Gardens of Earthly Delight is a trippy little book. In these 15 stories, totalling a slim 206 pages, author George Williams paints a grotesque picture of modern America, one filled with witches and terrorists, con men and succubi. Actually, I don’t know there there are any actual succubi in these pages… but it sure feels like there should be.
The stories range in length from 20+ pages to no more than four, but regardless of their length they all pack a wallop and they all read very quickly. This is in large part due to the stylistic quirks that Williams employs throughout the collection. Most of these tales rely heavily on dialogue, but in the bulk of two-character exchanges, the author generally eschews the expected attribution tags (“he said,” “she said”) as well as quotation marks. Thus the reader is often confronted with a whip-crack exchange of terse one-liners which leave him/her scrambling to catch up with what’s going on:
Why are you doing this, the waittress asked.
Why not, he said.
But why. You’ve got to have a reason.
No I don’t. Tell me about yourself.
What do you want to know.
How old are you.
Are you in school.
Good. Good for you.
Are you going to kill me.
Why would I do that.
As suggested by this passage from “Minnehaha”, situations in these stories are often fraught with violence, or at least with the threat of violence. More often than not, violence does occur, but again the hard-boiled narration serves to keep the action at some remove, as in a terrorist attack in “Wissahiccon”: “Dozens of what would later be described as 12 gauge High Explosive Fragmenting Antipersonnel rounds tore into the crowd, cutting people in half, blowing off arms, severing legs at the hip, amputating hands and forearms, unzipping midsections as entrails of their own weight uncoiled and hit the ground before the corpses, skulls exploding like ceramic pots of scrambled eggs that flung themselves as high as the second story and rained back down on the crowd like a cloudburst of blood.”
Such a sentence is a masterpiece of stomach-turning description, yet it is also so over the top that it calls such attention to itself, that it serves to undercut the very horror that its describes.
There’s more to the book than just snappy banter and lashings of violence, but these two elements are inarguably the tentpoles which support much of the narrative here. There’s also a third element: the uncanny, the fantastical—call it what you will. Whether or not the witch in “Miss September” is really a witch, as opposed to just being a masterfully adept con artist, or whether the bacchanalian freak-orgy masquerading as a Baptist convention in “Arkadelphia” is at all realistic, is rather beside the point. The same goes for the traveling-fair nuclear warhead in “Dickson” and the lethally destructive stereo system in “The Bachmobile”. Williams has an imagination fecund enough to conjure up such sights and sounds, and skill enough to make them seen believable.
Readers who insist on dry-as-bones realism are apt to grow impatient, but it’s a treat for people who can take the hallucinogenic, dream/nightmare quality of the writing and apply to the subject matter as well as the mood.
This is not to say that Williams never missteps. He has a tendency to rely too much on certain tropes, as when he begins many stories with a dry recitation of geographical landmarks and signposts. No doubt this serves to lend verisimilitude to the soon-to-be-fantastic proceedings, but it happens often enough to become a rather annoying tic. Too many stories begin like “Blue Snap”: “We drove A1A south from St. Augustinem, through Crescent Beach, Summer Haven, past the St. Lucie nuclear power plant, through Briny Breezes and Summer Isles and Indian Creek.”
Compare to the opening of “Wissahiccon”: “From Cumberland County she drove east on the turnpike across the Susquehanna past Highspire and Lawn and Bowmansville through the Downington and Valley Forge interchanges and south of the Rowing Basin took the Vine Street Expressway across the river to central Philadelphia and 22nd Street.” Or an early passage from “Texarkana”: “71 turned into North Market, which turned into Spring, which turned into Youree… We crossed the river and checked into the Horseshoe Hotel and Casino at 711 Horseshoe.”
There are many other examples, and while the reliance on geographical names does become noticeable, there is happily enough going on that the repetition doesn’t become burdensome. Thematically, the idea of characters arriving and departing and just passing through is hammered relentlessly, so the details of their transits makes a certain kind of sense.
Gardens of Eathly Delight certainly lays claim to a voice and narrative style all its own, and for that reason alone would be worth a look. More than that, though, George Williams has staked out a kind of absurdist territory with this collection, one that’s heavy on verve and momentum. His vision of America isn’t always comfortable place to be, but a place that readers may find unexpectedly affecting.