Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 30, 2012

Vicky Swanky is a Beauty, by Diane Williams

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:

HUMAN BEING

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.

But via Wikipedia I found this quotation from Matthew Sharpe in the LA Times, reviewing a Diane Williams collection called It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature A Novella and Stories:

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
ISBN: 9781921924200
Source: Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Availability:
Direct from Transit Lounge.


Responses

  1. This is a great review Lisa of what sounds like a difficult book.
    I recently came across three short stories written by masters/mistresses of the form which were extremely difficult to understand. I was prepared to put in a fair bit of effort to understand them but, in the end, I found myself – as a reader – feeling diminished. It was as though the author had no interest in letting me in, inviting me on the journey.
    I wonder if others have ever had that feeling of not being respected as a reader, that the writer was more interested in being what my grandmother would have termed ‘too clever by far’.

    • That’s a very interesting comment, Karen. I think this feeling of being excluded can happen in all kinds of contexts. I’ve seen comments from readers who don’t like stray comments in another language, and from readers who sneer at someone like John Banville because he uses a very sophisticated vocabulary that they don’t understand. I’ve felt it myself sometimes with allusions to popular culture or arcane myths and legends from other cultures.
      But there is usually a way around this, especially now we have the web. If I’d really wanted to, I could have found out about the pop allusions in Jennifer Egan’s Goon Squad, and anyone who wants a phrase translated can use Google Translate. You can find the source or meaning of any allusion or quotation too, and the more experience you have as a reader the easier this gets. One may not want to put the time in to do this, or perhaps feel that the book isn’t worth the effort, but that’s a choice.
      It’s not, as you say, quite the same as feeling diminished because you ‘ve invested time and effort in the book and still just don’t understand something, basically because the author is being ‘too’ clever’. The more willing you are to take risks with your reading, the more likely this is to happen. The question you are raising is, is it ok for an author to do this and alienate readers not able to make sense of the cleverness? Where is the point that is ‘too far’ , that goes beyond playfulness and into intellectual superiority?
      Definitely food for thought…

      • You make some really good points here Lisa and I do understand what you are saying. I can remember when I first studied English Literature turning my nose up at some things as being too obscure when, really, it was just that I needed time to educate myself about where the authors were coming from.
        However, in the case of this book, I am imagining that if you of all people – with your huge store of knowledge in history, Literature and the like – felt defeated, what hope is there for the rest of us?

        • *chuckle* Yikes, that’s a big compliment to live up to!
          But seriously, I suspect that maybe it’s because I’m reading this book with those habits of history & literature that I’m defeated. Maybe if I just surrender to what look like incomprehensible gaps and let my imagination go to work without stressing too much about making sense of it, I might find it makes sense after all.
          For some reason I’m starting to think that ‘I Like the Fringe’ is the thoughts of an old man, looking through the window at a world that is diminishing for him, remembering bits and pieces and responding to the family’s plans to buy him an un-needed gift. Does that make any sense?

          • My interest has sparked now, despite my best intentions! Perhaps I had best read it after all and see what I make (if anything) of it.

            • I’ll send it up to you ASAP:)
              Two heads have to be better than one!

              • The thought makes me nervous, but I’ll give it my best shot. Thanks.

                • It’s already on its way… oh, and I’ve sent you Purple Threads too!

                • How exciting! I was just reading your review of Purple Threads and thinking how much I would love it.

  2. this is why I love your blog lisa this is a new name but any one mentioned in the same breath as b s johnson gets my ears pricked up many thanks for sharing ,all the best stu

    • Thanks Stu. It’s nice to be able to give something back, I have had so many great recommendations from you!

  3. Interesting review and enlightening comments. I must say though that I’m baffled. I believe that is the author’s style.

  4. Reading your bits, it seems like it might be stream of consciousness. One thing leads to another with no seeming rhyme or reason.

    • Hello Kristin, welcome to chatting about books at ANZ LitLovers!
      Yes, it is like stream-of-consciousness, where we have to fill in the gaps. It’s certainly interesting!

  5. Very interested by this review and your subsequent conversation with Karenlee. It is true that some texts eventually reward us if we put the time in to understand their allusions, and The Wasteland is a fantastic example of this. Having said that, other books never quite get there – despite studying Ulysses at uni I couldn’t get to grips with it at all. In a world where there is so much competition for a reader’s attention, and people are often too time poor to devote hours to looking up information that will make a text comprehensible enough to be enjoyed, writing a book like this seems somewhat self-indulgent. And publishing it seems very risky! On the other hand, you have someone like David Foster Wallace, who saves you the effort of looking things up by putting everything in a footnote – but when this pushes the book out to 1000 pages this can be just as offputting as having to look it up yourself. I’d love to see someone brainy write an analytical blog post on this issue.

    • So would I, Annabel!

      But …I’m not sure that I would call this kind of writing self-indulgent…
      Writers can be self-indulgent, for sure, and the navel-gazing variety often irritate me, but even though we live in a mass-market culture I think there needs to be a place for playfulness and invention even if it seems too obscure for anyone not in the know to make sense of. I like challenging myself with difficult books (Gerald Murnane is a good example) and I’m grateful to him and to his publishers for putting his books out there, even though I would be the first to admit that I don’t understand them properly. If all I could ever read was the stuff that everyone can understand I’d give up reading!

      • I was intrigued by Wayne MaCauley’s tribute to Gerald Murnane’s The Plains in Kill Your Darlings so I might give him a go.

        • I love Gerald Murnane’s books! As well as the two I’ve read, I have three on the TBR, Tamarisk Row (which I think is supposed to be the most accessible), Barley Patch, and now The History of Books which has just been released. I’m a bit tempted to read that one first…because of the title of course!

          • That is indeed an appealing title

  6. Oh boy! I am working my way through the book ever so slowly Lisa. I keep flicking back through the pages, rereading some passages over and over as I try to find meaning and make sense of it all.
    I confess to feeling almost defeated but I’ve been having odd dreams and can’t stop thinking about ‘Vicky Swanky is a Beauty’ so I am determined to soldier on and try to find something that I can grasp enough to discuss.
    I’ll keep you posted.

    • You beauty, Karenlee, it gets into your head, doesn’t it!

      • Well, it was tough going and I don’t think I did it justice but I am pleased with myself for giving it a red hot go!

  7. It is a “difficult book”–in that it’s a literary form that is strange to most readers, certainly to me! That said, why should everything be EASY!? I enjoyed the pandemonium and, especially, the moments I could grasp that were so emotionally and vividly executed. Not everyone’s cuppa, but well worth the (short) time it will take you to explore.

    • Hello Nelson, and welcome to chatting about books at ANZ LitLovers. I agree with you, I like challenging books, and I like your comment about enjoying the pandemonium. I guess what I try to do in reviewing a book like this is to warn readers what they might be in for, so that they make an informed choice. I think that’s one of the advantages of a blog review by a non-expert:)


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