Review: Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty by Diane Williams

A collection of jarring, funny stories reveals the strange underbelly of domestic drama.

By Diane Williams. McSweeney's, $20.

“Perfectly safe; go ahead,” taunts the introductory quotation of Diane Williams’s seventh collection of short stories. Upon realizing the quote is attributed to the author herself, the taunt becomes a dare. Once the reader takes up with her lonely hearts and misanthropes, and their jarring tales begin to generate an eerie electricity, it becomes apparent that Williams’s overtly soothing epigraph was nothing more than the whisper of a spider, luring a fly into its web.

The central events of the tales in Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty parallel obvious real-world happenings: a dinner party, a divorce, a family reunion. But Williams plays on what readers expect from these kitchen-sink dramas, tilting all recognizable guideposts askew and making each tale an exercise in domestic detective work. “If You Ever Get Three or Four Laughing You Weren’t Soon to Forget It” charts a joke-teller’s egregious but unspecified faux pas and its fallout. A shopper in “The Emporium” breaks down when she discovers that a uniquely noisome woman is no longer married.

Despite the nebulous circumstances surrounding each story, there’s a poetic precision in Williams’s execution. So much depends on subtle shifts in tense or adjectives modified slightly from one use to the next, that it’s clear the author is purposefully evoking a turbulent, disappointing and disjointed world. As her sentences lift veils in order to reveal the funny, strange landscape beneath an experience, their rhythm can feel repetitive. But it’s undeniable that spending more time in Williams’s domain will shake up the monotony of one’s own.

Diane Williams reads at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe Thu 5.

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