We don’t even know their names, but they are dreadful in a way that demands savoring: shallow and selfish and vain, the sort of children who torment houseguests for sport at their parents’ summer home but play the innocent when Mommy and Daddy are near.
The title characters of Joy Williams’s wickedly funny and disquieting story, “The Girls,” these cosseted, inseparable sisters are now in their early 30s. Instead of growing out of their juvenile cruelty, these two have nurtured it in each other, making it something they share — and they share everything, which is both the source of their boldness and the root of their naïveté. They are more confident than they should be in the security of their silken circumstance.
“Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,” one says when a family cat is accused of ripping the legs off a mockingbird, “don’t you listen to such dreadful things. Such dreadful things don’t happen in our garden.”
She knows perfectly well that they do, “that even this early in the summer the cats had slaughtered no fewer than a dozen songbirds by visible count, that they were efficient and ruthless and that the way in which they so naturally expressed their essential nature was something the girls admired very much.”
What the girls don’t realize is that life itself can be efficient and ruthless. Terrible things can happen even to them. Ignorant of this possibility, they are among the few inhabitants of a Williams landscape who aren’t lonely or living in dread of loss. Misfortune may be stalking them, but their attention is otherwise engaged.
Of the 46 Williams works in “The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories,” a compilation of rare richness, complexity, and abundance, “The Girls” is the most delectable — but Williams (“The Quick and the Dead”) has given herself plenty of competition. Encompassing writing from the 1970s to the present, this book is a savory feast: pleasurable for nibblers and particularly rewarding to the voraciously inclined.
The people in these stories are more likely to be imbibing than eating, though. It helps with the desolation that trails them through life.
In the title story, a bracingly tactless woman is drinking as she chats on the phone. “Cynthia,” she says, addressing a friend who’s being treated for depression. “We’re all alone in a meaningless world. That’s it. OK?”
That is not OK with Cynthia, actually. Not even people who agree with that philosophy are OK with it, certainly not in these stories.
A helpless, insoluble aloneness is evident from the collection’s delicate opening piece, “Taking Care,” about a preacher named Jones who can do nothing but go about his life while his wife lies ill in a hospital bed. It is not that he is without company — he has the dog; he has the baby granddaughter he carries around on his hip — yet he feels the futility of his love. His existence has become alien to him.
“Taking Care” is the title story of one of Williams’s earlier collections. “Escapes,” which Ann Beattie recently named as one of her all-time favorite stories, is the title piece of another — a woman’s pained, compassionate, claustrophobic recollection of a girlhood spent with a drunken mother: “Once she had said to me, You’ve fallen out of love with me, haven’t you, and I knew she was thinking I was someone else, but this had happened only once.”
None of this should be taken to mean that Williams’s stories are a bummer. Her darkness is dappled with light, her lightness with dark. The Kafkaesque jailhouse comedy, “The Mission,” one of the 13 new stories, may make you want to clutch this volume to your chest — an impulse to be resisted, only because it would get in the way of reading. “I had been drinking Manhattans all afternoon for reasons that remain obscure,” our narrator reports, by way of explaining her DUI.
Dissolution and mortality figure in all of the new pieces, which is unsurprising from an author at 71. But these are old themes for Williams, and she is still turning over her thoughts about them: the work that grief is, the inevitability of exiting alone, the discombobulation of once-sharp intellect, even — in “The Mother Cell,” about a group of women whose children are murderers — unintended legacy.
“We gave birth to mayhem and therefore history,” the eldest tells the others. “Oh, ladies, oh, my friends, we have resolved nothing and the earth is no more beautiful.”
THE VISITING PRIVILEGE:
New and Collected Stories
By Joy Williams. Knopf, 490 pp., $30.
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.