Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty: short, sharp fiction with teeth

Sharp dialogue fraught with tension, highly agile shifts in perspective and acerbic humour characterise Diane Williams's latest collection.

As America's foremost flash-fiction author, Diane Williams is something of an institution, with a sterling reputation among literary critics and great respect from many of the country's best writers. So universal is the American literary establishment's admiration for her work that it's even garnered unified praise from such warring literary camps as Ben Marcus and Jonathan Franzen - who've argued quite publicly in the past about the value of experimental fiction versus traditional narrative, respectively.

During the past 20 years, Williams has published six collections of tiny fictions, so-called short-shorts and several books with amusingly long titles, such as her debut in 1990, This Is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate. Her latest collection, Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty, contains 51 pieces and none exceeds 500 words - the shortest clocks in at less than 30.

True to her reputation, these are refined stories possessing many hallmarks of her past work: sharp dialogue fraught with tension, highly agile shifts in perspective, acerbic humour, and the ability to surprise without reducing the form too often to a gimmick or a stunt. One prime example is, Religious Behaviour, presented here in its entirety:

"You think you are a do-gooder," Mother said, "don't you? You're a do-gooder."

After a minute, no more, a newcomer looked toward me, a toddler with her mother, I'd bet.

"These type of people," Mother said. "See that large bird?" I said. "I don't know," Mother said. The toddler acted as if she knew me.

It's so interesting when a little person is so clearly distinguished. I can tell - by the superciliary arches above her eyes, the ultra-tiny hands. I regard this visitant as unreal.

What attracts about the best of Williams's stories is that they're engineered to leave enough for the imagination to fill in a select number of blanks, while leaving room for multiple possibilities, as guided by the people, setting and details of a 300-word story (as opposed to the commanding flood of details contained in a 300-page novel). In the above example, the final paragraph turns from vague details and a confusing conversation towards intimate knowledge that conveys the female narrator's sense of longing towards the child, her frustration towards Mother, and a hint of the spirituality reflected in the story's title.

The drawbacks with short-shorts are that if not enough care is taken in selecting the people, setting and details, then the intended effect is diffused within too loose a context. There are surprisingly few weak moments in this collection, but on occasion a story, such as Defeat, unravels into a nonsense collection of sentences and instead of melding nicely, the elements form a mush. Here is a taste: "One Healdsburg Taxicab arrived while she put three wide, wide pieces of paper into her waste can."

In many ways Williams's technique resembles a mosaic or text collage. Even when a coherent image or complete story isn't apparent, the elements feel chosen with care and polished to a high shine. In the five-sentence story called Mrs Keable's Brothers, the first three sentences create a spiked, jutting sense of consciousness, as it seems to distil a woman's life into strange specifics:

"Her fate was being rigged for the rough surface. Nothing was omitted from her desirable world insofar as she likes Mr Keable and other men in suits with short hair; patient service staff who smile; all people with large, accurate vocabularies; big blossoms; logical arguments. If a poached egg, open and bleeding, could give us the colour palette, let us colour her home in with that."

There is so much variety in the collection it's not easy to categorise the stories. They are told from male and female points of view, with a tight interior focus or wide bird's-eye view. They don't seem to be grouped by theme, although sometimes consecutive stories have a shared perspective, or perhaps a key word.

Many take place in upper-class settings such as fine houses, shops and parlour rooms, often featuring older people in states of confusion, a choice that works well for Williams's fragmentary approach to frame a series of moments, reminiscent of text from shuffled panels of a highly literate comic book or graphic novel.

In many of the stories, the language often sounds like a mind that has become slightly unhinged, as wisdom and wackiness jockey for room in the characters' minds. These people's wit and insight generate curiosity about their histories. Each seems to be a version of what Sherwood Anderson termed "grotesques". In his classic, Winesberg, Ohio there is a chapter called The Book of the Grotesque, in which an old writer has a certain way of looking at people. It works quite well to describe Williams's approach: "[He] had known people, many people, known them in a peculiarly intimate way that was different from the way in which you and I know people. At least that is what the writer thought and the thought pleased him."

Likewise, Williams also adds touches of metafiction to her portraits of these grotesques. In the story Woman in Rose Dress, Williams seems to enter the story to have a minor discussion of her writing technique, like an aside to the reader, about the way a story's intent can get lost the way a person's loves in life can: "Ask yourself sincerely at odd moments, 'Am I prone to deep feeling?' for it is less than necessary - that very small, bright, enlarging thing."

There are many tragedies and losses in these snapshots of conflict among married couples and family members trying to maintain a sense of calm. Uncertainty and powerlessness is the air so many of these characters breath, the water they swim in, and they often sound like they're being overwhelmed by it. In Williams's work one sees the theme that many people, women especially, are often forced by their social roles into the trap of endless ambivalence. "I make every effort not to crack or to split and to fit in, albeit, fitfully," says the unnamed female narrator of a story with the telling title, Shelter.

Language is so elastic in Williams's hand that she's able to shift the tone of a story from menacing to coy to predatory all in the space of a couple hundred words. The characters rarely possess innocence; for the most part this is short, sharp fiction with teeth. Williams adds levity to her characters' dire situations by throwing in coy lines like, "Being married, I thought I'd always be married to Wayne because he tried to be perfect. What more could he ask for?" She also has a penchant for giving characters odd names. Besides Vicky Swanky from the title story in the collection, the stories feature people with names like Bella Donnelly, Margot Alphonse, Marg Foo and Vera Quilt.

Some critics like to argue that these fictions are prose poems. Some mean that as a compliment, some don't. It's often said to either dismiss very short stories into the realm of bad poetry, some ghetto of the abstract, or to scoff at works that don't offer up linear narrative meaning in 30 seconds attention. Williams's steadfast devotion to keep experimenting has yielded another highly entertaining collection that defies any contrary urge to settle down, as some critics say, and write more mainstream material.

Many times in the book a story-monologue shows Williams performing a flawless authorial vanishing act, so real are her characters' speech and worries. So it's a nice surprise to find someone named "Diane Williams" in the final story. It gives nothing away to say that she is defined as "an imaginary character with hope", not unlike her creator, determined to remain at the vanguard of the form.

Matthew Jakubowski is a writer and a fiction judge for the Best Translated Book Award.