The Changeling

A lost classic comes back to haunt us.

Photograph: Rollie McKenna

Time Out Ratings :

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

Joy Williams is one of the best and most challenging American writers working today, and she has a runners-up résumé to prove it: Her books are masterful enough to nab nominations for—but probably too disquieting to win—the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer. Her novels, though often hilarious, are sweaty explorations of spiritual crisis and death, with the majority of her adult characters paralyzed by the notion that life is a sick joke. In the vein of Denis Johnson, she’s also something of a genius crank, writing, on the side, essays in which she rants against unchecked procreation and gives a voice to Ted Kaczynski’s cabin. She has apparently sworn off computers, rarely picks up the phone and lives in an Arizona house with an outgoing voicemail message that sounds (as a joke, no doubt!) like something you’d get when trying to reach someone at a militia compound (“You have called an unsecure line…”). All of which made it difficult, this reporter found, to obtain an interview.

To put it another way, Williams is a nonconformist, and fans won’t be surprised that in the course of her career she’s produced a novel too offbeat for the literary establishment to nominate for anything: namely her second novel, The Changeling, which appeared in 1978, was trashed by reviewers and never made it to a second printing. The small press Fairy Tale Review is honorably resuscitating the book in celebration of its 30th birthday.

Complete with island internment, plane-crash survivors and voices murmuring in the woods, The Changeling reads like a highly mutated version of Lost—if, say, that show’s scriptwriters had been replaced by the young gin-soaked modernist Jean Rhys. The book charts the experiences of Pearl, a young woman who after six days of marriage goes on a shoplifting spree, meets a stranger named Walker and follows him to his family’s isolated island off the coast of Maine. There, she and Walker have a son, but before long she decides that the island’s few adults (especially Walker’s brother Thomas) are harming a group of children in their care. She flees to Florida, but is mysteriously tracked down and brought back. At this point, Pearl begins a slow descent down the rabbit hole: She spends her days with the children (though she can’t quite recognize her own son) and slips into an increasingly hallucinatory world. Her state of mind might or might not have something to do with the fact that she usually starts hitting the bottle before noon.

Williams’s gift for brutal sentences is on full display. There are passages of searing character development, specifically in flashbacks that describe the adults before they came to the island (once there, they become somewhat indistinguishable). Of Lincoln, a onetime math professor, she writes: “He wielded words as a seal skinner does a club. The classroom was an arctic waste littered with battered puppy sensibilities.” Williams also nails the temporary numbness and lasting despair of alcoholism. “Her mouth felt like a bit of fruit wobbling in setting Jello,” she says of Pearl’s shaky dipso relief.

But sturdy descriptions are rare in this novel. Reading it is like being stuck in a bad dream, one in which you can’t exert any power over an inherently flawed world (in Pearl’s words: “a universe made by something more than human for something less than human”). Is Pearl’s life on the island reality, a fever dream, a hazy glimpse of the afterlife? All of the above? It is difficult to find stable ground here, partly because there is no potential source of comfort that Pearl doesn’t unravel. When she considers parental love, children’s stories (watch for her venomous revision of The Runaway Bunny), even language itself, she sees only surfaces that hide horrible truths. It’s appropriate that a book so fascinated with facades would rip away its own to reveal a nightmare underneath—visions, maybe real and maybe imagined, of children transformed into murderous beasts.

The book can be frustrating. Williams once wrote that “the significant story possesses more awareness than the writer writing it,” but one gets the sense that this mysterious novel occasionally drifted too far away from its creator. Readers unfamiliar with Williams’s work are better off starting with her later fiction—The Quick & the Dead (2000) or the story collection Honored Guest (2003)—where the characters are still obsessed with life’s horrible comedies (most notably, death) but tend to acknowledge the possibility of laughing at the joke.

Still, this is a minor complaint: The Changeling is frustrating mostly because it’s so good at evoking a woman on the verge. A lot of Pearl’s madness is simply an inability to ignore the everyday craziness that most people just glide through. In this sense, Williams’s bleak fairy tale is more than a potent portrait of a mad world—it’s almost realistic.

By Joy Williams. Fairy Tale Review, $16 paperback.