“Chaunt”
by Joy Williams
from the December 10, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

I love Joy Williams, and I don’t think she’s read nearly as much as she should be. In fact, I don’t read her nearly as much as I should. Her work is unsettling and strange, sometimes to the point where it feels like the story is unraveling with a character’s stability. They are always unpredictable.

I mean, what on earth will we get in a story called “Chaunt”? I don’t know, but I love what we get in the first few paragraphs:

The building was called the Dove. Or Dove. She’s out there at Dove, people might say if they wanted to bother. It was eleven stories with a multitude of single rooms, very much like a dovecote, or, as everyone eventually suggested, a columbarium. It was in a windy desert basin with a wonderful view of distant mountains. If you felt that the Dove was the place for you, you gave them all your money and you would be cared for there until the day you died. Should you choose to leave before then, they still kept all your money. Leaving was a poor option and hardly anyone did it.

When the boys died and after she had buried the one who was hers, she moved to Dove. Many days passed — she would be the last to know how many — before anyone spoke to her.

This opening is very intriguing to me. I love that Williams introduces the world without answering so many of the main questions: like, who is this woman and what on earth happened to her? And while Dove sounds like a nice option for those wanting to check out, I’m sensing more than a little bit of darkness in those doors.

Please let me know what you think in the comments below!

Liked it? Take a second to support The Mookse and the Gripes on Patreon!
By |2018-12-03T14:56:10-04:00December 3rd, 2018|Categories: Joy Williams, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |20 Comments

20 Comments

  1. Larry Bone December 5, 2018 at 11:45 am

    What a weird story like some sort of strange anxiety dream thankfully we can wake up from.  No clues except Chaunt must be this ruined chapel of the new religion, which, like it, is mostly empty.

    Is Chaunt chance?  If there were 7 1/2 billion people on earth in 2017 the 8 billion must be what there are now.  It seems sort of strange science fiction or a really awful right now.

    Best line is the one about how we cannot love all the people in the world.  Is that the most awful part?  It is a clever off of the envelope short story.  Seems kind of French or Satre-like existential.

    “What I see is a slow and steady profaning of our species out there.”

    Well the world is pretty profane as is and can probably only get profaner.

    Maybe some saavy weird short story decoder can tell us what this story is really about.

  2. Reader December 5, 2018 at 8:17 pm

    I enjoyed the story, which serves as a meditation on grief and (lost) innocence and–in a very familiar Joy Williams way–death. There’s no clear plot here, but a lot is going on. The narrative voice shifts between Jane Click’s present (at the care facility “Dove”) and memories of interactions with her deceased son and his friend. There’s much that could be said about the story’s use of symbols and potential interpretations, but, due to a lack of time, I’ll skip a more structured and complex analysis and simply layout some of my own key takeaways.

    As mentioned above, I think the key themes at play is that of grief and innocence, which are back-dropped by the death of Jane Click’s son and his friend. All three of these motifs are encapsulated in the so-called Dove, which I read as a long-term care facility for those who are too grief-stricken to be left to their own devices and who would rather retreat from their actual, everyday lives and into an artificial refuge where they might find the distractions and false contentment needed to live out their days without being suffocated by their internal sorrows. The Dove is described as a tall building with numerous isolated rooms that people inevitably compare to columbarium–a storage facility for urns. I think this can be interpreted in two ways. First, the facility can represent a place where sufferers come to put their grief (i.e. their painful memories) to rest. Second, it’s possible to think of the facility as place where the sufferers are themselves put to rest in a sense, as most of those who come to live in the Dove eventually adopt an almost emotionally removed or even catatonic state so as to insulate themselves from their painful pasts in hopes of living out their remaining days as numbly as possibly. Keep in mind that people who come to reside in the Dove are said to be “decent enough individuals caught by the mishaps of time in a circumstance of continual, bearable punishment.” They are subjected to ‘vindictive’ light in the facility, which most people (though notably not Jane Click, who has yet to settle into her new home) shield with sunglasses (which they also cry behind). Quasi-group therapy sessions are held, during which participants are discouraged (or discourage themselves) from articulating their thoughts/feelings. All feel a sense of disgust towards Theodore, the disheveled man who encourages Jane Click to visit the spot where her son was killed–the Chaunt; while other residents find exposure to so emotionally traumatic a place an impossible idea, Theodore suggests that going to the Chaunt and then returning to the Dove will result in her ‘being here’. Theodore, who is presented as being disheveled, is thus the instigator of the Dove, and his physical disorder seems like a very direct metaphor for his internal sense of conflict. As a resident of the Dove, he too must be struggling with his own demons of guilt or grief, but unlike his neighbors he is unable to simply distract himself out of caring. So, all in all, I’d say residents of the Dove aren’t particularly at one with themselves.

