Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Joy Williams's "Chicken Hill" was originally published in the September 14, 2015 issue of The New Yorker.
I’ve heard so many wonderful things about Joy Williams, but I’ve never read anything by her. I’m thrilled at the chance to encounter her in this week’s issue.
Please share any thoughts you have about the story, Ms. Williams, or, well, anything, below.
Adrienne will kick off things with some of her thoughts here:
I am fascinated by stories of older women — how they look at their past, how they anticipate the future, and how they see their present experience. This focus in fiction creates microcosms of how we all tell stories — create our own narratives — to make life a little bit easier, to validate who we have become.
Joy Williams took us right into the center of a story, knowing we would catch on rather quickly. How can we not? We see, even if Ruth cannot — will not.
Ruth is like many we have met. She has a sense of superiority, propriety, gentility. She has seen the neighboring child before, but they only begin to converse when the older woman is eating lunch, a tuna sandwich with adverse effects. The child is not there to play in her gulley (is that what Ruth would have loved to do as a child?) but to draw the woman with art supplies from a hard-to-ignore backpack.
A friendship of sorts is born. The child visits. Her questions are as pointed and guileless as her responses are very adult and clinical.
This story is sweet and simple. The themes are universal, easy to find, and easy to connect with. I am enthused by how unencumbered the piece is. Even what may appear complicated, intricate, is really quite straight-forward.
“Chicken Hill” is a clear-eyed view of what we do not like to see.
A surfeit or mordant wit on display here. I don’t believe it’s quite as sweet or simple as the above review, particularly concerning whether or not the girl is real, a figment of Ruth’s imagination, a product of dementia, or a version of Ruth herself. Is the ultimate irony how clearly the doctor’s house functions time and again as a symbol of death? There’s also a far from simple theological reading that can be applied to the story, riffing on the Biblical Ruth. A refreshing addition to the pages of The New Yorker from an acknowledged master. At times the vein of Joy Williams and Lydia Davis and Amy Hempel and to a lesser extent Lorrie Moore (minimalist, weirdly fixated on animals, themes of aging and misanthropy in stories oft speckled with loners and oddballs and characterized by an almost irritating restraint or an over-reliance on quirk) gets a bit tedious but this one made me laugh out loud multiple times, and thereby receives a hearty huzzah from this reviewer.
“Ruth decided that she didn’t want to tackle the problem with a good bar of soap. It was all right. Whatever. Sometimes you try to fix something and it ends up more broken than ever. Or broken in a different way.”
“She turned and made her way down the street again to her own unkempt home. She saw this clearly: the place needed some fluffing up. But she had five dogs—there was a lot of wear and tear. More than five would have brought her to the attention of the authorities. ‘Keep the authorities at bay as long as you are able’ was her motto.”
The story – I did stay with it – frankly, perplexed me. I read for an ending, and received it, but – even with the prehensile probe of allegorical inquisition and the ‘I bet I know’ routine, it seems like a lot for very little. The portraiture is nice, but, perplexed once again, the dogs confuse me, the back-pack episode seems wee tedious and for naught, and the little girl, and all those siblings, seems as imagined as a back-pack-cleansing bar of soap would be, or something ( which phrase, ‘or something’ is also curiously used at the end of the paragraph atop page 78). Now THAT seemed out of place to me, or something. Just somehow made be nervous and unsatisifed. gar
If we all know what’s going on here, why are none of us saying? Is it senility? I guess obviously, so obviously that no one needs to say so. But is “it’s senility” enough? Is the girl tediously visiting an Alzheimer’s patient? Is the girl real? What happens at the end? I thought the story was a quite enjoyable example of the sort that Sean H. discusses, but perhaps I am alone in finding it both too free – “Or something” feels so out of place, like a reflexive semi-retraction of the metaphor of the empty backpack eclipsing the girl, as if Williams, finding it too simple, wants to edit it out but settles for publicly rebuking herself. – and too, as Sean said, irritatingly restrained. By which I mean the ending feels beautiful but withholds what is actually happening. Can heavy symbolism replace narrative here? I’m not certain. Like I said, though, I found it quite good. How is that so when I’m asking it to justify itself? I don’t know. I enjoyed it but felt like I hadn’t been told something that everyone else seems to feel they’ve been told.
And how can a clear-eyed view of the things we don’t like to see ever be sweet and simple?
