The journo in me longed for a clever play on words to open this review. Perhaps ‘Vicky Swanky is a Beauty is a Beauty’ or a pun about it being ‘swanky’ but, alas, Diane Williams has left me nonplussed with this collection billed on the cover as cementing Williams’ position as ‘one of the best practitioners of the short form in literature today’.
In a Q&A with Diane Williams, a Mcsweeney’s Books interviewer says Williams’ stories are ‘frequently very, very funny’, a statement that sent me scurrying once again for another read to see if I could find my sense of humour. Alas, I raised a smile once, but no sign of a laugh.
After quite a bit of late night research and three or four reads of some of these shorts, I suppose you could say I get a couple of them. At the same time, my inner voice kept telling me that life is too short and that perhaps I needed to get a life instead of spending hours trying to understand what might be – essentially – a bit of self-indulgence on the part of the author.
However, another voice whispered that Transit Lounge would not be wasting time publishing the collection if no merit existed. So, with that in mind, I’ll endeavour to do the work some justice by looking at a small selection from the fifty-one shorts (including flash fictions) contained within the pages of Vicky Swanky is a Beauty.
I read the first part of the opening story as a prod at consumerism and perhaps gluttony in various forms. But the latter part of this piece (less than two half-pages in total) seems to segue – not very seamlessly – into saying something about motherhood.
Between Midnight and 6 am might give us a peep at voyeurism and marriage or it could be about something else entirely. It seems to concern a married man’s craving for sex as he remembers a woman who lived in his family home for a while when he was young.
If Told correctly it will centre on me showcases the best and the worst of the collection for me. I make no claims to understanding this:
Then Jack Lam sat briefly himself, put his chin down, frowned. I acted as if I was biting the top of his head – setting my teeth on, not into him – not to mention the fact that I was also swallowing darker areas.
Over the next seven years that I kept this project close in mind, I came to understand that my devices belonged to a lost age.
and yet, I love not only the descriptiveness of the ending of ‘If Told Correctly it will centre on me’ but the way it marries with the title:
I heard the dog next door making a good imitation of what my asthma attacks sound like. Everyone is sounding like me!
Don’t forget me!
While reading ‘Broom’, I had that vague notion that I could almost grasp something tangible; that here – at last – might be a piece I could understand. It features a man burning papers from his briefcase and I think it says something about fresh starts. By the time I reached the end, I’d lost the fine gossamer thread of comprehension.
Mood Which Gripped Me
If pushed to pick a ‘favourite’, this might be it.
To a ludicrous degree I could have been in a very good mood looking forward. I am going to be married – followed by dessert, fruit, and bonbons in dishes.
Clever opening, I thought. ‘Mood Which Gripped Me’ also features the sentence that elicited a wry smile from me:
Over across the – how can I make this wonderful? – the large turf bog! – the sky showed fewer than a hundred birds and at its near top, zero.
One Healdsburg Taxicab arrived while she put three wide, wide pieces of paper into her waste can. A peculiarly restricted number of flowers had been cast into the vase and Julius Minx is now here and he exceeds our space.
That is ‘Defeat’ in its entirety. Sorry, as a reader and a reviewer, I am defeated.
Blake Butler says Diane Williams reminds him of David Lynch. I wish that were true for me. I adore David Lynch and I can enter his worlds easily. With Lynch, I can abandon myself and go along for the ride. But with Williams’ collection of shorts, I just kept missing the bus.
I searched for some reviews that might tell me about the understanding [or otherwise] of other readers.
Matthew Love for Timeout enjoys the ‘strange underbelly of domestic drama’ and Paul Di Filippo for The Speculator seems to appreciate Williams’ Kafka-like humour.
Lisa Hill at ANZ LitLovers who tempted me to dip my toe into Vicky Swanky is a Beauty reminds us that ‘avant-garde writing deserves an adventurous spirit, open-mindedness and a willingness to abandon the habitual ways we have of making meaning.’
I don’t think you’ll see me knocking over fellow readers in my rush to purchase the next Diane Williams offering and yet I feel she got into my head and odd little passages from Vicky Swanky is a Beauty seem determined to linger. Questions abound, such as why it the short story titled ‘Vicky Swanky was a beauty’, yet the title of the book is Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty’?
I’ll leave the final words – a sentence that resonates strongly with me – to Diane Williams…
I make every effort not to crack or to split and to fit in, albeit, fitfully.
Williams, Diane. Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty, Transit Lounge, Melbourne, 2012.