    Then there’s the other meaning of the facility’s name. Aside from its description as a columbarium, “Dove” invokes the image of the white pigeon, which is is traditionally associated to the notion of innocence. Jane Click’s deceased son and friend are in many ways an embodiment of such innocence. For instance, the protagonist’s son’s friend is said to be shy and looks at his cleft lip not as a deformity but as an endearing feature that makes him more like a rabbit. Both boys embody a sense of wonder at the taxidermy animals that they find in a dilapidated building in the Chaunt. There are other examples that I don’t have enough time to detail. So, with their death, we also have the death of innocence. Such innocence is of course not recovered by Jane Click at the Dove. Rather, it’s exchanged with the perverted innocence of diversion and forgetfulness, something Jane sought out when she first arrived at the facility and eventually finds once she snubs Theodore and his unnerving suggestion that she confront her trauma, favoring instead to embrace the psychic placidity that the Dove offers its guests and allowing the memories of her son and his friend to “fade to nothing”.

    A bit of a rushed analysis, so my apologies. Hopefully, people can make sense of it.

  3. Larry Bone December 6, 2018 at 2:08 am

    Reader, thank you for your analysis. It is very clear and logical and everything you discuss is taken from what’s within the story. It gives a good fundamental understanding and other readers can go back to reread and find what they may have missed seeing the first time. Thanks again. We are usually on our own when reading difficult to understand short stories. Your thoughtful guidance is greatly appreciated.

  4. Sean H December 6, 2018 at 3:05 am

    This piece displays Williams’s usual verve for language. The harelipped child who prefers birthday pie to birthday cake is a resonant early example of her extremely effective compactions and strange, entrancing truncations, and that all segues quickly and unobtrusively to horror (already prefigured by the columbarium and later picked up by the lost raven and absent father and the discarded letter of apology). Liminal/hard-to-define/in-between places, spaces, objects, and things recu as well. The approximations regarding the driver and how hard it is to apportion fault is a nicely hewn detail. And there’s a great form-function blend when Jane Click (much like Williams herself) rejects utterly the sentimentalizing stroke (of the “ghost bicycles”).

    Absences that can become presences. Nicely done, Joy.

    The animals as allegories for human’s in a godless void; also nicely rendered.

    “Politely” is a necessary and well-chosen adverb.

    The “sobbing of the earth” is an unfortunate conjuring that should have been excised.

    The Dove and its menagerie of residents is just so-so. When we’re away from the storylines of Jane and the two boys, the story loses both momentum and gravitas.

    More fulfilling were the descriptions of setting, be it the chapel/church full of animals (micro- level) or a country “vanquished of all but stones” (macro- level).

    The philosophizing is fitting for a woman who’s experienced what the protagonist Jane has.

    The ending feels less haunting than it ought, the tone eventually resting somewhere between Anne Carson and Michelle Huneven. It’s as if Joy is a bit stuck between the aphoristic and theology-batting mode of Ninety-Nine Stories of God and her more traditionally minimalist but still full-length short stories. That said, the moments of fervent loss and communal disrepair are rather trenchant. And Jane Click is a freakin’ phenomenal character name.

  5. Reader December 6, 2018 at 11:08 am

    Happy to contribute, Larry. Again, I excluded a lot of details and tangential considerations, some of which Sean noted above, but the points I touched on stood out as some of the more salient ones upon my first two goes at the story. Thanks to Joy Williams for the great piece of writing, to the New Yorker for publishing a stronger story than a few of its recent ones, and to the community here for having these conversations!

  6. David December 9, 2018 at 10:53 am

    What a strange story! When I read it the first time it was hard to make much sense of what is going on or even where the story is happening. Some sentences suggest it is set in the present in the real world, but others suggest another time or a fictional world. This is a story that needed a second and close reading to try to put the pieces together. But when I read it the second time, it did not come together much more than the first time. The story has a very strong dream-like quality to it. And just as when I sometimes try to think through and make sense of a dream after waking up, this story remained mostly a collection of fragments that defied any unified interpretation. I found that, also a lot like dreams can, this story seemed to operate more on an impressionistic emotional level. There seemed a lot of details that were chosen that should have had some specific significance that was ultimately hard to find, but dreams are like that too. I’m not sure that everything in the story worked, but overall it was engaging and effective.

  7. e. rose December 11, 2018 at 4:37 pm

    This story isn’t “dreamlike” or “science fiction”– it’s obviously about climate change, which is real!!!!

