“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!

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By |2018-12-03T14:56:10+00:00December 3rd, 2018|Categories: Joy Williams, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |9 Comments

9 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.

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