The Quick and the Dead

by Joy Williams

Published by Knopf

308 pages, 2000


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Life and Death Rituals

Reviewed by Carson Brown

 

In her first novel in over 10 years, Joy Williams has written a book that masterfully matches high-minded ideas illustrated by an engaging plot. The quirky characters and stark settings give Williams a framework on which to hang her meditations on children and adults, nature and humans, life and death; often reversing the usual importance and power assigned to each element. All of the images relentlessly focus inward on these themes, giving the work a tightly wrought and concentrated feeling.

We follow three friends, motherless teenage girls who are all startlingly precocious (yet believable). Annabel is frivolous and spoiled -- fretting over her nail polish and ecru cashmere -- but consciously so. Corvus, a dark and reticent girl, silently mourns the recent loss of both of her parents in a car accident and ponders her own mortality and capacity for resilience. Alice is venomous about her causes ("I think not being born is ecologically responsible,") but frustrated by the fact that her actual ideas are often less precise and cutting than her catch phrases.

It's difficult to discern how these girls became the way they are because the adults around them are, in contrast, bumbling, vapid and aimless. When Corvus' parents die, no guardians step in to guide and support her. Alice is raised by her grandparents because her underage, deadbeat parents had no interest in caring for her. An eight-year-old girl named Emily -- who intentionally acts dumb around adults, finding that the best way to manipulate (or just tolerate) them -- refers to her classmates as "colleagues," while her mother is obsessed with face-firming exercises. The implication seems to be that the adults are responsible for the damaged world, but illogically, they have borne the generation of active, critical people who could fix it.

The smart children/dumb adults analogy is extended to nature and humans. Alongside Alice's pro-animal tirades ("That food had a face"), Williams inserts pervasive defenses of animals and nature and criticism of humans. An unsuspecting deer jumps a fence and lands in Annabel's swimming pool during her father's party, pointing to the intrusion of the constructed world. Visitors at the local Wildlife Museum can purchase bags of sand and "Own a Piece of the Sahara!" Ray, a young drifter and stroke survivor, believes that the lab monkey who was tortured to research methods to aid in his stroke recovery lives in his head, climbing around the inside of his skull. Saguaro cacti are imbued with human qualities and Williams works the thoughts of animals, such as Alice's dog, into the running commentary. Animals are described as "prescient," while humans are oblivious to what is coming next.

The reader can barely go a page without confronting death, partially because the main settings of the novel -- a barely functional nursing home, a museum full of taxidermy-ed big game and the elegantly violent desert -- are steeped in it. But even casual party conversation turns to reincarnation vs. resurrection and the simplest newspaper headline declares that an earthquake killed 450 people in Guatemala. Coyote skulls, near drownings and pondered and actual suicides dot the plot.

The backdrop of morbidity, the drone of death, prepares the reader to accept the more pointed discussions of mortality. Annabel's father faces the issue most overtly -- his late wife persistently visits him. Her ghost is introduced matter-of-factly, and though Carter at times doubts his senses and sanity, their interactions are not rendered in an enigmatic or mystical way -- in fact, they are hilarious marital disputes. Though this is about the most direct treatment of death that could be presented, Williams shows restraint and resists offering more than oblique wisdom from the Other Side. There will be no answers, only a forced confrontation with the questions.

At times it feels as though Williams cannot contain the giant idea of power behind the novel, that her vision crosses the line that separates far-reaching from unwieldy. On the prose level, she elucidates complicated ideas deftly, but structurally, the novel is rough. She rashly introduces and discards minor characters to illuminate points that are relevant but marginal and therefore jarring. However, many readers would be willing to sacrifice overarching perfection and the illusion of seamlessness we expect from literature for access to the conceptual acrobatics. Life and death are not neat, confinable topics -- if form has to bend a little bit for Williams' mind to spill onto the page, it is a small sacrifice to make for a book at once challenging and entertaining, audacious and intelligent, humorous and honed. | March 2001

 

Carson Brown is a freelance writer living in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico.