It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

The term “short short”—which describes the ultrabrief stories written, most famously, by Lydia Davis—seems both counterintuitive and utterly appropriate. The sort of tale it designates places ultimate value on concision, and yet the label itself is a redundancy. On the other hand, the name “short short” suggests intensity, a doubling of force.

A pioneer of the genre, Diane Williams excels at chiseling narratives out of a few sentences, and her new collection offers more than 40 compressed stories that derive their energy from lopsided syntax, hairpin turns and suggestive omissions. Her interests here tend toward the eeriness of domestic life, especially the ambiguous line between safe and suffocating relationships. Judging from the two-sentence story “Baby Flourishes,” this tension begins at an early age: “The baby spent time on a pitiful romance,” the author writes, and then amps up the ambivalence: “She felt herself to be in the arms—somehow gathered, forcibly invited, incapable of enjoying herself, and very much in love.”

Williams is also keenly interested in sexual desire, and her enigmatic prose is often offset by the outright perversity of her characters. “On Sexual Strength,” the novella that anchors the book, is a black comedy about adultery. “It may have been that I opened my trousers and I regarded my long penis,” the narrator muses with some uncertainty. About five lines later, he seems more certain: “My semen dropped onto Blanche’s beige slacks.” Williams delights in pondering the messes people make with, and on, each other. She is today’s premier exponent of the outburst as a literary mode.

—Justin Taylor

Williams reads Thu 6 and Wed 12.

By Diane Williams.
FC2, $17.95 paperback..