I read Joy Williams' The Changeling because it was recently republished (recently being May 2008) 30 years after it originally appeared. I thought that any book with a following so loyal a publisher was willing to take a chance with a new edition 30 years on had to offer something special.
The new edition has a preface by Rick Moody who tries to explain what happened to the book when it was first published and to justify the republication. Williams had been a National Book Award finalist for her first novel in 1972, so she was no dilettante when The Changling was published in 1978. However, as the New York Times reported with the new edition, Anatole Broyard's review of the original publication "found nothing to like about The Changeling, a book about a young, heavy-drinking woman named Pearl. In his first sentence, he called it 'startlingly bad'; he wrote that its story was 'an arbitrary muddle'; and he wrote that the children in it were 'as artificially tiresome as any I have ever met in literature.'" The case has been made that the review killed the book.
Nevertheless, it lived on. Here are some quotes from fans: "Started off amazing, got a bit iffy, then transformed itself into a perpetual surprise machine..." "Reading this is like stepping into someone else's fever dream - it's hot, it's menacing, but it ends up working by its own strange logic. A very weird book that I only half got but Williams' prose is so wonderfully transporting and visionary that I was willing to let her get away with a lot...." "Amazing book. Stark, surprising language. An unusual romp through the mythological intricacies of the imagination...."
I am afraid I vote with Broyard. The main character, Pearl, is a drunk and, except for one short section, we see the story through Pearl's point of view. Because she's a drunk, and because we never get outside her head long enough to test her perceptions, we never know what's "true" and what's her fever dream. Is the child that survives a plane crash with her really hers or has he been switched? Who knows? Who can tell? And finally, who cares? At the end, Pearl is raped by her dead husband's brother, something she finds physically enjoyable but mentally/emotionally repugnant. Or maybe it's the other way around. Who knows? Pearl doesn't and there's not enough for the reader to know. Or, in my case, care.
When I finished, I felt that Williams had created an interesting verbal object that says nothing about people, the world, life...anything. It is not a book for me.