As America's foremost flash-fiction author, Diane Williams is something of an institution, with a sterling reputation among literary critics and great respect from many of the country's best writers. So universal is the American literary establishment's admiration for her work that it's even garnered unified praise from such warring literary camps as Ben Marcus and Jonathan Franzen - who've argued quite publicly in the past about the value of experimental fiction versus traditional narrative, respectively.
During the past 20 years, Williams has published six collections of tiny fictions, so-called short-shorts and several books with amusingly long titles, such as her debut in 1990, This Is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate. Her latest collection, Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty, contains 51 pieces and none exceeds 500 words - the shortest clocks in at less than 30.
True to her reputation, these are refined stories possessing many hallmarks of her past work: sharp dialogue fraught with tension, highly agile shifts in perspective, acerbic humour, and the ability to surprise without reducing the form too often to a gimmick or a stunt. One prime example is, Religious Behaviour, presented here in its entirety:
"You think you are a do-gooder," Mother said, "don't you? You're a do-gooder."
After a minute, no more, a newcomer looked toward me, a toddler with her mother, I'd bet.
"These type of people," Mother said. "See that large bird?" I said. "I don't know," Mother said. The toddler acted as if she knew me.
It's so interesting when a little person is so clearly distinguished. I can tell - by the superciliary arches above her eyes, the ultra-tiny hands. I regard this visitant as unreal.
What attracts about the best of Williams's stories is that they're engineered to leave enough for the imagination to fill in a select number of blanks, while leaving room for multiple possibilities, as guided by the people, setting and details of a 300-word story (as opposed to the commanding flood of details contained in a 300-page novel). In the above example, the final paragraph turns from vague details and a confusing conversation towards intimate knowledge that conveys the female narrator's sense of longing towards the child, her frustration towards Mother, and a hint of the spirituality reflected in the story's title.
The drawbacks with short-shorts are that if not enough care is taken in selecting the people, setting and details, then the intended effect is diffused within too loose a context. There are surprisingly few weak moments in this collection, but on occasion a story, such as Defeat, unravels into a nonsense collection of sentences and instead of melding nicely, the elements form a mush. Here is a taste: "One Healdsburg Taxicab arrived while she put three wide, wide pieces of paper into her waste can."
In many ways Williams's technique resembles a mosaic or text collage. Even when a coherent image or complete story isn't apparent, the elements feel chosen with care and polished to a high shine. In the five-sentence story called Mrs Keable's Brothers, the first three sentences create a spiked, jutting sense of consciousness, as it seems to distil a woman's life into strange specifics:
"Her fate was being rigged for the rough surface. Nothing was omitted from her desirable world insofar as she likes Mr Keable and other men in suits with short hair; patient service staff who smile; all people with large, accurate vocabularies; big blossoms; logical arguments. If a poached egg, open and bleeding, could give us the colour palette, let us colour her home in with that."