I’m asking. Honestly, in a spirit of inquiry. I enjoyed the story but was left questioning my reading, or if I had a reading. This is the best place I have found to look for an answer, and I think, based on the quality of the review and comments, that perhaps if not “an answer,” as though the story were a riddle, which it most definitely is not, I might find some understanding in discussion. I do hope you’ll take me up.
@ kevintynan – Oooo – good question! “Can heavy symbolism replace narrative?” Hmmmm…
Sometimes the heavy symbolism creates a gorgeous piece of art, and other times it creates a dud. I think symbolism needs to find some sort of anchor within the reader. The anchor for me were the experiences I have had with older family members. I “got” it.
I am of the opinion that there is beauty – sweetness – in the human experience. All of it. The good, the bad, the ugly. I am an optimist and hopeful and full of faith and so I see each struggle as an opportunity to grow closer and closer to a type of self-actualization. Every wonderful and horrible thing shapes us and helps us to see ourselves more truthfully. And then we can choose where to go from there.
I didn’t want to give away the idea of dementia or Alzheimer’s if someone was reading my review before reading the story. But it is the simple story of coming to terms with a very complex situation in life. How confusing it must be… how frightening…
I appreciate this treatment because it affords me compassion for others who are struggling with such things, and for myself, for I, too, will face such trials some day.
For me, this story was sweet and simple – a clear-eyed view of a frustrating experience. But there have been plenty that have left me unsure – what was I missing?
Another precocious child? Lazy, lazy, lazy. And she’s not consistent. Compare “To reassure you, I could show you some work I’ve done in the past.” to “A whole mess of them.” The old woman could have been interesting, but she wasn’t. I expect more from The New Yorker.
Thank you to everyone for your comments. You all have added immensely to my pleasure of this story!
Also, a special thanks to Sean for taking the time to type out his favourite quotes from the story. The line about ‘trying to fix something’ is indeed unforgettable.
Of course – being wary of spoilers in a review! – a responsibility I hadn’t considered, having very little firsthand experience writing reviews, and none in years… I simply hadn’t considered the importance of being considerate.
Returning my thoughts to the story today, I find that her symbolism is enough. Or, well, in the spirit of honesty, her symbolism plus this conversation. After the symbolism or guiding metaphor or symbol system of a story is made clear (or clearer) to me in discussion, I always tell myself “I would have gotten there on my own. I basically understood it when I came to the table.” My secret fear, of course, is that this is not true. I wouldn’t have gotten it. Quite often because I’ll allow bad habits of intellectual laziness to let me to move on without really thinking about it. But sometimes – times that haunt me during my darkest nights, nights when the black dog stalks my quarters and I’ve run out of booze and company – because I just wouldn’t have understood the work on my own, based purely on what the author gave me. One shudders to admit it.
Is it so bad to need help? I’m arrogant enough to think so, but that’s probably a fault.
But I’m now way digressed: returning to the story today, it seemed crystal clear, or enough of it did. There remain details about the child, about the function of the doctor’s house, etc. that I remain un-firmly decided on, that seem to inhabit multiple possible interpretations.
And for this story, that feels right. A straight one-to-one, a-represents-b metaphor system would ruin this story, as it generally does to most stories. That degree of tightness, though tempting to try for while writing – or strain for while reading – more rightly belongs to mediocre screenplays. It turns short stories that could have been great into the metaphor-driven equivalent of O’Henry stories. Which, while they may be fun, tell us nothing. No one, I feel confident in saying, has ever benefitted from a second reading of The Gift of the Maji.
So the difficulty in pinning certain things down works, and the rest, the rest stands on its merits, no further plot required. I think I liked it upon first reading, even though I still had questions, because I got from it a sense of completeness. It had said what it needed to and the better part of me knew this upon a first reading. I just got bogged down by the sort of “but what exactly” questions that really don’t need to be answered (though they need to be considered and mulled over) to take the right things away from the story.
And finally, I think I now agree with you that this story can be considered a clear-eyed view of an almost incomprehensible and terribly difficult process. Clear-eyed because it gives us insight and, yes, sympathy. I’m afraid I find it less hopeful than you do. While I like to think we can grow from difficulty and pain, and signs of such growth can make stories that relate brutal experiences uplifting, I just can’t agree here. I feel cold saying this after what you’ve shared of your family and yourself, but I feel honesty deserves honesty, and no one is served by a half-hearted discussion. I see this as a bleak story that, while sympathetic to and understanding of its protagonist, ultimately confronts us with a situation that can’t lead to growth or betterment: the loss, strand by strand, of one’s very self. Until, as at the story’s end, there is no one left to watch the last bits of selfhood slip away. No self left to mourn their passing.
