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Escapes

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The stories of Joy Williams resemble those of her better-known contemporary Ann Beattie and have also been compared to those of Raymond Carver, whose death cut short an exceptionally promising career. What the three have in common is inadequately covered by the term “minimalism.” They are parsimonious in description and exposition; they shun subjective interpretation with the abhorrence of behaviorist psychologists and delight in picking out the little concrete details that serve as natural metaphors; their dialogue is deliberately mundane and seldom advances the plot. In fact, there is often no plot to advance: They avoid such traditional devices as narrative hooks, escalating conflicts, turning points, and denouements. Their characters seldom change, and the fact that they are incapable of change is often the essence of the tragedy. All three authors flirt shamelessly with what editors used to condemn as “slices of life” or “vignettes.” They are Chekhovians with a vengeance.

While the typical Carver character is an unskilled laborer and the typical Beattie character a college-educated professional, the typical Williams character is harder to pin down. Her people are often unemployed, widowed or divorced, homeless, chronically on the move, rootless if not utterly desperate. The opening of a story titled “The Little Winter” is characteristic: “She was in the airport, waiting for her flight to be called, when a woman came to a phone near her chair.” The protagonist is dying of a brain tumor and searching for someone who might conceivably care. In “Lu-Lu,” a young woman who is described as “young and desperate” adopts an enormous boa constrictor and drives off into the desert sun. “The Route” documents a miserable vacation trip; the opening line, “We had the car so we went,” reflects the spirit of Williams’ fiction . Cars figure prominently in her stories. In “The Skater,” a man...

(The entire section is 445 words.)