by Joy William
Originally published in the July 25, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.

July 25, 2016Joy William’s “Chicken Hill” was published in the magazine last September, and it looks like most commenters here liked it (see here). It’s nice to see her back so soon. Again, an author who has a massive reputation but about whom I know next to nothing.

I’m looking forward to discussing the story with you all below! Please share your thoughts.

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By |2016-07-18T10:39:02+00:00July 18th, 2016|Categories: Joy Williams, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |16 Comments


  1. Craig July 20, 2016 at 12:56 am

    Stuff is Chicken Hill redux. Raises at least one interesting question — Why?

  2. Bree July 20, 2016 at 8:31 pm

    I was hoping to find some discussion of this story here, because I don’t know what to make of it. I assume it was supposed to be a dream, and the “Stuff” of the title is the stuff we’ve all got rattling around in our unconscious minds? If so, it’s a masterful description of how a dream unfolds: one absurd situation bleeding into another (and another, and another), with only the most illogical segues between them; pieces of furniture from your childhood materializing in unlikely places; old women in nursing homes drinking stingers and discussing Gnosticism — who hasn’t had a dream like that? As a composition exercise written in response to the assignment, “Describe a dream”, it deserves an A. If it’s meant to be something more than that, what that “something more” might be escapes me.

  3. Trevor Berrett July 21, 2016 at 8:36 pm

    I’d like some more discussion, too, Bree. I read it on Tuesday and am not sure what to make of it yet. I really enjoyed the first third, but then, well, it started to fall apart, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on where I’d lost track of the thread.

  4. David July 22, 2016 at 12:25 am

    Trevor, I think I had a similar reaction as you did. Bree, I did not see it as a dream, but just as a story with a bit of a quirky style. So when he is visiting the doctor and they find out they have the wrong charts, but he still has cancer (and in fact a worse sort) this made me laugh out loud. It was a very nice bit of black humour. The scene at the tree lot. and then the visit to his mother each worked well on their own and had their own good bits of humour, but I struggled to find much connection among these three parts. They felt a bit like three incomplete stories stuck together without quite fitting. So as a whole story, it left me a bit confused. Amused, but confused.

  5. pauldepstein July 22, 2016 at 6:50 am

    David, I think that “(and in fact a worse sort)” is wrong. Consistently, throughout the story, Henry has advanced lung cancer, and neither the doctor nor Henry think differently. However, the line of dialogue: “You have lung cancer as well, a bit more advanced, actually.” is confusing firstly because the doctor is repeating information that everyone (Henry, the doctor, the reader) knew throughout, and secondly because he says “as well” without adding any information. I would explain this by assuming that the doctor is absent-minded, hence his confusion about Henry’s age (I don’t believe his attempts to blame his staff.) It’s unclear (to me) what the story means, and it uses a relatively obscure vocabulary which encompasses words like “archon”. (I was conscientious and googled all unfamiliar words). I’m entering computer programming contests in the next two days, and these are supposed to help get me a job as a software developer. So that should be my priority rather than critiquing fiction. So I’ll sign off soon. I do think it’s important to understand a story from a literal sense first, before trying to tease out the deeper meanings. That’s why I get concerned by what appear to be misunderstandings of detail, and why I correct such missteps. [Of course, it’s completely possible that I’m the one who’s wrong is confused and that my correction of David is a mistake]. I really admire the knowledge of literature and creative writing that everyone (except me) brings to this discussion, but I don’t think I’ll ever join the literati myself, but will just dabble around here when I’m procrastinating.

  6. David July 22, 2016 at 8:20 am

    Paul, I think you are getting confused by trying to read into what is happening rather than taking it at face value. The story begins with Henry being told for the first time that he has lung cancer. This is indicated in the second sentence where we are told the doctor “was informing him” about the cancer. This is news, not something Henry already knew. Then when the doctor says that Henry is 85 and Henry corrects him, the doctor has to look him up on the computer to find that he is 63. So it seems clear he has the wrong file. That also means he could have given him the wrong diagnosis by giving him the one for the 85 year old man.

    Now in some stories the mistaking one patient for another might mean that they also have given him the wrong diagnosis, so when the doctor says “You have lung cancer as well” he is saying that the 85 year old man the doctor thought he was has lung cancer and Henry has lung cancer as well. The mistaken identity does not lead to a medical reprieve. But then he quickly adds “a bit more advanced, actually” to tell Henry that not only does he have lung cancer like the 85 year old man, but Henry’s lung cancer is more advanced than the other guy’s. So clearing up the mistake actually makes the information worse. That’s a great bit of black humour.

    The idea that the doctor just forgot Henry’s age and then blames the staff for getting the folders wrong is never something the story tells us. It would be reading in something that need not be read in. Your confusion about what the doctor says also goes away with a more of a straightforward reading of it. We did not all already know he had cancer except because the doctor just told him the diagnosis and once they realize the files got mixed up the diagnosis had to be reconfirmed.

