A Harrowing Tale

  • By Samantha Neugebauer
  • December 7, 2022

Joy Williams’ fifth novel conjures a bleak, mostly fallen world.

A Harrowing Tale

There’s a reason readers flock to Dante’s Inferno rather than to Purgatorio or Paradiso. It’s the same reason Billy Joel croons, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints” — hell is simply more interesting/exciting/compelling than heaven. Perhaps it’s this truth that drew Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joy Williams to write in her fifth novel, Harrow, of a post-apocalyptic world in which purgatory and hell are indistinguishable from one another.

It begins with protagonist Khristen (named Lamb at birth) retelling a family legend: As a baby — Khristen’s mother claimed — the girl was briefly dead but came back to life. Because of this miracle, her mother believed Khristen was “destined for something extraordinary.”

Khristen enrolls at a bare-bones boarding school “surrounded by beetle-ravaged pines” and “staffed with nervous self-regard by arguably the cleverest minds in the country.” After the institution’s shuttering, she begins a quest to find anything meaningful in the devastated land. While many novels explore environmental debasement at the hands of greedy capitalists, Harrow’s attention is uniquely angled toward the world of ideas. On her train to the school, for instance, Khristen shares a car with a tedious cadre of sociologists. She laments:

“They ignored me. There was nothing about me to inspire their interest. Still, their disappointment with each other was obvious. Each had hoped to encounter an artist, a poetic and drunken prelate, perhaps, a botanist, even a professional athlete or doomsday commentator. This is what great trains of literature were supposed to provide. But all were sociologists, social workers, social engineers, sociobiologists.”

This passage harks back to the novel’s eerie prologue, in which a chorus of disembodied voices journeys on what feels like an inverted retelling of Noah’s Ark. On this narrative arc, one passenger states, “I think the world is dying because we were dead to its astonishments. It’ll be around but it will become less and less until it’s finally compatible with our feelings for it.”

In earlier times, the word “astonishment” meant paralysis, an etymology familiar to readers of Wordsworth. Thus, it seems, Williams is suggesting that while many inhabitants of this world may be eco-critics (as students at Khristen’s school claim to be), they are nevertheless disconnected from nature — “undespairing” and obsessed with their own anxieties rather than with the depredation of the land.

In Christian theology, the Harrowing of Hell is a tale lost in the middle of the Apostles’ Creed. By titling her book Harrow, Williams is drawing attention to this interlude after crucifixion but before resurrection when Jesus passed time in the place of the dead and proclaimed to “the spirits in prison.” Hence, one might assume Khristen is a Jesus figure. Yet Williams is careful to tell us early on that in this world, “all the prisons had been emptied, the opera houses and theaters closed.” Khristen’s story, then, must take place post-Harrowing but pre-resurrection in a prolonged, unforeseen interregnum.

Throughout the novel, Williams is slyly polemical. Her characters’ fates are slippery, but their ideas and opinions are concrete. They throw out aphorisms left and right. At one point, Khristen encounters a group of “students at large” who are semi-squatting/partying at an old professor’s farmhouse. They explain that “despair was caused by the attempt to live a life of virtue, justice, and understanding.” Khristen, in turn, describes them as cheerful, ruthless, resourceful, and self-absorbed.

Many of the themes in Harrow are not new to Williams. What distinguishes this work from the rest of her oeuvre is its widescale killing of animals. Williams is a well-known animal lover. She’s said that every story ought to have an animal in it to give its blessings. We can assume, therefore, that Khristen’s world is one without blessings.

“When I could no longer think of myself, much as I longed to, as a bird or an animal,” Khristen admits, “I grew weary and uncertain.” Other reviewers have reached a similar conclusion: This is a tale devoid of hope and answers. Yet Williams has hidden some promise amid the wreckage.

“The flowers,” she writes, “who, as Wordsworth knew, enjoyed the air they breathed, were aware of nothing but hope’s absence. Something definitely had gone wrong. Even the dead were dismayed.” This faith in flowers’ awareness speaks to Williams’ continued faith in the world. While the realms of the living, the dead, and the waiting may collapse upon us humans, life itself will continue.

[Editor’s note: This article was written with support from the DC Arts Writing Fellowship, a project of the nonprofit Day Eight.]

Samantha Neugebauer is a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University and a senior editor for Painted Bride Quarterly.

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