May 13: “Death Bed” by Diane Williams

Hello, Story366! Happy Friday! Today is a great day because it’s beautiful out, had breakfast with the Karen, I made a major breakthrough on a story I’ve been working on for some time, I hung out at a cool eighties arcade with my boys, the Cubs won, and, oh, what else? Oh, the school year is over! Classes all done, finals all done, grading all … okay, I still have grading to do. But really, almost everything is all done. I’m ready for more beautiful days, more time with my family, and more writing breakthroughs. Tomorrow sounds nice.

Funny thing that happened today: I made a student come in for a conference on her graduation day. Explanation: MSU has a weird finals schedule, as we had last Friday off (dubbed “Dead Day” by everyone and everyone), finals started on Saturday, and finals ended yesterday, Thursday. Graduation was today, Friday. So what did I screw up? Every semester, I hold conferences for my advanced workshop students in the place of finals. I have those during finals week, and every spring, I forget that graduation is on Friday and schedule conferences. Yeah, students sign up for them, so they’re culpable, too, or just putting things off, but last year, I had a meeting and a student came in her graduation gown. I was like, “Why are you wearing that?” and she was like, “I have to go to my graduation right after our meeting. My parents and little brother are waiting outside in the car.” Today, despite this ridiculous oversight by me yet again, I had a few stragglers sign up, and sure enough, a student wrote to ask if we could move up her meeting, as her family was coming early and they wanted to take her to lunch. Damn it! We actually rescheduled for Monday—you know, after she’s graduated. I swear, if next spring, I don’t stop doing this, I’m going to cancel graduation for everyone

In any case, today’s book is Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty by Diane Williams, out from McSweeney’s Books. Williams is the author of a lot of books, most of them of the avante garde variety. She was one of the founding editors of StoryQuarterly and is the current and founding editor of Noon. She has books on a lot of great presses, including Dalkey Archive, FC2, and McSweeney’s, and is one of the writers closely associated with being a Gordon Lish student.

I’m giving a lot of bio info on Diane Williams right now, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, she’s got a lot of interesting stuff in her bio, a lot of which—working with Lish, the presses she’s been on—explains what kind of writer she is. Mostly, though, I’m filling some space. The stories in Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty are all shorts, are all short shorts, too, none of them over five hundred words, just about all of them shorter than this post already is . I read this book in one sitting today, and really, I could have chosen any one of the stories. All of them are very intriguing, all of them challenged me as a reader (and as a writer and a professor), and all of them, after one read, are worth further investigation. In the spirit of Story366, however, I will choose one story, “Death Bed,” as it’s the one I remembered most out of all the stories in the book after I was done. So, “Death Bed” ….

“Death Bed” is about a person on her/his death bed. In the first line, a woman named Ruth Price—who has a name for the sake of having a name, it seems—instructs this someone (the first-person narrator of the story) to say good-bye to her mother before she dies. This is what tells me that it’s this narrator who is on her/his death bed, this line. Following that, there appear to be a couple of random lines about things going on in the room, followed by the interjection, “Go away!” said by the narrator to her mother.

That’s half the story, about fifty words. The rest is a short paragraph listing all the people who appear at this woman’s death bed, all her family and even her neighbor from when she was a kid. That’s pretty normal, right? Family and friends gathering for your last moment on earth? Only, here’s the interesting part: All of these people, according to the narrator, have at one time been the President of the United States, as that’s how this narrator introduces them, all as former POTUSes.

And that’s the end of the story.

So what’s going on here? If I was teaching this story to my classes—and I just might—and one of my students pressed me about its meaning—which someone surely would—I would point to that first line, about the death bed, how this dying person is younger than her/his mother. That makes me think this person has cancer, or something else that takes people at an unnatural age. That maybe she’s on pain meds on her death bed. That’s why she notices the toilet running in another room, why she feels confident (those two random details in the middle I’d mentioned). That’s why she’s picturing everyone in her life as someone of importance, of grandeur, her world abstracted.

And that’s what I would say. But is this the answer, the puzzle unlocked? No, of course not. I don’t think Diane Williams’ stories are exactly about being about something, or being interpreted correctly, but more about the language, the association of words and images, the misdirection. A lot of her stories feature sentences with the following construction: “something interesting AND something else interesting completely unrelated to the first interesting thing.” She runs two ideas together, fused by an AND or another conjuction, like “He has just seen a rodent with such expressive eyes and he knows horses intimately, too.”—this is from another story, “One of the Great Drawbacks.” It’s such an odd, interesting sentence, and Williams’ work is full of them. Each sentence needs to be read, over and over again, to be diagramed and interpreted, but what could be annoying makes Williams’ work very interesting. There’s no protagonist or antagonist or Freitag’s triangle in any of these stories, but there’s not supposed to be. There’s just supposed to be implication resting upon syntax, all of it opening up interpretation. Williams is the master of this, her little stories reading as much like abstract lyrical poems as they do stories. And I loved all of them in Vicky Swanky Is A Beauty.

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