  7. pauldepstein July 22, 2016 at 10:24 am

    David, thanks for the clarification. I did not understand this complexity behind the dialogue at all. It wasn’t a matter of me “trying to read into what is happening”. It was rather a matter of simply not understanding the complexity of the points of view, and therefore trying (and failing) to interpret the story in a way that makes sense. I have Aspergers, and this makes it extremely difficult to understand such point-of-view complexity. It turns out the “as well” means the 63-year-old man “as well” as the 85-year-old man. But I thought it meant “You have cancer as well as what I told you before but I can’t remember what I told you before because I’m absent-minded and losing track of people’s ages.” I’m glad I clarified that. I’m sure you know about the Sally-Anne tests and how they expose the weakness of Aspergers people in understanding shifts in point of view. Maybe I’m better suited to computer programming than literature.

  8. Sean H July 22, 2016 at 5:33 pm

    I don’t see this as particularly similar to “Chicken Run” although most of Williams’s stories have a certain flavor that is unmistakably hers (curried misanthropy, perhaps). This one is about coming to grips with aging, with not having done much of note that one will be remembered for (a great fear for almost all writers, so it works as a metacommentary on Joy’s own literary reputation and legacy, and perhaps even the value of the short story in general, or literature as a whole), with the borderline dementia experienced by the mother and a son who is not a bad person, and can defend ( and fend for) himself to some extent, but who was always, essentially, his whole life, a weakling and outsider.
    His childhood experience of being excluded has recurred throughout his adult life. He never quite fits in. He commits gaffes and blunders and isn’t smart or attractive enough to make much of himself in the world. On the other hand, his life isn’t that awful. He has lived as a writer. Even if his efforts are middling ones, even if he’s destined to use the wrong word (“stuff”) as often as the right one (“folly”), he’s had a middle class existence and held down a job. He’s one of those lonely men who are often overlooked, who eat and do most other things alone, who either have very little sex or use prostitutes, who always wanted to be a strong, heroic alpha but was doomed to be a particularly sadsack form of beta. The image of army men as his totems was a brilliant choice by Williams.
    The rest of the story doesn’t quite live up to that absolute perfect ten use of imagery (neither over- nor under-referenced) but it’s got memorable characters and scenes and offers a deep dive into the often overlooked members of the human race, something that Williams’s stories consistently offer her readers.

  9. Sarah July 23, 2016 at 1:57 pm

    I stumbled on this discussion after searching online for an explanation of “Stuff.” I just finished reading the story and I felt confused about the overall meaning. Paul, please do not give up on literature! I read all the New Yorker stories and I found this one particularly confusing although it was also oddly compelling.

  10. Rosalind July 23, 2016 at 3:28 pm

    Sean, Thanks for helping me decode this story. I’m grateful to have this site..

  11. David July 23, 2016 at 9:21 pm

    For those who like Williams, I just noticed that the August issue of Harper’s Magazine has published four of her “Ninety-Nine Stories of God”, a book just published this month.

  12. pauldepstein July 24, 2016 at 1:09 pm

    David, Thanks, I just read them. They are available here: http://harpers.org/archive/2016/08/pet-seminary/ Harpers has better fiction than the New Yorker in my opinion but it’s not really fair to compare a monthly to a weekly.


  13. Arleen July 29, 2016 at 7:28 pm

    I agree with Sean about the story, except I think the character was not just excluded or overlooked; he was bullied, and his mother quite shockingly still bullies him. He is also bullied by the kids at the Christmas tree outlet. He has a lot of pride in his writing, which we discover is pretty banal and trite. He tries to cover his inadequacies by expanding his vocabulary ie. the exotic names of winds.
    What caught my interest with this story is the strange and cruel treatment he gets from his mother. She is not pleased to see him, corrects his use of language even though she knows he is a writer, She reminds him about that “darn” circle, dismisses him just after he arrives, and when he tells her his sad news she is uncaring and critical. She is an exotic creature surrounded by exotic “stuff” – a harrower? a credenza, a roomie who plays dystopian games…What a confection!

  14. Greg August 2, 2016 at 12:07 am

    Paul – I hope you did well in the computer programming competition!

    Sean – My favourite observation of yours was on the metacommentary aspect of this piece. In addition, thank you for highlighting that the army men imagery was perfectly crafted. I loved the following related text with respect to the soldiers possibly still being in the credenza:

    “Henry extended a hand tentatively to see if they were still there, then drew it back. Better not to know.”

  15. David August 5, 2016 at 9:30 am

    Thank you all for the commentary. I thought for a while, after reading the story, that I had lost my reading comprehension.

  16. Ken August 24, 2016 at 3:34 am

    I enter a bit late, but just wanted to write in praise of what I consider to be, like ‘Chicken Hill,’ a fine story by a writer with a fresh, unpredictable style/voice and deployment of narrative. There were points where sentiment or beauty would turn on a dime into some blunt, deflationary utterance. Also…the way the story slowly becomes increasingly surreal worked perfectly for me. I actually read this twice partly trying to find the line where the register changed from real to surreal and couldn’t quite pin it down.

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