“Firmly in the kooky-annoying camp” – The Changeling by Joy Williams

An admission, up front: I read The Changeling directly after reading the first instalment of Philip Pullman’s new Book of Dust trilogy, La Belle Sauvage, at the same time as I watched season one of a Netflix show called Ozark. La Belle Sauvage, as you’d expect, is fantastical, overtly so, with witches, giants, ghosts, daemons, and all manner of other-worldly, shimmery, what-have-you. Ozark, on the other hand, is not fantastical. It’s a sort of rural Breaking Bad, but with lots of boats and water and intrigue.

To begin with, The Changeling couldn’t be more different: a woman, Pearl, sits in a bar drinking, with her son, Sam, nestled in the crook of her arm. She’s running away from her husband Walker, and the strange life that they shared on his family’s island, where a great many people, and their children, behave oddly in the company of Walker’s brother Thomas (who “was very fond of children. For years he had gathered them, all manner of misfits and foundlings who were raised in long and indulged childhood with every possible freedom.”). Pretty much from the get-go, Pearl’s take on the world is curious and unsettling. Page 1, she gazes out of the bar in which she finds herself (“Outside it was Florida”), and notes:

“The heavy white air hung visibly in layers. Pearl could see the layers very clearly. The middle layer was all dream and misunderstanding and responsibility. Things moved about at the top with a little more arrogance and zip but at the bottom was the ever-moving present. It was the present, it had been the present, and it was always going to be the present.”

She gazes over at the young woman who has been serving her drinks as she talks to a young man and imagines them, “in some rank room after closing hours, spreading dough over their bodies and eating it off in some bourgeois rite.” Okay, you think. We’ve got Pearl’s number. But if you are thinking, this is the story of a woman with a peculiar past starting over, you couldn’t be more wrong. Walker catches up with her at her hotel and takes her back to the life she knows, on the island. This isn’t a running away story; this is a you-can’t-run-away story. At least to begin with. Except, on the way to the island, there’s a plane crash. Not everyone survives. Thomas appears at the hospital and mother and baby are safely transported back. Time seems to pass. Next time we meet Sam, he’s older and Pearl doesn’t recognise him, which isn’t surprising considering the number of children’s voices that now make an appearance.

“Pearl couldn’t keep the children in her mind anymore. She couldn’t keep their features distinct. They were silent now around her.”

Now, we mentioned La Belle Sauvage and Ozark, didn’t we? They are worth having in your mind (if you’re familiar with them) because The Changeling has a sort of creeping unease to it. At first, as I read, I thought this isn’t fantastical, it’s just the echo of La Belle Sauvage. When that rippling unease didn’t go away, I thought, maybe it’s the fact I’m also watching Ozark, and I’m programmed to be suspicious of people who live in the sticks. But then The Changeling starts to assert itself. Ah, you think. The Changeling is fantastical, albeit in its own way (and distinct from La Belle Sauvage), dream-like, drunken, woozy. But it wobbles along a line. There are elements where you think, ooooh, this is good-creepy. And there are places when the book feels like the mad person on the bus and you look about you to make sure your route to the exit is clear.

Here is the exact point where the book and I parted company:

“Miriam was sewing her terrible dark skirts, the skirts that depicted all the fears of the night. “I don’t believe in love anymore,” she was saying, “not since Johnny died.” Miriam loved Johnny and what good had that ever done? Her feeling for her Johnny was curved as a ball, a belly, a noose. There was no beginning to it. No end. Come unbidden. Part gain. Part comfort. That was love. How could that be the way? To love was only to understand death.”

The Changeling is undoubtedly a kind of puzzle, and there are undoubtedly readers with greater patience willing to study, there being a beauty in the study. I see that. But the bedlam of children snapped whatever connection existed between me and what Williams was/is trying to say. When she admits,

“Children were quite disturbing really. It was difficult to think about children for long. They were all fickle little nihilists and one was forever being forced to protect oneself from their murderousness.”

I could see it, clearly, what she was saying, but the enjoyment was purely intellectual. The book had lost my heart, which is where all battles are lost or won. The disconcertment she refers to here,

“To see a child of six or seven running around like a wild animal one moment and sitting genteelly at the dinner table the next, discussing Meister Eckhart’s formulations of transcendence into the nonself, was very disconcerting to Pearl.”

had swallowed up my experience of reading the book. By the time Pearl says (“bleakly”),

“Everything is pretty understandable if you take away what people do to you and the shapes they assume and what they say”.

I was asking myself if that was where I was going wrong, needing people to do things and say things and assume shapes that made sense. In her introduction to this edition, author Karen Russell asks,

“How to say anything about The Changeling without blaspheming its deep mystery, its reverence for the unspeakable, animal heart of creation? The tools of ordinary criticism seem ill-matched to the light that floods from these pages. Also, the darkness.”

If ‘the tools of ordinary criticism’ are ill-matched, all I can do is share how the book made me feel (and given that we live in an age where feelings are given so much pre-eminence, maybe this is the right way to go.) For a time after the plane crash, the book veers between kooky-interesting and kooky-annoying, and then, for this reader, settles firmly in the kooky-annoying camp. You read and an internal voice says, alright, yes, I hear you, but why this and not something else, why these words, why this observation? It gets so the book is like a doddering relative who begins by telling you a story about the house they lived in during the war, that house that was covered in ivy, ooh, I knew a woman called Ivy, she was very into making her own vinegar, the thing with vinegar though is it’s quite acidic, but I do like it on my chips, do you know who had their chips? Ronnie. Lovely man.

I know now, having read around a bit, that The Changeling falls into one of two camps for a lot of people (genius or hokum), and I resent (myself) being on the hokum side of Marmite. I’d much rather be ambivalent so I could say, hah, see, don’t pigeonhole me. But Marmite is Marmite. I got all the way through The Changeling but it was a struggle and by the end I was just reading words strung together on a line like fake pearls.

Any Cop?: If you’re new to Joy Williams, we’d recommend starting with 99 Stories of God, which we really liked. The Changeling felt like a chore to us.



One comment

  1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who didn’t like or get the book. It was just too weird for me and, like you, I struggled to find any meaning underneath the weirdness.

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