Puzzles with a purpose

Joy Williams’s stories disarm, bewilder, and awaken us.

"The Lord” first appears in these stories in no. 10, titled “Wet.” He is drinking a glass of water in a “white building on a vast wasteland,” and the water tastes terrible. He asks the engineers who are working in the building, “What have you done to my water . . . My living water?” The engineers answer, “We thought that was just a metaphor.” End of story. In all it contains less than 100 words, but it manages to illuminate the Christian tradition and then send it through a prism. The light refracted on the other side has changed it. This story is a question, a lament, a commentary, and a joke all at once.

The Lord doesn’t appear in every story in the book, but when he does he is more mystified than mysterious, more bewildered than bewildering. He reports having been to a hot dog eating contest; he practices some lines as if he were a stand-up comic; he stands in line for a shingles shot. He is everywhere and nowhere, and when he does appear, nothing gets settled or better understood. But it does get a little funnier.

The book feels like a series of puzzles, Zen koans, or Hasidic tales. In the late 18th century, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav despaired of ever teaching his people the right path. He had tried to teach them through study and through arguments. But then he recognized that what the people really needed were stories. “You wake a person up by means of tales,” he said. And stories work best if they are told “in the midst of years,” as a part of the fabric of everyday life.