I’m sorry to be so bleak, but it was this dark reality combined with the sympathy and mordant wit that, for me, made this piece so rewarding. And so alluring that I had to talk and think it through. Thank you, everyone, for helping me.
Thank you Kevin for your honest exchange. This part of your post really made me stop and think:
“I just wouldn’t have understood the work on my own, based purely on what the author gave me. One shudders to admit it.
Is it so bad to need help? I’m arrogant enough to think so, but that’s probably a fault.”
I believe one of the reasons why Trevor runs this public literature site is that it’s okay to need help.
We are very fortunate – Thank you Trevor!
You are welcome! And absolutely right! Thanks to all of you as well for making it all work!
@ Kevin –
So glad you are here and are willing to muddle through the world of unanswered questions – short fiction!
I am an incurable optimist – a Pollyanna-girl, a woman of faith, and a glass half-full kind of gal. Human suffering is immense – that is a truth. And we can all connect to pain. But for me? There’s more to it all. So the struggle will always be worth the reward.
Fiction explores that discomfort, the negativity, the brutality… And some of the hope I have comes from the idea that as we explore this (especially with others), the hurt has a meaning that makes it bearable. That we, the readers, will not feel as alone as the narrator of this story when we experience similar isolating experiences.
Now, the Gift of the Magi? Read it only once. But it is a Christmas story, so I must admit I have seen the Timothy Bottoms and Marie Osmond movie more times than I can count! :-)
If it’s dementia, I’m with it, if its anything else, I’ll have to classify this story is a crusty old call back to thick story telling that is thankfully making an exit from the pantheon.
This story is RIFE with symbology – it is disturbing and comforting – if that is possible, all at the same time. Is the little girl real? Or a figment of her imagination? That’s part of the mystery of this story but Death is coming for Ruth – and her ruminations and excursions and looks backwards into her own life reinforce this. The past is disturbed and kicks up small reminders of things she hasn’t thought of in years. Is the little girl the angel of Death? Does she resist her in the same way that she has resisted so many other things? The tuna – it’s protest of it’s death and the physicality of her feeling a part of it by eating it – forgetting it and eating it again….. It is gentle and awkward and unsettling. . Every memory that Ruth shares with us is meaningful – Chicken Hill, her horse (and it’s NAME) are important. The little girls parting comments. Amazing piece of literature.
After many readings and several days of pondering, I have come to some personal conclusions about this beautifully crafted and humorous story. The first is that the opening paragraphs about Hector’s fundraiser is to set the timing as the end of Ruth’s life. I believe the last real thing that happened was eating the tuna sandwich and having a heart attack. For me that was the first comical line; how she only ate tuna occasionally because it was physically uncomfortable. If eating a tuna sandwich feels like a heart attack, one would probably never eat them at all. Tuna sandwich, heart attack — those are her paltry details. All the rest of the story, including everything with the little girl, dressing in a sweater and mildewed shoes, and walking to the doctor’s house, happened only in Ruth’s mind in the last moments of her life.
It was wanting to know whether the little girl was real or not that led me to reread this story so many times. But almost everything she said sounded like things that only an adult would say, phrases that Ruth’s mind would put in her mouth. Like “The need for blood is constant and ongoing,” “Once you’re dead you shouldn’t be read,” and “You’d think she’d taken a bullet for a senator or something.” If those are insufficient, referring to her own mother as “the doctor” should satisfy that this isn’t a real little girl.
So many details point to what it might be like at the end of a long life, when all the things that gave meaning to one’s existence just cease to matter, and the most vivid things are not in the present or future but all in the past. The sour milk, the rotten spots on the veranda, the cottonwood trees that were “dangerous” as they were living on fumes, or the memory of water. The fact that none of her friends knew that she’d gone to the fundraiser seems to say that she isn’t close to anyone anymore. That line, about how the closer she got to the Barbed Wire the harder it was to find, seems to me to be a metaphor for the confusion that characterizes the end of one’s life.
This story has held me in its grip for days now. It has affected me as only a handful of literature does. I am grateful for the author’s work.