Ian Williams landed in my stack with his longlisting for the ReLit Award in 2011.
This is why I read prizelists: they encourage me to read in different directions, when left to my own devices, I sometimes plod along, in familiar reading territory, simply out of habit.
The title of Williams’ debut poetry collection, You Know Who You Are reminded me of Alice Munro’s story collection, Who Do You Think You Are? And he does draw his epigraph for that collection from Munro. In confirming this, in the moment of flipping through his opening pages, some of my insecurity likely slipped away, for I’m not as comfortable reading verse as I am reading prose.
And Munro? She’s one of the first authors I read who made it seem possible that ordinary things that happen in very small towns in Ontario, even more specifically in the space between farm and town, could be the stuff of stories on printed pages. That little girls from ordinary places could dare to think they might write stories. About all that ordinary stuff. And here is this poet who maybe found that idea just as comforting as I did.
And what ordinary stuff? Who hurts us and who cares for us. Those we follow and those we flee. When the plot lives in whether you take a ride or stay home in the barn. And character resides in whether we ignore the noises behind the bathroom door or are thought uppity for taking a bus to see a play. And whether you eat half a grapefruit or a bowl of porridge for breakfast presents a glimpse of the future.
That’s Munro all over. And Ian Williams is all about the ordinary too. How we love and how we lose. The ways in which we are hopeful and graceless. Why we study language and swallow the words that would leave us vulnerable. When leaving is simply returning before the door was opened. And plot is what happens when we repeat the patterns we’ve absorbed, whether riffing music or refusing intimacy.
But while there is a lot of overlap thematically between these two writers, stylistically they diverge.
Or, do they?
Munro’s narratives are complicated structurally – they spiral in loose and tight curves, so that time moves back and forth, and all of the longer stories leave you feeling that you could – should, even – reread, now that you have a better idea of where the beginning is (and not where you thought). So are Williams’ narratives. Both his poems and short stories play with form; they occupy space on a page in unusual ways. There are spaces where you long for answers. And there are no answers.
Most people probably feel like they know how to read a Munro short story, perhaps even thanks to English class. (Years ago, I read my way through Alice Munro’s stories here: these posts are still heavily trafficked and I’ve had countless requests for homework help!)
But I suspect that most people found the second half of Ian Williams’ novel Reproduction a real challenge: I did. He doesn’t make it easy for his characters. He doesn’t make it easy for his readers.
But should it be easy? Is it easy for you to repeat the cyclical motion of your everyday life? Maybe reading about ordinary life should be harder? Maybe if we’ve got our noses pressed up against the ugly bits of the lives of characters like these, we might be more likely to spot a solution for them, tug at some thin thread of hope that we could put to use ourselves.
If you’ve read this far, you might be wondering if I’m going to say anything specific about Reproduction. In the past, I’ve discussed all of his other works here: You Know Who You Are (poetry, 2010), Not Anyone’s Anything (stories, 2011), and Personals (poetry, 2012). But my review of Reproduction was published earlier this year by The Temz Review, and I’d rather not… reproduce it here – I’ll leave that tricksy stuff to an expert.
(If you click through to my review, you’ll notice there are plenty of quotations from all his books: just follow the legend and the colour-coding to see where each one belongs. And if you’re only interested in this new Giller-nominated book, just read the darker green squares, arranged in a parenthesis, because what’s in brackets, those little after-thoughts,…well, sometimes you can feel like an entire life exists in parentheses.)
SHADOW GILLER 2019: You can also follow the Shadow Giller Jury’s progress at Kevin from Canada’s site and read Naomi’s reviews at Consumed by Ink. Our reading schedule for this year’s shortlist is here, if you’d like to mark a particular title on your own calendar.