Joy Williams’ sly and wonderful collection of short fiction, “Ninety-Nine Stories of God,” looks at God from many angles, portraying the deity as rueful, hesitant and grounded in the everyday.
‘Ninety-Nine Stories of God’
by Joy Williams
Tin House Books, 220 pp., $19.95
Joy Williams has a funny way of thinking about God. Her God is rueful, hesitant, discursive. He wants to have a dinner party but can never come up with 12 guests. He believes in reincarnation because “it explains so much.” He waits in line at a pharmacy “to get His shingles shot.” He wants to participate in a demolition derby, in a pink Wagoneer.
“He was becoming harder and harder to comprehend,” Williams writes in the 73rd of her “Ninety-Nine Stories of God.”
People have been saying that for centuries, few with the sly wonder of Williams. She’s after some big truths in a few words, stories so short that some of them could fit on Twitter, except they’re too smart and not mean enough. The shortest are one sentence, the longest three pages.
Here’s No. 61, in its entirety:
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“We were not interested the way we thought we would be interested.”
The title, printed after the story, is “Museum.”
And here’s another, a few words longer, No. 58:
“You should have changed if you wanted to remain yourself but you were afraid to change.”
The title: “Sartre to Camus.”
These short shorts aren’t all about God, not directly, and they’re not aphorisms or Zen koans or one-page treatments for busy movie executives. They’re highly evolved examples of flash fiction, a modern term for an ancient literary form that predates the Bible. (Let’s skip the intriguing, potentially heretical question of whether the Bible is a collection of flash fiction. Williams, a Christian who seems to enjoy presenting God as someone who doesn’t have all the answers, would find it amusing.)
Williams has definitely read the Bible, the way she’s read Kafka and Dostoevski and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jakob Bohme, the German mystic who saw God’s image reflected in a tin plate. Bohme’s wife “was not terribly supportive of his fantasizing about God,” Williams writes in her typically puckish way, “preferring that he provide for his family and put food on the table.” What happened to Bohme is ironic and more than a little sad but not nearly so melancholic as the story about elephants that James Agee recounts in a letter Williams quotes or this line, dropped in a story about who could get you to cry in the fewest words:
“The last whale swam deeper ….”
Williams is the author of four novels, five story collections, a guide to the Florida Keys and an essay collection about nature. She’s old enough to have studied with Raymond Carver and still writes on a typewriter. “Ninety-Nine Stories of God” came out a couple of years ago as a Kindle Single and has just been published in a beautiful hardcover by Tin House Books of Portland.
Williams taught at the Tin House Writers Workshop this year, and I went to her reading. She wears sunglasses — day and night, indoors or out — and high-top sneakers. The reading was in an amphitheater on the Reed College campus, and Williams was interrupted halfway through when a German shepherd walked behind her. She was delighted.