The title of Missouri Williams’ debut novel might be understood as ‘The Story of Dolores’, but it is also the story of dolor, of pain and sadness. In the Acknowledgment at the end of The Doloriad, the author refers to the work as “patently weird”, and it is impossible to object to that characterization.
Perhaps reminiscent of something that might be served up by the Coen brothers, the tale’s opening scene depicts larva-like Dolores, languageless and legless, a slack-mouthed and pig-eyed imbecile, being carted off in a wheelbarrow by her uncle/father into the encroaching forest. So far, so good – for readers who appreciate a dip into the grotesque every so often. The problem here is that the weirdness is not just a patent, surface feature of the world Williams creates. The narrative is all surface all the way down, a static world that is weird through and through, without relief.
Williams sets us down in a world that has suffered an environmental cataclysm, leaving the land desiccated and sun-blasted. We find ourselves in a derelict city on the edge of a forest, amid a scant clan of sole-survivors governed by the Matriarch and her brother. These siblings have determined to repopulate their world themselves, and their offspring have done the same. If we expect this project to carry certain genetic risks, we’d be right.
The offspring exhibit deep mental deficits and harrowing physical deformities, and some are prone to extreme violence. Bulbous Dolores pulls herself along the earth’s surface, as do, for some reason, the Matriarch’s brother (who, of course, has legs) and a schoolmaster who hosts, from a plastic highchair, a pointless daily class for somnolent droolers and who appears, despite also being legless, to be unrelated to the family.
The Matriarch believes that there may be other survivors in the surrounding forest. She attempts to draw them out by offering up a wheelbarrow-full of Dolores (for ‘marriage’, euphemistically) but after she is dumped out she eventually claws her dim way back to the bosom of her family. “Even if she had had legs,” we are told, “Dolores wouldn’t have known how to use them to get away.” There follows, at length, a string of nasty sexual encounters, both incestuous and abusive, and murderous violence among the siblings.
In scenes that might have provided comic relief were they not themselves so very weird, the family gathers repeatedly to watch an old VHS tape of an episode of a television show entitled ‘Get Aquinas in Here’ (indeed, a good catchphrase) in which the sainted monk is asked to solve ethical dilemmas.
The schoolmaster deserves special mention. He drags his way to a nearby river where he observes one of the siblings to be dead, impaled to a tree by an iron rod. He somehow manages to lug her body back to his rooms where he stuffs her into his so-called “mound”, rolled-up fabric filled with uncountable moths, in which he stores her remains as a sort of religious sacrifice.
The Doloriad is a perverse tale of human remnants scratching out a bare survival like a lone pine twisting out of a stony cliff, but is it a tale well-told? Williams is an excellent debut author at the level of her beautifully wrought sentences, virtually all of them crafted with unwavering philosophical and artistic aplomb.
It is at the larger-scale narrative structure that Williams falters. If reading The Doloriad can be said to be a labor of love, it is, yet, a labor. Her paragraphs are lengthy, dense, and daunting, making for a difficult read. But more important is an issue of narrative structure.
Many writers make use of, or at least give a nod to, a narrative form that is said to have originated with Aristotle in his Poetics: initial exposition as to setting and characters leading to a plotline comprising action rising toward a climax followed by a resolution. Some writers even believe that every scene should comport with a mini-version of this schema in order to give a forward pulse to the rising action.
Williams does an excellent job of establishing her characters and setting, but from that point on the plot flattens; there is no pulse. The beautifully-rendered gothic grotesqueries lead to a few dramatic set pieces, but there is no action rising toward a climax and resolution. The tale, like Dolores, seems to pull itself along the ground. Aristotle’s prescribed narrative form is, of course, merely a rule of thumb, and many hugely successful narratives depart or even, in the case of experimental fiction, ignore this structure altogether. But debut novels do so at their peril.
In the case of The Doloriad, Williams may well have envisioned her work as experimental fiction and, if so, we might question whether the experiment, as a whole, succeeds. In the end, it can be said that this imaginative work does succeed, if not fully as stand-alone fiction then as evidence that an excellent new writer has emerged, one with a strong voice, one who is a confident crafter of deep and beautiful language that gives birth to vivid characters and sense of place. Missouri Williams, it is safe to say, is a writer to watch.