You don't read a story by Diane Williams so much as walk in on one. Sample opening line: "There had been the guest's lavatory visit — to summarize."
It's often unclear what exactly is going on, since you seem to have stumbled into the middle of some sort of drama, internal or familial, that is well underway. Williams is interested in how language can build a world within a story — probing our quirky patterns of speech and thought.
Her eccentric stories typically involve troubled souls — mothers and daughters, husbands and wives — caught in intimate moments but still mysterious. Sometimes they step offstage almost as soon as they arrive. The traditional building blocks of fiction have been discarded; in a Williams story, there is no such thing, really, as "plot."
Yet her stories are instantly gripping and highly evocative, conjuring scenarios at once weird, mundane, melancholy and comical. (Somehow it isn't surprising to learn that, after college, Williams worked with psychiatric patients at New York's Bellevue Hospital, doing dance therapy).
Even the author's book titles evince her loopy imagination: "Some Sexual Success Stories Plus Other Stories in Which God Might Choose to Appear," "Romancer Erector," and her most recent collection, 2012's "Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty."
Williams' latest book comes with its own odd title: "Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine." The title phrase is an utterance in "A Little Bottle of Tears," one of 40 stories in this collection. Most are just a few pages in length; two pieces, "The Poet" and "The Skol," are only four lines long and read like prose poems.
Although Williams never explores her characters and their circumstances in depth, she hints at who they are — lonely, misanthropic, bitter, resentful, jealous — and indicates that their lives have been disappointing or marked by trauma. And she usually disrupts a melancholy or dramatic exchange with an abrupt, bizarre burst of humor.
In the opening story, "Beauty, Love and Vanity Itself," a man named Mr. Morton "arrived about seven p.m." We don't know why or where or who he is, but the unnamed narrator says to him, "I owe you an explanation" — a line that suggests tension or a misunderstanding requiring resolution. Mr. Morton replies, rather jarringly, "You probably don't like the way I drink my soda or how I eat my olives with my fingers," and the exchange ends there.
Mingling the banal and the profound is one of the author's many gifts. In "Gulls," after an uneventful day in which a woman gazes out her window, she "went to bed that night with nothing much accomplished via a vis the mysteries of life." Readers who insist on epiphanies in fiction won't find them here; they won't even find much logic. At most, Williams is willing to hint at revelatory moments.
In "The Romantic Life" the narrator muses, "I feel there is so much yet to explore about how people experience a 'pull' toward anyone." And in "When I Was Old and Ugly," an unhappily married woman conveys her sense of loneliness and alienation with a single amusing line: "In the park I had wanted to talk today to a bird who wasn't interested in talking to me."
Although Williams' stories are short, they are always discomfiting. A lesser writer might not be able to pull off this wondrous mix of intensity, silliness and despair. "With Red Chair" finds a man "eating Vienna rolls with a member of the opposite sex near a roadside chapel, having a flirtation," when he is struck by this inspirational flash: "His recovery of an old debt reverses a disappointment. He will buy a new V-necked cardigan!"
Her syntax is quirky too: "But fortunately she did not fall onto the passenger next to her, that man, when she returned." Williams investigates character, with an almost obsessive psychological interest, through the manipulation of language.
Her work is certainly odd, but it's also poetic, passionate, and precisely crafted. Her strange voices linger in the mind.
Part of the pleasure of reading Williams is you have no idea what's coming next. Don't fret. These marvelous stories do have a beginning, middle and an end — just not necessarily in that order.
Ciuraru is the author of "Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms."
Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine
McSweeney's: 136 pages, $20