Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Like such modern short stories as “The Garden-Party” (1922) by Katherine Mansfield, “The Farm” uses the unexpected death of an outsider to reveal unexpressed problems in the lives of comfortable and self-assured characters. Williams does not use Steven Bettencourt’s death manipulatively, however. One reason for this is that Williams makes her characters so ordinary, so everyday, that the presence of the unexpected or the unlikely does not strike the reader as gratuitous or unearned.

Williams’s stories are generally agreed by critics to resemble, in structure and in tone, the minimalism pioneered by the late Raymond Carver. Williams, however, imparts to her fiction a surrealistic air all her own. This surrealism can be seen in the telling anecdote of the child being killed by the alligator. At first, this seems to be a pointless interruption of the narrative, but it has a twofold function within the story. It reveals a panoply of incident and example that anchors the story’s metaphoric register, foreshadowing Steven’s death. In Williams’s thick, braided mode of narration, every quote and every detail matter in the tale’s ultimate composition.

Williams is a self-conscious artist, eager to advertise the sophistication of her own fictional mode, while also operating on a very human level. The odd interruptions, sudden swerves of voice and narrative, and the sense of fey, winsome, if slightly wry wonder that pervades the story mirror the situations of the characters. Far from being structured, Williams’s surrealism reflects the way in which the random tragedies of life rupture the self-assurance of people who thought they had their world under control. The artistic skill with which the story is rendered mirrors the messiness and incoherence of real life.