Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Changeling

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.


  1. Interesting post about Joy Williams, and her novel, The Changeling, which I have not read and think I should, to see whether it is really as terrible as you and Broyard assert, or whether it is as stunning as its cultish fans claim, or neither.

    But I have read your review, and Broyard's, and I can say that neither of you, in this case, exemplifies the attributes of a worthy reviewer. In my view, any condition of humanity or reality that exists or can be said to exist, deserves literary representation--and not on my terms, or yours, but on its own terms. It is the lowest form of literary criticism to assert a work's failure or lack of quality on the basis of an ill-disguised contempt for that condition of humanity or reality. This is not literary criticism, but something more like narrow-minded, snooty, suburban moralizing.

    The dismissive, moralizing tone of your post is perhaps best exemplified by the dismissive, moralizing use of the term "a drunk" to describe Williams' protagonist, as if use of that term were enough to say it all, and to explain your inability to deal with her story or her writing. Again, her writing may well be bad in this instance, but your post does not offer convincing evidence of this, nor does it offer convincing evidence that you worked very hard to understand or appreciate it as a reader.

    Your post essentially says that Williams did not successfully breach the pre-existing categories in your own mind. There are already too many readers who refuse to leave their cushy smugness and travel into a novel, into another quite alien world or consciousness. We don't need more reviewers, too, who advise us to dismiss any novel that does recreate, flatter or confirm our precious, suburban, consensus ideas, or comforts. Any novel that asks us to provide the slightest effort of our own.

    Poor Broyard has such trouble with Williams' edgy metaphors. He doesn't know what a mouth with eyes is. He just can't conceptualize a woman grasping her breasts, eyes and head in a simultaneous gesture. I mean, how does she do it, right? It makes no sense. One imagines he could not conceptualize such a woman standing on line at the Madison Avenue & E. 72nd St. Balducci's. One assumes he could not understand Scot Fitzerald's "blue lawn" and "voice like money" metaphors and similes either. One shudders to think of Broyard's precious terror confronting something like On The Road. But apparently, there is always room in literary criticism for the literal-minded and narrow-minded. God save us. Is it any wonder how poor and flat our national literary output has become with these sorts of reviewers to guide us?

  2. You're right. Williams did not successfully breach the pre-existing categories in my mind. That is, I will admit, more my failure than hers. I come to any work—short story, novel, play, movie—willing to suspend disbelief. In the context of a given work, I will accept time travel, vampires, zombies, miracles, extra-sensory perception, and much more.

    I have a real difficulty, however, when I cannot trust the narrator. This is different from an unreliable narrator where we, as readers, understand by reading between the lines, through various clues the writer drops, that the narrator does not understand her own story or the implications of what she is accounting. Because I felt I could not trust The Changling's narrator—because of her alcoholic haze, her perceptions were skewed, and as a reader I had nothing else to go on, nothing, that is, from the author—I did not trust the book and could not suspend my disbelief.

    I don't see this as a moral issue. I do not condemn the narrator because she is an alcoholic. I do not believe that addiction is a moral failure or a weakness of will. I do not say the narrator is a wicked person (whatever that means). I tried to say that I did not understand her. I could not sympathize with her, and because I could not sympathize (and, again, this is likely my failure, not Joy Williams's), I finally did not care what happened to her.