  8. Trevor Berrett December 11, 2018 at 5:29 pm

    I haven’t finished the story, so I cannot comment on whether I agree it’s about climate change. However, it’s incorrect to say a story about climate change can’t be dreamlike and can’t be science fiction. Such a reductive comment misses the beauty and complexity of fiction.

  9. EJ December 14, 2018 at 3:48 am

    the story is definitely about climate change, among other things…my impression is that Joy Williams is less concerned with the “lost innocence” of her characters than with the loss and destruction of the natural world. Seems like we are given two possible worlds to inhabit here; the sanitized, familiar, even profane human landscape, as represented in the Dove and in the trivial, reduced lives of its residents, and the vast landscape beyond, the one of Chaunt and the mountains far away, in which the mysterious and everlasting promise of life remains.
    It should be obvious which of these Williams views as the moral place to inhabit, and the desecrating cost of choosing otherwise.

  10. Reader December 14, 2018 at 2:58 pm

    The climate change interpretation is interesting. There’s certainly a good deal of natural imagery–of the animals, of course, which seem somehow like they’re on the cusp of extinction, and water shortages and barren landscapes and distant mountains (empty ones, mind you, which doesn’t invoke much of an impression of life). There’s talk of overpopulation too (but not really societal collapse). On my previous readings, those details felt more like cursory details to me, aimed at setting a sense of atmosphere rather than being the meat of the story. Relatively little time was given to them in contrast to the story of Jane Click’s personal loss. Going back to the story, however, I do see more that suggests the notion of a squandered earth more generally, even though I still wouldn’t argue that it’s preoccupied exclusively about climate change. Coincidentally, I think aspects of my previous interpretation (i.e. about the Dove and what it represents) actually fit into this narrative lens, support it as it were, to the extent that one substitutes ‘lost innocence’ with something along the lines of ‘people’s lost interest in caring for their world’.

    Either way, the additional interpretations only expand the story’s potential and allow me enjoy it all the more.

  11. Diana Cooper December 14, 2018 at 7:21 pm

    Joy Williams has long been concerned with both our blatant mistreatment of animals by various means: cruelly using them in horrific ways as lab specimens, destroying species by over-fishing, needlessly killing them for their ivory, their skins or their heads, and in countless other ways. She also views with horror the rampant and thoughtless desecration of our planet which has brought us frighteningly close to extinction. Often these two problems overlap, as is the case with polar bears and other animals succumbing to the effects of global warming.These themes have played out in many of her stories and novels. One of her more recent books, “Ill-Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals”, focuses almost exclusively on these themes to excellent effect. She not only writes superbly but presents a fierce argument for a more loving concern for those who have no voices to cry out and for greater stewardship of our only home and its inhabitants, including ourselves. Write on, Joy!

  12. Helen Tanner December 15, 2018 at 10:28 am

    I thought that the Dove was a metaphor for purgatory, and that Theodore was a Christ-like figure.

  13. william December 18, 2018 at 11:41 am

    chaunt (t???nt) n, vb a less common variant of chant ?chaunter n. chant (t?ænt, t??nt) n. 1. a short, simple melody, esp. the monodic intonation of plainsong. 2. a psalm, canticle, or the like, chanted or for chanting.

  14. David December 18, 2018 at 6:19 pm

    William, Yeah, I noticed that too, but then Google also tells me that “Chaunt” is the name of a village in the far east of Switzerland and seems to also appear as a part of several other place names, so …. I dunno.

  15. William December 18, 2018 at 6:27 pm

    David —

    Interesting complexity. Though not enlightening. I find this whole story mostly opaque.

  16. Larry Bone December 19, 2018 at 9:24 am

    The opaque quality of the story gives it more impact. It is a little like how Hemingway boiled down is dialogue in more simple, more general compacted conversation. You have to work to get what was intended. So you would have to work a bit to discover what parts of it convey concern over climate change. Climate change implies loss of the familiar idea that that earth and seas won’t be damaged because it all has persisted for thousands of years. Maybe the opaque quality of the story better communicates grief that today’s existential condition is not very good for anyone.

  17. David December 20, 2018 at 5:59 pm

    I read the story for a third time and did a little research. My conclusion is that I still don’t understand the story, still think it is very dreamlike, but also think the religious dimension of the story is more significant that I had previously thought. I also think there is no good evidence that the story is about climate change, as a couple of people have said. I mean, it mentions a desert and lack of rain, but that’s about it for anything remotely about climate change. The central event that guides the story is the death of two boys when they are riding their bicycles and a car hits them. That seems more a moment for religious reflection (and they were visiting a church ruins too) than anything about the weather.
    .
    The research I did was based on this passage:
    .
    “For beyond the stars’ pavilions God shall compensate your grief,” the person said.
    Jane Click asked him to repeat this.
    “For beyond…” he began.
    “Oh, yes, yes, thank you,” she said quickly.
    “It’s from a poem,” he said.
    “It sounds like it’s from a poem.” She had no idea what she was saying.

