“This book reads how you imagine a collection of Flannery O’Connor’s flash fiction would” – 99 Stories of God by Joy Williams

99sogjwLet’s get something straight right off the bat. 99 Stories of God is not necessarily something that will only be of interest to what we will charitably call god botherers. If we think of the militant atheists of our acquaintance, we can imagine them liking it too (although the title would make them uneasy; they’d probably read it at home, under the covers, by torchlight, in case one of the online forums they are members of got a whiff of it and angrily demanded their expulsion). 99 Stories of God is not 99 stories about God. The title is a provocation of sorts and a reassurance. Williams is a writer who you sense would say she was the opposite of whatever you said she was. This is a book in the vein of Richard Brautigan’s Revenge of the Lawn or, perhaps more appositely, J Robert Lennon’s exquisite Pieces for the Left Hand. By which we mean these are 99 examples of flash fiction.

There isn’t a story here that runs to more than three pages. Many of them barely fill a page. Some of them are about God. Sometimes there is a satirical bent, similar to that seen in the pages of Seb Doubinsky’s Absinth (which also featured God). Some of the stories are brutal (children killed in drive-by shootings, killed by house-cleaners, killed by staph infections, children are drowned), some are funny (the story about the artist who was rumoured to have died but who didn’t die but found herself disappointed by her friends’ underwhelming responses to her so-called death made us chuckle). Some are obscure, some inscrutable (and yet even here, in stories like ‘Buick Lesabre’, there are snags and hooks that will have at you). Some stories are as straightforward as a theology lesson (we’re thinking of the rabbit named after an adverb, the ferry crossing which seemed to last longer than normal, the story about the formation of dew). There are oddities here (a letter to a long dead mother that receives a reply that remains unopened, anti-mother’s day parties where replacement knees are exhibited like family heirlooms, class visits to a slaughterhouse) and curios (tarpaulins we are instructed to fold into the shape of an intricate maze, Aztec chocolate trees turned into mesquite, ). There are stories about dogs, stories about babies raised by dogs, stories about dogs bred to glow red. There are stories about Kafka, stories about Tolstoy, stories about Philip K Dick, stories about Emmanuel Swedenborg, stories about OJ Simpson, stories about the Unabomber.  Some stories – such as, ‘Her eyes were set rather close together, which gave her an urgent air’ – have excellent punchlines.

And this is the tip of an iceberg. First published in 2013, 99 Stories of God has been reissued on the strength of The Visiting Privilege and it’s highly likely far more people will be dabbling this time around – and quite right too. This book reads how you imagine a collection of Flannery O’Connor’s flash fiction would. It’s a veritable cornucopia, a smorgasboard, a feast for the senses. If you didn’t dip your toe in the waters of The Visiting Privilege then let 99 Stories of God be your introduction. You’ve wasted enough time in your Joy Williams-less life. Save yourself.

Any Cop?: Flash fiction done well is a joy like no other (and should hopefully deter 99% of people who write flash fiction from ever doing so again).


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