It’s easy to be wise after the event, but it was probably a mistake to go from reading Tolstoy, the great Russian master of realism, to one of the most avant-garde authors of our time. It’s like walking out of an art gallery full of 19th century Realist paintings and into an adjacent room full of abstract expressionists. The Realists are rich in meaning but they are immediately accessible even if you know nothing about art, whereas the ideas behind many forms of modern art can be frustratingly obscure, and sometimes alienating. Like enigmatic paintings such as Rothko’s Untitled Red, the works of avant-garde authors tend not to be easy to interpret.
By the time avant-garde writing makes its way through the literary gate-keepers, I assume that the author isn’t writing rubbish, but actually has something to say and has chosen a form that – while not familiar to me - has integrity and coherence behind it. From this perspective, avant-garde writing deserves an adventurous spirit, open-mindedness and a willingness to abandon the habitual ways we have of making meaning. Editorial reviews at Amazon* laud this collection of 50 pieces, while condemnatory reviews such as some at GoodReads come from readers who are unsettled by it. I’ve had good fun in the past reading B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, and one of my favourite books is James Joyce’s Ulysses which was avant-garde in its time. But alas, Vicky Swanky is a Beauty defeats me. At least for the time being …
It’s a collection of very short and spiky pieces of apparently unrelated writing. When I say ‘very short’, I mean it. Most pieces are just two, or maybe two-and-a-half pages long, but some are mere scraps. Here’s an example:
Now I have a baby boy and a five year old girl.
Being married, I thought I’d always be married to Wayne
because he tried to be perfect. What more could he ask for? (p79)
That’s it. As with poetry, the empty space around it on the page is as significant as the text. (I haven’t been able to reproduce the layout exactly here but it’s close).
The next one is called ‘I Like the Fringe’. It defeats me more than Human Being does. I hear in Human Being the sole parent trying out an explanation. Perhaps because Wayne abandoned her because his expectations weren’t met by marriage and fatherhood. Perhaps ending the marriage was her decision because he tried but failed to be perfect. Perhaps it was mutual. Its pithiness makes me think of fragments of conversation, perhaps over coffee with a close friend, trying to tease out why things went wrong but not revealing everything. However I’m not sure what insight this piece is meant to reveal because marriages ending due to failed expectations seems quite commonplace to me.
One of America’s most exciting violators of habit is [Diane] Williams…the extremity that Williams depicts and the extremity of the depiction evoke something akin to the pity and fear that the great writers of antiquity considered central to literature. Her stories, by removing you from ordinary literary experience, place you more deeply in ordinary life. ‘Isn’t ordinary life strange?’ they ask, and in so asking, they revivify and console.
Although Human Being doesn’t convince me about the strangeness of ordinary modern life (and if it’s meant to be about the extremities of life, I’d say Sharpe and Williams need to see more of the Rest of the World) this article is well worth reading, because Diane Williams is no obscure experimentalist. Jonathan Franzen is a great admirer, and the LA Times article clarifies the techniques she is using.
Nevertheless ’I Like the Fringe’ makes no sense to me at all.
I LIKE THE FRINGE
They don’t need to get me more belts. I have enough belts. I like the fringe.
This is to commemorate personal tastes – mine – the Durrants’. The Durrants are still here.
Mrs Durrant asks Gabor Mavor what she wants and Gabor says “a watch”.
I wish I had Gabor’s health and safety.
However I am encouraged by the spirit of invention. A man I see through the plate glass shovels a lot of snow and he doesn’t even have a shovel! He has one of those little brush scrapers on a stick.
A man like this has self-confidence.
Often life deals severely with me, and yet I’ll be wearing my nose. (p81)
Perhaps I could make more of this if I had more experience with modern poetry? T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland didn’t make sense to me the first time I read it, but with help from great tutors at university I grew to love it. I found it exciting.
Transit Lounge have taken a brave punt with this collection, publishing the first Australian edition of Diane Williams’ work. I hope it finds a readership willing to give it a go. It is a beautiful hardcover edition, with a clever, unsettling image on the slipcover. It has lovely expensive paper that encourages the reader to linger over the reading experience (even if mystified!) Through the program offerings at the Wheeler Centre and the Melbourne Writers Festival I know that in Melbourne, City of Literature, there is an active culture of experimental writing and I expect this is the same in other States that promote diversity and innovation. I think there will be Australian readers who will love this collection, and hopefully one or two of them will review it online!
I’d love to hear from others who’ve read this collection or anything else by Diane Williams. I feel as if there is something of value here, just beyond my grasp…
*If you are tempted to buy this collection, please don’t buy it from Amazon. Yes, I know, it’s cheaper, but it’s cheaper because they treat their employees badly and more importantly, it’s important to support an indie Aussie publisher who’s taken a financial risk in bringing the book to Australian readers.
Author: Diane Williams
Title: Vicky Swanky is a Beauty
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge
Direct from Transit Lounge.