    .
    I wondered what the poem was, so I googled it. I got two and only two distinct results. The first were a set of results that (no surprise here) referred to the text of her story. So maybe these were lines Williams made up herself? But no, because the other result was a book called Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism by George Steiner. The book is in Google Books, but only some pages are visible. The place where he references the poem is there, but what he has to say immediately before it is not. So I went to my local university library, found a print copy of the book, and found the section.
    .
    There are two fascinating things about this poem and how it might be connected to the story in a larger way. First, the poem is “Ode To Joy” by Friedrich Schiller, a poem most famously used in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Now the fact that the English translation that appears in Williams’ story is identical to the words used in the translation Steiner provides (and, as best I can determine using Google, is not a translation that appears anywhere else) suggests that Williams got the translation from Steiner’s book, which means she was reading what he has to say and possibly influenced by that. This leads to the second association worthy of note.
    .
    Steiner quotes these lines from the poem (in the original German followed by his own translation) in the context of talking about how this poem and Schiller more generally was an influence on Dostoevsky when he was writing the “Grand Inquisitor” section of The Brothers Karamazov. That passage is very much about the heart of religious faith and Ivan’s struggle with his belief in Jesus and his belief in God. Steiner also sees it as pitting the worldviews of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky against each other.
    .
    It is difficult to know how much of Steiner’s discussion or Schiller’s poem (or even Beethoven) were influencing Williams as she wrote this story and also difficult to know how much ended up on the page. But it does suggest looking more for the religious element to the story.
    .
    Two small final notes: (1) Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” is such a big deal in Japan at New Year’s that when CDs were first manufactured they were designed to be able to hold enough information (approximately 74 minutes) so that the entirety of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony would fit all on one CD, and this story was published a few weeks before New Year’s Eve. (2) The poem is called “Ode To Joy”. The author of the story is named Joy. Coincidence? She’s probably not so vain that she thinks it’s a poem about her, but maybe she is signalling she identifies with the main character.

  18. Reader December 21, 2018 at 12:56 pm

    Very interesting detective work, David. Well done. As for the extent to which TBK or the Grand Inquisitor chapter (an essential piece of literature and theological inquiry in its own right) relates to this story seems very much hard to discern, but I like your mentality of leading where the clues go. WIlliams mind seems to have been branching out in a lot of directions while writing this, which has the benefit of making it incredibly open to interpretation and the pitfall of making it virtually impossible to interpret with any authority.

  19. William December 21, 2018 at 3:26 pm

    David —

    Very intense exploration. I appreciate those extra bits, even though they don’t give me a clearer idea of what the story is “about”. I agree with Reader —

    “WIlliams’ mind seems to have been branching out in a lot of directions while writing this, which has the benefit of making it incredibly open to interpretation and the pitfall of making it virtually impossible to interpret with any authority.”

    It’s impressive the extent to which we give the writer the benefit of the doubt when we assume that she has a strong theme or purpose or meaning in the story. I don’t see it. But I allow that it might be there.

  20. mehbe December 27, 2018 at 1:34 am

    Joy Williams has lived and taught in Arizona. Arizona is home to part of the Navajo Nation. “Chaunt” is a Navajo word. It means “excrement’ (this is per the web’s Urban Dictionary, which provides some colloquial usage).

    The name of the friend of Jane Click’s son Billy is Jerome, which happens to be the name of a former mining town in Arizona. It’s a touristy place, of the Western ghost town sort. It has a hotel that was once a hospital, and although it is quite different in many ways from the place in the story, I can still easily imagine it may have provided just a bit of the inspiration for “the Dove”.

    I’m not going to attempt to talk about all the layers of allusion and resonance I got while reading this surreal fiction. But one idea seemed to be that “the Dove” was a kind of assisted living during some kind of slow-motion ecological/climate change apocalypse. The inclusion of the youthful and unhappy “leaders” who have inherited a mop-up situation reminds me strongly of my own sense, as an older person, of what young people today are facing.

    Although it seems that many people in the arts are giving us a sense of the impending catastrophe, this story seems to be coming from a place that is beyond what most are willing to acknowledge, at least not yet. It’s as if Williams posed this question: what kind of art gets made, now that we know we are well into the process of species suicide (and taking much of the planet with us)? This story is an answer.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.