FICTION: Joy Williams' grim, goofy meditation on the apocalypse.
"Harrow" by Joy Williams; Alfred A. Knopf (224 pages, $26)
It's a good thing this is a short book, because if there were much more of its crazy brilliance, a reader's head might well explode. In "Harrow," Joy Williams, who has the sad distinction of being a writer's writer, but one of the best, has created a future world slouching toward apocalypse with a young heroine, Khristen, poised to straddle the end of one reality and — let's hope — the beginning of another.
As a baby Khristen died, then came back, which marks her for … something, or so her mother holds and we're led to believe, though Khristen herself tells us that she felt compelled to humor her mother in answering questions about the great beyond. After a round of weird tutors (What is consciousness? What is God? How do you spell commensurable?) and attendance at a weirder boarding school ("There were no books, no paper. One was simply supposed to remember the gnomic things the instructors uttered."), Khristen finds herself, by now a de facto orphan, expelled into a transformed landscape where nothing works and people wander, "milling, like little flies after a rain," which seem to be the only other living things around.
Eventually she ends up at a decaying resort on a putrid lake occupied by an unlikely group of elderly eco-terrorists — "a gabby seditious lot, in the worst of health but with kamikaze hearts, an army of the aged and ill, determined to refresh, through crackpot violence, a plundered earth."
There she also meets a paying guest, whose birthday party for her 10-year-old son Jeffrey at a bowling alley on the grounds ("Frank Lloyd Wright designed this bowling alley. … In the beginning it was supposed to be on stilts") features a cake frosted with a scene from Goya's "Saturn Devouring His Son" — when it was supposed to depict Jeffrey's father murdering his beloved grandfather. ("I knew the baker wouldn't do this right!")
Jeffrey, who loves the law and mutters legalese, and shows up later, bizarrely, as a child judge citing Kafka, confides to Khristen, "What I really wanted for my birthday was a mock-up of a jury box in my bedroom."
That's probably enough about the plot, such as it is (to have a destination "was always rather a luxury," as someone Khristen encounters concedes), because Harrow's pleasures are anything but linear. As Khristen observes of Jeffrey's Kafka tale: "The story was revelatory while being impossible to interpret."
Grim and/or elegiac as the novel mostly is, it is also an oddly reassuring repository of cultural history, philosophy, psychology (pop and not), environmental concern, and mythical and linguistic lore — all put in perspective and often punctured by Williams' wry, goofy, generous wit. Sometimes it seems like Denis Johnson, Margaret Atwood and J.M. Coetzee got together, consulted Hegel, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, and came up with a story — and then Samuel Beckett, Lewis Carroll and Terry Gilliam piled on. But it's all Joy Williams.
"The old dear stories of possibility," her narrator says. "No one wanted them anymore, but nothing had replaced them." To which Harrow eloquently answers: So there!
Ellen Akins is a writer, critic and teacher in Cornucopia, Wisconsin. ellenakins.com