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  • Swallowing Darker Tales
  • Monica Drake (bio)
Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty. Diane Williams. McSweeney's Books. 118 pages; cloth, $20.00.

It's tempting to compare the flash fiction of Diane Williams with the work of Gertrude Stein, reaching back in history for another author interested in breaking linguistic rules and undermining what might be considered a commonly held author-audience prose contract. Those grammar rules we learned in school? They're tossed out.

Like Stein, Williams refuses to arrange words to create a cohesive narrative and instead implies meaning through fragmented and disconnected imagery. There's the sensation of great omissions, clarity denied. Both writers highlight the sensual qualities of language, visual, and auditory elements while asking readers to go along for the thrill ride of leaving conventions behind.

In Williams's seventh and most recent collection, she writes, "So, I've got good news, but I also felt so bad I was crying. She's so wrongly old and I'm her daughter, but can she still have children?" That's an entire story: "Common Body," offered as an intergenerational Möbius strip of love, birth, and mortality.

But perhaps instead of turning to Stein as a precursor, it's more accurate to compare Williams to the pioneering assemblage artist Joseph Cornell, who, among other practices, built mysterious and surreal image-driven worlds within the clearly delineated space of individual wooden boxes. One can admire the wrought work of Williams's sentences the way one falls into a "Cornell Box": the pieces are present, the implications cryptic, and the tone phenomenally consistent.

As she pulls together disparate images and moments, creating a miniature rendition of a full world, we see a thin slice of each character's complex, brief, and chaotic life.

In the story "Weight, Hair, Length," she writes:

They had admired a bronze sphinx with an upraised paw and an elegant and extremely fine clock on skinny legs.

The husband tried to buy a jug, enameled and gilded.

A number of his parts are modern and wide. He looks well made for sustained and undemanding and justified indulgence.

To enter into Williams's fiction is to accept the ambiguities and charms of intentionally misplaced pronouns. The effect is a superimposing of characters and objects, one over the other. Along similar lines, moments are repeated to underscore something beyond a direct comparison: "I opened the cupboard, where the treats are stored, and helped myself and made a big mess...Michelle, the doctor's nurse, showed me a photograph of her cats. The smart cat opens the cupboard, Michelle says, where the treats are stored, and she can help herself, and she makes a big mess!"

Readers are invited to enjoy this double vision; images merge and separate, losing any possibility of their own clear boundaries, arranged inside the space of compressed narrative. People live and die, though not always in that order. "[T]his is a miniature world with levels of experience where people may starve to death," Williams writes, winking at readers.

Actions shift abruptly from present to past tense, even mid-sentence. The title, Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty, moves to past tense when it appears as the title of a story mid-collection, becoming "Vicky Swanky Was a Beauty." It's as though we can't get there fast enough: the titular character's fleeting beauty has already faded by the time we've met.

What is now was. Time is collapsed.

The stories hover just this side of the grave as characters either witness or contemplate mortality. "Human bodies are just not good enough!—and in this way we represented two weak powers."

In the middle of all these fleeting lives and mortal coil, there's comedy born of juxtaposition and built into the language as well as in situations. Take, for example, "Chicken Winchell." These two words rest awkwardly side by side, highlighting their clumsiness as they share a meter and essentially echo in vowels; the combination is comedic and melodic, a short, sing-song.

And chickens are always funny.

Then every once in a while, unexpectedly, within the frame of these associative stories, a penis garners...


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