Hard, sharp and as short – in some cases – as a single paragraph, Diane Williams’ short stories in Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty are ethereal gems. Williams has enjoyed a long career in fiction to date, both as a writer and an editor. Currently editing NOON – an American magazine committed to promoting the most original and avant-garde of contemporary authors – Williams is constantly exposed to the latest developments on the literary scene.
As such, her prose is interesting in the sense that it is born out of the most progressive of literary circles. In Vicky Swanky is a Beauty, Williams’ style is elliptical and economical, matched by honesty and revelation. The stories are very short, some only a paragraph long; they are composed of an exciting amalgamation of abstract fantastical ideas and practical honest-to-goodness human application.
Although some stories are opaque to the point of being baffling, usually Williams manages to tread the fine line between intriguing and simply inaccessible fantasy. Williams has previously described how music is an important influence on her composition process, and this comes out in the patterning and repetition of sounds and rhythms that structure her work at the level of sentences, paragraphs and whole stories.
Take the final sentence of ‘Protection, Prevention, Gazing, Gratified Desire’, for example, ‘You must have heard of the expression – the apple of my eye? – And we know how to cry – Help!’ The assonance which echoes through ‘eye’ and ‘cry’, coupled with the tonal modulations engendered by question followed by exclamation, instils a sing-song quality to the prose, echoing the fantastical element of its subject matter.
The stories themselves are mere instances, yet I would resist the term ‘flash fiction’ to describe them. This seems inappropriate even for the stories only 28 words long, each mini-narrative contains a rich seam of implication, connotation and conceptual progression within it. Williams ties these aspects together in an imaginative construct which entirely displaces, entirely frustrates, and entirely surprises the consciousness that approaches them. This is one of the most engaging features of Williams’ work: the reader is irresistibly engaged, if only because in some cases one has to work quite hard to get to grips with it.
I would say, however, that the stories are best read in conjunction with each other. One story alone cannot give you enough of a flavour of Williams’ style – her language, the sound and tone of her prose – and it is better to read several together in order to get this rewarding sense of her method. Her stories are poised with extraordinary balance, relying on an equilibrium that is always in danger of slipping away. A badly placed comma or a poorly chosen phrase could cause collapse, but Williams maintains them beautifully.
This is a fantastic and diverting collection of short stories which I would thoroughly recommend. Their strength lies in their deft combination of intellectual and aesthetic appeal.