territory.
       Perhaps my disinterest is more a symptom of what I look for in a novel. I've been thinking about this a lot recently and I think I have uncovered the traits that make my really get into a novel. I like visceral literature, the stuff that makes me feel something, happy or sad, or confused or transcendent. While I appreciate form and allusion and style and all the other things these will eternally take a back seat to whether the novel elicits emotion in me. Not surprisingly then I found "State of Grace" to be a novel that rarely brought out a visceral sensation. I think I laughed once but that was it. Williams' strengths lie more in her ability to paint a world, similar to our own, very similar but a little different, to think up characters that would feel at home in our world then set them loose and see what happens. The resulting scenario is fairly similar to what one would find in any given place in our world, some happy points, some sad but mostly a lot of trudging through life, slightly confused a little bored and searching for something...though not sure what that thing is. In this way, I suppose, Williams writes like God writes, which is most definitely notable, but this is not what I look for in a novel. While I can't fault her for doing what she does, and doing it well, I admit my taste runs elsewhere.

No comments:

Post a Comment