Joy Williams’ novel is not the basis for the American Western of the same name. This episodic book is best reserved for Federico Fellini.
Orphan Pamuk acknowledges that his novels are vehicles to express the points he wishes to make. He uses characters as vessels, crafting a story into a novel. Joy Williams is principally recognized for the quality of her short stories. I wanted to read these, but the library only had this novel. I was thought about Mr. Pamuk’s method of writing while reading this novel.
Although grounded in three adolescent women, the book is neither a character study, nor plot driven. I was struck by some of the reviews of the novel on the jacket of the book. The New Yorker was quoted: ” Beautifully written, profoundly strange, and fiercely mordant.” All true, but not easily describable despite the novel being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. The novel is open to each reader’s interpretation if there is one. The book is not a slice of life. It is not strange enough to be science fiction, as the Twilight Zone might be. It is not fantasy. It is an ensemble piece that deals with life and death; fate and destiny. It is mythic, philosophical, theological, arguably anti-humanist and darkly funny.
The principal characters are teenage girls who have lost one or more of their parents and are living in rural Arizona with either their father, grandparents, or occasionally alone. Alice is a zealot, manic, eco-warrior, that is censorious. She can walk into any room and stifle any conversation. She lives with her grandparents and is trying out womanhood. Corvus, lost both her parents and wants to revenge the murder of their dog by a neighbor. The latter later reemerges as mentally, if not physically, abusive boyfriend of the desperate mother of Emily Bliss Pickless, a precious 8-year-old animal lover who convinces a wealthy owner of a taxidermy museum to close it. Corvus is in a semi-conscious state due to mourning. Annabel is the daughter of a wealthy widower, Carter, who recently moved from Connecticut to Arizona to avoid having anything to do with his deceased wife Ginger. Unfortunately, the ghost of Ginger continues to stalk him in his house and to criticize him and his new gardener boyfriend. Annabel is a “material girl”, who is the counterweight to Alice. Unfortunately for Annabel, it is summer, and school has not started. You can’t always choose your friends. Certain American neuroses are expressed through these young girls.
The strength of the novel is the description of life at the local nursing home, Green Palms. The three girls initially do volunteer work there. Green Palms is limbo, a mini- Divine Comedy; the place between the living and the dead. It is an argument for fate instead of destiny. It is a place where Corvus ultimately admits herself.
Nurse Daisy at Green Palms, tells Corvus that to serve is not to love. Is Corvus in search of love; is it the love in Corinthians 13? Nurse Daisy is cynical. “It is completely cynical, this continuous peddling of the natural world. It’s not out there anymore! Even old-timers don’t find anything familiar in this empty symbolizing, this feckless copycatting.”
“They can’t see you, of course”, the nurse said. “Most everyone in this residence has the dark water in their eyes, glaucoma. They only pretend to see you. It is much like life here, but it is not life and that’s not why you came back. Because you were going to leave us, weren’t you? You were that close to leaving, but then- let me guess- you saw some cruddy thing that had within it all the treasure of being, some cruddy thing that turned radiant in the light of your regard. So you come back to wait for the waiting, as one waits for the dead. You are not one of those signs-and-wonders girls, you’ll have nothing to teach, you’ll serve in silence, you’ll get the dark water yourself, you’ll labor undetected, they”ll bury you out of this place like some failed old postulant.
“The air in Green Palms is restrained. There was a sense that salvation was being deliberately, cruelly withheld. And there was a speechless concurrence that it was hardly significant that in their lives the birthday presents had been purchased, the weeding done, the letter written, the windows washed, or the preburial contract sensibly arranged. And if, with some effort, they could recall the affairs that had been consummated, the roads taken, the languages mastered, the queer meals eaten in foreign lands, of what consequence was that? This had been the destination all the while.”
“Alice had a little theory about the soul that she was somewhat loath to share, as certain of her theories had been discredited in the past. For example, when Alice was a child, she believed the sex of a baby was determined by the one who tried hardest in the making of love; girls were made by women who concentrated, and boys when the woman wasn’t quite paying attention. Concerning the soul, she had tentatively concluded that when someone ended up in this waxed and flourescent way station that was Green Palms, his or her soul was still searching for the treasure that was meant for it alone. But the search had gone on just a shade too long. The soul didn’t know where it was, only that it was in the place where the treasure meant for it alone would never manifest itself. As a conclusion, Alice had to admit this wasn’t much… Still there had to be an explanation as why some people ended up being tenured to death for so long without being dead.”
Sherwin, a gay, suicidal, aging piano player who entertains at Carter’s cocktail parties, is seduced by Alice and in turn seduces Alice. He might have been named Lee”(Liberace). He offers a theory about the 3 girls. They are the Moirai, the so-called Fates: they spin, allot and snip. Alice is Atropos because she is inflexible and would cut the thread of life. Annabel was Klotho, the spinner, good-hearted and unaware of what she was doing. Corvus was Lachesis, the measuring one. There is an interesting discussion of Fate and Destiny in classical Greek and Roman mythology at the Fates. Sherwin discounts them being the Furies, because they are too differentiated. They also may not represent the Moirai. Sherwin cannot remember the name Lachesis when trying to associate Corvus with her. Corvus in Greek mythology is the raven and in Edgar Allen Poe’s poem a symbol of mournful and never-ending remembrance.
Juxtaposed against the futility of life is Emily Pickless. For her there is no time for thought, just for doing. Life is each day, a day without limits. Alice wants to escape God’s numbers, but is reminded that one day her number will be called. A lifetime is neither a day, nor an eternity. Worse is Annabel.
“Annabel went inside and looked at the magazines. Your Prom looked fascinating. She took it over to the checkout line and stood behind a man with an immense fistula on the back of this neck. It had a little black hole in the center of it as though he was in the habit of trying to locate it with a pin or pencil. What if eternity was like this? Standing behind a huge fistula in an unmoving checkout line with the last copy of Your Prom magazine.”
Ms. Wiiliams is a strong advocate of animal rights, perhaps supportive of PETA. Alice and Emily reflect her feelings about animals. There is one scene with Alice that may express how far she might go. She may also have strong feelings about nursing homes and those who work in them.
“Actually, Alice did have some suspicions about the nurses. In a book she’d been reading about nurses’ experiences in Vietnam she had come across one nurse’s account of goober contests. The nurse was working in a ward where no one got better, no one. They were all just boys in there, none of them much older than twenty, and they were all comatose and mostly limbless and the nurses would upon occasion, usually national holidays, place them in competition with one another. Bets were taken, money changed hands. The nurses would prop them all up in bed and arrange the beds in a row. Each nurse had a boy and each would clean out her boy’s tracheotomy hole at the same moment and the boys would involuntarily shoot out there big balls of phlegm, sometimes a considerable distance. The nurse recounted that she had a hard time adjusting when she returned home, which was of little surprise to Alice.”
I would recommend this novel, but it is not for everyone. I still want to read Ms. Williams’ short stories.