Diane Williams’s latest collection of flash fiction, I Hear You’re Rich, is something like a literary Rubik’s cube. Every time you think a story’s bigger picture is coming into focus, an exclamation—like a square of a different color—flips over to disrupt the solidity of what you’ve read. Or it might be that a story is devoted so sharply to pinpointing the increments connecting one action, or thought, to another, that no one detail stands above another in significance. This level of scrutiny won’t be for everyone. But readers who take at least as much pleasure in the in-between as they do in the main event just might click with Williams’s unique deconstruction of the familiar.
None of the 33 stories included is ever more than a few pages, and the shortest is only one sentence long. Even in one of the more straightforward offerings like “We Had A Lot of Fun Dancing,” each sentence feels self-contained, as if turning its back on the others, however closely, or not, the sentences mirror one another’s concerns (“Eventually, I landed in the right space and then after, it wasn’t a long time, she pulled back. So at that point, I was looking at her.”). It can be an unsettling experience, primarily if this is your first encounter with Williams’s work, to hold the expectation of a fully fleshed out plot or characters, only to be ushered out of a tale as bewilderingly as you were invited in. Or to leap from paragraph to paragraph, careful to clear the molten white space between them, only to land in a place that bears little resemblance to the one you left behind. But in this book, the sentence is the thing. Sorry, Hamlet.
“Start Here,” which happens to be the third story in the collection, begins with a breathless example of the aforementioned sentence-as-island: “I got to the building that was a church that had a high ceiling and a long stair going down and a woman was coming after me, an elderly woman, but I didn’t know her name.” If you weren’t holding the actual book in your hands, you would be forgiven for wondering if this is the one-sentence story I referenced earlier. It isn’t, but it certainly could be if considered within the context of this collection. Every sentence that follows this one in its paragraph could easily begin this (or any) story. Williams’s descriptions are spartan, and keep their subjects at arm’s length—the better to absorb the essential contours of a thing and convey them to the reader. As I read, I got the distinct impression of someone describing paintings to a person who is not there to see them (“…a white metal-and-glass table, a red side chair the color of Heinz Tomato Soup”). Then the unnamed guide decides to take their task a step further, creating sketches of the situations they imagine each painting depicts—the moment a person loses feeling for a love interest; awkward dinners; spending time in nature with a friend—along with their attendant minutia.
The space typically occupied by emotionally resonant interiority is intentionally left empty in these stories. Characters do get emotional, sometimes shouting things at one another, but even in those moments, there is a palpable disconnect between the declaration and the person who made it. The sometimes sudden change in a character’s focus to a new observation adds to this feeling of distance. No one statement is made to feel more important than others a character makes. This can leave one with the uncanny sensation of watching a child play with dolls or puppets, speaking their lines for them dispassionately as they knock them together because the child has no real-life experience to connect to the words they feed their toys.
In contrast to more traditional treatments of narrative, Williams never lets readers forget that they are engaging with artifice, even as they encounter again and again observations they themselves have likely made in the routine moments of their own lives. Being “dismayed by the sensation” of old food on a dish; the rote decision to “go inside and set the oven at four hundred and fifty and start the carrots”; or the moment of agreeing to something you did not actually want, then watching the days roll by as that moment gives way to years of dissatisfaction. The blunt utility of each sentence holds the reader at a remove, preventing full immersion or connection. The writing forces you to remain firmly in the role of observer, whether you want to be or not.
The book’s cover image is a truncated and obscured section of the painting Bacchante (1785) by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. The image is of a figure wearing a crown of leaves and grapes. In the original painting, this figure stares with great satisfaction in the viewer’s direction. However, due to the cropped repositioning of the figure and the enormous presence of the title, scrawled like graffiti across their face, the person viewing the book cover cannot be entirely sure where the figure in the painting is looking. The fabric of their clothing is pulled low, exposing a single breast. The figure wears an easy smile. This image is a perfect representation of a collection in which the exposure of intimate detail is neither centered nor obscured. Every event, thought, image, phrase, and word are given equal opportunity to claim or elude your attention. Turn the pages and see what stands out to you. You might be surprised.
I Hear You’re Rich
By Diane Williams
Published August 8, 2023