I Hear You’re Rich by Diane Williams; Soho Press; 128 Pages; $20.00
It takes a master of the short story form to craft truly incisive slice-of-life fiction, and Diane Williams proves that she’s among the best with her latest collection, I Hear You’re Rich. The collection, though slim, contains 33 short stories, all of which offer different perspectives for everyday life. Themes of nature and existential questions tie all the pieces together to create a world that invites readers to look at life at an angle. Due to the brief length of each piece, there’s not much time for characterization, but Williams shines by giving readers slight glimpses of who her characters are and how they move through life similar to the way one might view a neighbor from afar; we only know as much as Williams deigns to give us. Each piece is a peek behind the curtain of people who appear, at least on the outside, blandly normal; however, in each brief story, we see the entirety of the human experience bubbling underneath.
Without too much aplomb, Williams works with creative imagery in the form of flowers and fruit. Flowers are seen in a majority of pieces and reflect various emotions. “Live a Little” is perhaps the best example of this interconnectedness and is the piece with the most emotional payoff in such a short amount of time. Ariadne’s husband, otherwise unnamed, is physically abusive toward his wife, his violence shown through a plant metaphor: “He puts his hands on Ariadne’s throat when she speaks to him, pinching it just enough to snap a stem, say, but not enough to kill a whole plant.” The floral imagery juxtaposed with such brutality suggests the relationship between Ariadne and her husband is delicate. Williams writes, “But don’t ardor and range amount to—usually appear—nearly the same? For the husband, at any rate, they do.” The man is caught between love and anger, teetering between both in a short amount of time, providing the reader a quick look into the characters’ volatile marriage.
Fruit is another vessel of characterization. This is very pointedly seen in the opening of “Everything is Wonder.” The third person narrator shares, “These fruits produce ruddy light—are sound and smooth and tiny-sized and the woman thinks it is so thoughtful how they offer themselves up as a treat, as if they could, to a prosperous individual such as herself.” Within this sentence—and by utilizing fruit upon which the unnamed character projects herself—Williams introduces readers quickly to what the woman thinks of herself: lucky and perhaps a bit deserving, all without a single line of dialogue. Later in the story, the narrator tells readers that “The woman nearly kissed the little fruits before she ate them, but then she was choking on one of them while her husband never bothered to go to her side—even though she still has her youthful slenderness, her teeth and her hair, for all the good that’ll do her.” Again, without direct dialogue and using the fruit as a literary device, Williams shows the woman’s feelings about herself, as well as what her husband thinks of her, by focusing more on the fruit than the couple’s relationship, challenging the reader to view the pair not head-on, but though a literary device.
Alongside the nature imagery, Williams leaves her audience with a rhetorical question that is often full of self-consciousness, a thread that appears frequently as the reader moves through the pieces. The questions lie in how the characters view themselves and how others might view them, sometimes a combination of the two, and are framed in ways that the fourth wall is slightly crumbled, asking the reader to apply the same rhetorical questions to their own lives. In “We Had a Lot of Fun Dancing,” the main character—unnamed, as most are in the collection—muses, “Have I a passably pleasant personality?—the right combination of theoretical and practical knowledge to remain reasonably competent, acceptably up to the standard in everything that I do? Or, can I make it look like that? Am I qualified for my reward?” The final sentence of “Gladly” finds the unnamed narrator asking, “What am I—I wonder, dear god—now best known for?” after witnessing a young boy in a park selecting and pocketing large nuts left for the squirrels. This question, and others like it, is something many people have asked of themselves as they work through the meaning of their lives, their legacy, how others view them. What do we leave behind? Who are we really? Small, everyday monotony makes Williams’ characters question their position in the world, wondering how they are perceived by others and if they fit in their place in the world. Similarly, it makes the reader wonder what others are hiding behind a veil of normalcy—and what the reader themselves is disguising from the rest of the world.
The touch of existentialism and self-consciousness combined with vivid natural imagery and metaphors makes the collection intriguing, but Williams’ phenomenally detailed prose ties the everything together. In “Mother of Nature,” two siblings returned to their childhood home and are reflecting on their connections to their upbringing. The main character provides a short description of the home that captures both the home and the character’s childhood: “The draperies are brocade—turned inside out—Mother said, in order to obtain a richer, faded effect—and everywhere in the world, and here, too, flowers have been enlisted to exude confidence.” (78) With such a short amount of time to capture a feeling, each word is carefully selected and, in the quick span of the story, characterizes the mother and the main character’s feelings toward her without a single interpersonal interaction.
The crux of I Hear You’re Rich lies within depersonalization, not entirely in the erasing of self, but in the idea of reaching for something higher than the self—generally the approval of other people and society—by reevaluating perspective. Williams’ collection is a success because of it; with all the characters and their lives, the reader is reminded that we all keep secrets, even from those who are closest to us. While the ties that bind the collection’s many characters aren’t geographical or genealogical, they’re all connected by the internal struggle of the self that is often kept quiet, appearing only to the reader via an omniscient narrator. With these flash pieces, Williams suggests there are things that both her characters and readers keep close to the vest and are not outwardly visible, that the human spirit contains far more than meets the eye. By employing natural imagery and impeccable details that bring each story alive on the page, Williams connects her latest round of stories with heavy reliance on the beauty of fruit and flowers to characters who struggle with their place in the same world in which they find such abundance and harmony.