Reviewed: “Vicky Swanky is a Beauty” by Diane Williams

Review by Jen Vafdis

Vicky Swanky is a Beauty
by Diane Williams
McSweeney’s; 124 p.

I’m about to invent a person who, while hypothetical, is not impossible: a person who has not read Diane Williams and may be put off reading Diane Williams by the following equivocations I’m about to make. This person is the kind of person who reads the following equivocations and thinks, This is not the book for me. A straw man, you say! Okay sure, but that straw man actually has flesh and blood sometimes. I am sometimes that straw man. The response of This is not the book for me is one I totally respect. However, having these equivocations does, from time to time, exhaust me, as charges against anything experimental or goofy or whimsical or uncanny can make the charger feel like she’s just no fun at all.

Diane Williams’ latest book, Vicky Swanky is a Beauty, includes an epigraph, and that epigraph is a quote from the same Diane Williams who authored the book. The epigraph is formatted much like a quote from, say, Nabokov at the beginning of a new novel about butterflies. This is audacious, ballsy, perhaps other words too. Take a deep breath.

The aforementioned epigraph also happens to be an exhortation to read the rest of the book. Verbatim: “Perfectly safe; go ahead.” Why would you pull a move like quoting yourself at the beginning of your book, and then waste the opportunity with something so mundane, so obvious? This is a book you wrote; of course you would want a person to read it. I don’t know. That’s a good question.

Some of the titles of her short stories have a quality that is, for lack of a more palatable adjective, quirky. This might irritate those readers who have been wilting under the hot light emitted from quirky foes more mainstream than Diane Williams. For example: Miranda July. Jonathan Safran Foer. Less prominently: the Meloys, Maile or Colin. Tao Lin, whose tendency of repeating, repeating, the same phrase over and over, I can’t help but steal for the tone of this review right here, as if the only way to talk about the experimental were to simplify or rob it.

Diane Williams’ titles that approach the adult-child precocity of the examples above: “If Told Correctly It Will Center On Me,” “None of This Would Have Been Remotely Feasible,” and “This Has to Be the Best.” I chose those three because they exhibit a common problem that the hypothetical, not impossible person must hate (because I hate it, too): pronouns with no referents. With no referent, “this” or “it” becomes unspeakably important, given all this weight because of all that space in the voice, without supplying any meaning at all. This is frustrating.

In fact, the stories themselves do not bother with supplying meaning for you, the reader who is not impossible and yet must exist too, alongside those who crave difficult texts. I won’t insult you by warning that you’ll have to work to read these stories, much like you have to do with poetry, a four lettered word that I like a lot and still don’t recommend to my prosaic friends. But I guess I’ll say it: work, you will have to do. The Marriage Plot, this is not.

But once done, and usually only then, the work reveals rich moments, ideas, images, voices, and characters. After you’ve thought through the elliptical, troubling, exclamatory paragraphs you’ve read, you reach a blank page and then the start of a new story. You’ll wish there were more! But of course, you realize, more would ruin it, whatever “it” is. To figure out what “it” is, what “it” refers to, is a struggle, but more importantly you’ll truly want to figure “it” out once you read the book. Then you’ll be hard-pressed to hold onto whatever made you so mad about the titles, the epigraph, the walls that were erected by your notions of what is and what isn’t annoying. This vagueness and charm is exactly what you hate in some kinds of art. All of a sudden, you’ll be one of those people who like that kind of art. How alienating.

This is that kind of art. You know, the art you just have to see or read or hear to understand because it’s an experience, man. It turns everything you know about your boring old life on its head, and you’ll never be the same after it. You like being the way you are. Why should you have to take the medicine of the experimental? Experimental is The Holy Mountain, Laurie Anderson albums, Louise Bourgeois sculptures, that Richard Serra slab of metal, that Marina Abramovic exhibit where everyone’s just sobbing in each other’s faces for hours on end and everyone is famous because their picture’s being taken. Experimental doesn’t respect the response you initially had, the one of boredom and irritation and struggle that tells everything in your body to stop reading through these and hate everyone who does. Experimental, in the paraphrased words of the recently deceased Mike Kelley, gives you its problems.

This book gives you problems. But what else does it do?

There’s a section in the story whose title is modified for the book. (The book is called Vicky Swanky is a Beauty, but the story is called Vicky Swanky was a Beauty; big difference.) The narrator says:

Cruelly, I’ve seen nothing in the book I am reading—about me. I need to see specifically my life with pointers in the book.

Upon reading those sentences above, I realized I had been enjoying the book so much because I was seeing my life, seeing pointers on how to see, and that’s why I can’t say anything but glowing praise for this annoyingly bold, delightfully insidious collection. In spite of its appearances, or its very real obstacles for the hypothetical-but-not-impossible straw man, this book resonated just as much as anything non-experimental. It functioned the same way. In my head, it will sit side by side with more traditional works. “They had been the Crossticks!” will be on the same mental shelf as quotes from Chinatown and Twin Peaks, or entire scenes from This is Spinal Tap that I’ve been unable to unmemorize.

Why should you turn toward Vicky Swanky is a Beauty? If you’ve read and liked her before, you were going to read this new book anyway, before you read this review. But if you haven’t, why should you? What could I say that won’t sound like a blurb or a missionary’s plea? Maybe: the experiment works. It’s worth it, whatever it is.