Very, Very, Very, Very, Very Good: A review of Diane Williams’ new book Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine

By Carleton Whaley

“Young farmers and rural characters, obstetrical nurses, scholars, clergy—all the rest!—will have their great hopes realized more often than not—unless I decide to tell their stories.” from “Head of the Big Man” by Diane Williams

Cover of Fine Fine Fine Fine Fine. (Photo/Carleton Whaley).
Cover of Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine. (Photo/Carleton Whaley).

As a first time reader of Diane Williams, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The slim volume that arrived in the mail promised me forty stories. “In this?” I wondered, “Where are you hiding them?” What I got, however, was not forty stories. I found forty mysteries, forty novels, forty head-scratching, eye-wiping, breath-stealing moments that drew me in like a gasp and refused to breathe me back out. I am still there, somewhere, trying to solve these mysteries.

A tonic for the curious, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine assumes a familiarity with each story that is nothing short of haunting. You walk into this place between the pages where the characters already know you. Step in further, and they lean in to whisper secrets that only your long friendship would warrant sharing, because of course, of course you will understand. In the opening story, “Beauty, Love, and Vanity Itself,” she throws us headlong into the world as she writes:

“As usual I’d hung myself with snappy necklaces, but otherwise had given my appearance no further thought, even though I anticipated the love of a dark person who will be my source of prosperity and emotional pleasure.”

In one long breath of a sentence she gives us this character and her own little world, and while this is what many tag lines try to do, Williams doesn’t let up. Every sentence brims with meaning and counter meaning. These sometimes give mirth, sometimes pain, but always bring us to a new depth of understanding. Similarly, everyday objects and events are given an almost prayer like importance. In “The Great Passion and Its Context” we follow a woman in a train station as Williams writes:

“The top of the woman’s foot is still puffy and she has had quarrels at home every day this week and she goes to sleep distraught.

With dexterity, she had managed the bundling of her lunchtime cardboard tray, some cellophane and the napkin and a waxy cup.”

With each subsequent read of each tale, you start to believe that only you will ever understand her characters, that they were meant for you. Personal and biting, fleeting and numinous, Williams’ prose accomplishes in a few lines what some writers attempt in entire novels.

Some things that have been said about Williams’ writing:

  • “She is one of the few contemporary prose writers who seem to be doing something independent, energetic, heartfelt.” – Lydia Davis
  • “Diane Williams is hilarious, brilliant, eccentric, powerful, and, luckily, ours.” – Deb Olin Unferth
  • “One of the wittiest and most exacting writers of our time.” – Sam Lipsyte

Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, published by McSweeney’s in January of 2016, was listed in Flavorwire and The Millions as one of their most anticipated books of the year, and their excitement is clearly warranted. Williams is the author of eight books, and is the publisher and founding editor of NOON. She began this literary magazine in 2000. In 2016, Rachel Syme of the New York Times called it, “a beautiful annual that remains staunchly avant-garde in its commitment to work that is oblique, enigmatic and impossible to ignore.”

Speaking practically, and as a university student, the short stories are perfect for someone who thinks they are too busy to read. It gets easy here (and other places, I imagine) to feel like every spare second needs to be filled with work. As if reading fiction, reading for pleasure, doesn’t qualify as productive. We always say that time spent reading is never wasted, and yet I never speak to a fellow student about reading without hearing the phrase “I wish I could spare the time.” Knowing this, I approached Williams’ book with trepidation. Was I ready to commit? Soon, however, I was devouring page after page, possibly goaded by the fact that, well it’s only three pages, so why couldn’t I just read the next story? And I supposed the one after that was just a page, so what was the harm in one more? I ignored everything I was supposed to do for that afternoon, and couldn’t have spent it better. Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine is the kind of book that follows you around long after you put it down.

Carleton Whaley is a senior English major at the University of Connecticut, and has the privilege of working with the Long River Review as Creative Nonfiction Editor.

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