“You will not,” one story here informs us, “at your boss’s annual summer evening Hawaiian pool party walk up to your associate’s wife and pluck the nursing newborn from her disbelieving arms and dash it on the mossy stones of the Japanese rock garden.” But the idea is there, and that level of violence, explosive, cruel, and horrifying, is veined throughout these otherwise dull tales.
The stories here disturb, but less in any sense that art should; more the way images of pain and suffering appropriates for pornographic purposes do, the way Faces of Death did back in middle school when kids would make out in front of it, or certain Web sites today that show photographs of white phosphorous burns for the titillating “gross out” factor. Williams is poking his finger at something he takes to be profoundly American, a bone half-buried in this blood-soaked soil of ours, but his response to that undercurrent of violence is another layer of violence, reading like a photocopy of a photocopy, numbed to its own force, distanced from the reality it signifies.
In another story, a man with a gun takes a hostage and then blows up a Hooters. They speak, terrorist and victim, in stripped-down dialogue, lacking, as all dialogue here does, punctuation marks. This can be confusing, as a tactic, though in its implications of purity it, too, is almost violent, an over-worked minimalism, clenched, like the fists of a man who will soon flare up in magnesium, eradicating his physical form due to some unspoken anger. Men draw guns and fire, randomly, in anger or something like a toothless joy. Not that there aren’t also career criminals here, and agents of various sorts, and myriad occultists. And some of the violence, for all its wild lashing, does have a motivation: there are hate crimes against Muslims, a protagonist obsessed with dealing revenge for the imposition of sounds into his world. Yet under both the clear, caused rage and the inchoate, frothing anger, there is a sense, from Williams, that violence has a deeper, religious root.
Religions recur here, as well, from caricatures of Scientology to those wounded Muslims, the blood of the lamb that washes over revivalists in the pine woods, the blood rites of various imagined initiatory communities, the secrets of and related slanders associated with the Masons or the Templars or Hubbard’s own sect. Even the ghost of a young girl blames something like religion: “My father made us believe he was god. We believed him. That’s why we killed ourselves. God said it was time.” More than one story involves the idea of a coming anti-Christ, a new nativity, the incarnation of evil itself. One couple wants to revamp “the Cult of the Sacred Whore.” “In three years their web site had 786 million hits, five percent paying. Their latest adventure: traveling through Spain. The goal: to get pregnant. The phases of the moon, temperatures, graphs of peak ovulation.” There is a riot in the wake of Easter. Skulls are smashed. This sacrality of violence, not merely the notion of violence as something ancient and incubating but its unleashing as somehow transcendent, even a good in itself: this echoes through the museum hallways lined with weapons, the Quixotic old man who unsheathes a sword, even the excessively effusive epistolary responses, spinning out fantastically, to singles ads, which culminates in a sinister new paganism: “In my garage I am building a gift for you, a sacrifice.”
While one narrator, struggling to contain himself, repeats to his own disbelief the claim that America “is not a rabid behemoth of greed idiotized by advertising and stupefied by cathode rays and narcotized by Twinkies. America is not a land-fill,” this sense predominates, and some of the return to a sacred violence is out of a sense of needing to purify a polluted land. Blast the Muslims away with sonic weapons, for instance; plow through the Virginian suburbs with a tank. But Williams treats the employ of this violence like he treats the lack of question marks, a literary tactic only, rather than taking such things, even when only on the page, seriously as already a reality, a real force. Consider: “You motherfucker, the woman said to Leland. You killed my boyfriend. I’m like God now and like God I’m like God now like God I’m like God now goddamn you killed my boyfriend you goddamned son of bitch.” The quote is accurate, and here maybe Williams is capturing something of the shock, the physiological force of violence not on the body but on the nervous system, on perception and speech, but the story is too slick, transient, for this statement to have much force or give the reader much pause.
Imagining the events described here, away from the book, is much more viscerally affecting than reading the prose. The congregants outside the mosque buckle and drop, and in my mind, this matters, this hurts, whereas in these pages there is an immediate moving on, an insulation in the prose, a retreat from engagement with the power of the violence that gets thrown around here as reference but without respect for its weight. In one scene, a woman climbs out from under a table to examine the consequences of a Tarantino-like shootout scene: “The room filled with the keen odor of cordite and blood. Eight bodies.” It is oddly bloodless, this writing, for all the blood shed within its narratives. And this distance—like that “you will not” that conditionally adjusts the opening quote to this review—heightens the disturbing reality of violence even as the violence here is inserted, imagined, and shuffled around as a plot device.