Fiction · Literary

When God is Unsettling and Man is Finite

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Ninety-Nine Stories of God

Author: Joy Williams
Published: Tin House Books | July 2016
Length: 220 pages

Buy: Amazon

Literary writer Joy Williams, finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Award, has just released a new collection of short stories this month—Ninety-Nine Stories of God. Her work has often been described as ‘Kafkaesque’ for its disorienting, even haunting atmosphere. Provocatively, this description applies just as aptly to her treatment of God—a Being disorienting in his elusiveness and haunting in actions we may well like to judge.

Over the course of two readings I vacillated between considering Williams as blasphemous, and utterly profound, until I realized that what is so offensive in her work is its hit on human pride. It wrings out our human-centric ideology, a reminder that the more superior, in control, and intelligent we think we are, the more obvious our foolishness and finiteness. To this end, Williams depicts God in a smattering of unsettling ways, but her subject is really humanity, us exposed on the dissection table.

In some stories the jab is obvious, and the punch-line title says it all. In others, the heavy weight of meaning still hovers around each sentence but remains elusive. This is finite man’s experience—our attempts to find the meaning behind our circumstances distillates to wishful thinking, superstition, or simply not knowing. Williams appears particularly against superstitious thinking. At times it arbitrarily provides fake comfort, but, more often, it is destructive (a boy blames himself for his still-born sister) or causes us to miss the gift of reality (people are scared of a cat because its name was “Actually”, but then regretted when the cat was gone). The answer to “why?” belongs to an infinite God.

When God takes on human form in Williams’ pages, it is irreverent and ridiculous. For instance, in “Inoculum” the Lord gets in line for a shingles shot and in “Driveshaft” he destroys cars for fun in a Demolition Derby. But these descriptions can hardly be attributed to someone labeled “God”; they look a lot more like us than they do him. We like to imagine God in our own image—our homey, our co-pilot, our pop—but Williams exposes how preposterous this degradation of God is. In her own words from the vignette “Naked Mind”: “One should not define God in human language nor anthropomorphize that which is ineffable and indescribable”. We are the ridiculous ones when we irreverently ignore God’s grandeur and re-envision him in merely graspable terms.

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Cover image via Tin House Books

The reality is that we were made to be image-bearers of God, not the other way around, yet, instead of fulfilling this high calling, we act foolishly unlike him. As in the aforementioned Demolition Derby scene, is it not really us who destroy property entrusted to our care, merely to satiate our boredom? Williams’ stories paint a picture of the divine we have failed to reflect: God values justice and truth, we value entertainment; God values authenticity, we value romanticization; God values life, we sacrifice for appearance. One of the most striking scenes appears in “Doll House”, where, instead of seeing the God-given beauty of children with disabilities, humans re-make beauty in their own terms by artificially modifying the children’s appearance. The belief that we can be in tune with the God inside of us reverberates in our self-affirming culture, but our actions reveal that we have missed our calling.

As an unseen presence behind the stories, and one sadly missed by the protagonists, Williams portrays God as meeting needs mysteriously (a newborn is rescued by a nameless stray dog), and authoring beauty in his creation (for example, an abnormal throat cavity that releases an incredible singing voice, or the nuanced beauty of a fur coat that defies replication). The few times God is indeed negatively portrayed serve to needle our comfortable assumptions. In one story, the translation of the New Testament is put in question, while another recounts Abraham’s instruction to murder his son. Do we take for granted God’s loving character, or accept the inerrancy of Scripture just because we’ve been told to? Whether God is portrayed as a background presence, or a confronting one, we are challenged to look for him with more integrity lest we either miss him, or see only what we want to see.

A piercing satire on culture with a proper dose of irony to make the pill go down smoothly, Ninety-nine Stories of God calls for an honest Christianity; not a God in our own image or a make believe comfort, but a God inexplicable and worthy of worship. As Vogue writer Rebecca Bengal put it: “These are stories that strip away the falseness of our small protections, the flimsy shields we have fashioned against the inevitable.” Even when we do not understand, to judge this God becomes ludicrous as we ourselves are weighed in the balance and found wanting.

The bottom line:

These 99 short vignettes about man’s failing attempt to grasp the infinite God may be unsettling to read, and potentially controversial. I would argue that they are valuably thought provoking, as well as sharpening to a rich faith. Artistically, this collection hits the mark of true literature that is expertly crafted and difficult to put down–whether from your hands or from your mind. Highly recommend.

Digital ARC courtesy of the publisher

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