Mundanity and Insanity: on Joy Williams’s The Changeling by Lincoln Michel

Rediscovering a beguiling masterpiece forty years after its publication.

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I don’t know how Joy Williams does it. As an author myself, when I read a writer—even a genius writer, and Williams is a genius—I can typically identify which techniques and elements of craft make the story tick. Yet Joy Williams seems not to be writing so much as casting spells. Her work is impeccably crafted, yet breaks all the rules of “craft” that writing classes hammer into students. Perhaps it’s no surprise that when Williams was once asked to give a craft talkon her favorite writers she said their “works can teach us little about technique” because their “way of touching us is simply by exploding on the lintel of our minds.” However she does it, Williams’s witchcraft is readily apparent in her second novel, The Changeling, a challenging and dazzling work being reissued this month by Tin House for its 40th anniversary.

When The Changeling first published in 1978, Joy Williams was a rising star. Esquire and The Paris Review were publishing her short stories and the National Book Foundation nominated her 1973 debut State of Grace for their fiction award. But when The Changeling came out, a scathing review in The New York Times from Anatole Broyard—“bad” and “arbitrary muddle” are among some of the words used—has long been argued to have sunk the book. The Changeling didn’t get a second printing. Williams continued publishing to acclaim, although a decade would pass before her next novel appeared. The Changeling remained out of print until the small press Fairy Tale Review re-published it in 2008. Now, forty years later, it is primed to find a wider audience.

The Changeling Joy Williams

The story of The Changeling is simple enough. Pearl, a young mother who spends her time “drinking gin and tonics” with “an infant in the crook of her right arm” is flying to her family-in-law’s island when the plane crashes. Pearl survives, but her husband dies and her child is, she believes, switched with a changeling in the wreckage. She is taken by her brother-in-law Thomas to the island, where she spends her drunken days surrounded by bizarre children and bitter adults. The island is a place of madness and magic and mundanity. She is pestered by children who are “like deadly little flowers to Pearl, budding Satans, quoting Dante before they lost their baby teeth.” Pearl gets lost in the insanity of these children—“You’ve taken the role yourself of their holy fool,” one character says—but it’s preferable to the adults whose highlight of the day might be “whack[ing] off in the sauna before lunch.”

However, The Changeling is less about the story than the sentences, which are, in this reviewer’s estimation, enchanting. Not everyone agrees. In his infamous review, Broyard spent much of his time quoting sentences and calling them impenetrable. Your appreciation of The Changeling will depend on if you find appealing sentences such as (to pick two of Broyard’s targets), “Oh to bring back the days when stars spoke at the mouths of caves,” and “She was young but some day she would be covered with ants.”

The great witchcraft of The Changeling’s prose is not in the individual phrase, but in the movement of its sentences. What makes Williams’s style so hard to pin down is her ability to shift register, style, and mood on a dime. Take for example the description of the plane crash:

The plane skated briskly for a moment and then nosed heavily into the mud. The right wing was sheared off and partially entered the cabin, almost separating the plane in two, opening it up like a child’s hinged and portable toy. Pearl felt herself torn from the seat and flying awkwardly, belly-up, through the air. Perhaps this really was the way the dying did it. Imagine. Being depicted accurately all those years by the visionaries. One simply spread one’s arms and flew home.

The prose begins cold and clinical, and ends up moving and mythic. It shifts from the distant third person to a second person address. Throughout the novel, her sentences seem to absorb everything—darkness and humor, myth and mundanity, irony and pathos—and fuse them together by some strange alchemy. The Changeling is a novel where everything is shifting from the events to the language. Pearl herself questions the use of words, perhaps winking at the reader that they may be reading it all wrong:

Frequently people believed her to be implying something with her words that she was not implying at all. Words, for her, were issued with stubborn inaccuracy. The children had told her once that the sun was called the sun because the real word for it was too terrible. Pearl felt that she knew all the terrible words but none of their substitutes.

The Changeling is often called a work of magical realism, and it clearly draws on fairy tales. Transformations abound, both psychic and physical. At one point, Pearl watches a girl change into a deer: “Her tongue had then become a thick deer’s tongue and the hand she raised was a deer’s hoof, black and graceful, and her flanks were covered with tight, bright fur.” Not much happens, and yet everything does. The book as a whole is as shifting and elusive as the sentences, where anything could be a drunken dream or a supernatural event.

Forty years later, The Changeling remains a strange, shining object in Williams’s oeuvre. She has had a long career of brilliant stories and novels, but they have typically stayed in the realms of the real. While Williams’s brilliant satirical novel The Quick and the Dead includes a vindictive WASP ghost, The Changeling remains Williams’s fullest plunge into the uncanny and the magical. Give it a try. Let it cast its spell on you.

Lincoln Michel is the author of the story collection Upright Beasts (Coffee House Press 2015) and the co-editor of the anthologies Gigantic Worlds (Gigantic Books 2015) and Tiny Crimes (Black Balloon Publishing 2018). His fiction appears in GrantaTin House, NOON, Pushcart Prize XXXIX, and elsewhere. You can find him online at lincolnmichel.com and @thelincoln.

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