14 Fictional Positions
(Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2010)
In the preface to his first collection of short fiction, 14 Fictional Positions, Eric Miles Williamson tells us that the stories contained within ought not be considered mere exercises—though, he says, that’s exactly the function they’ve served. Kind of a contradictory way to begin, and a bit less than compelling for readers who want to feel that treasure may lie ahead. Should I even bother continuing…? the reader wonders, looking out the window at the beautiful fall day—the insanely beautiful fall day.
I’m here to say, stay put.
This is not a collection so much as a constellation of moments in the evolution of an amateur writer—Williamson at the age of 22, unavailed of the likes of Joyce and Elliot—into a professional amateur writer, the work having never ceased to be a matter primarily of amorousness. What is it that this author loves? Well, Donald Barthelme, for one, with whom he studied as a young writer—but also affectionately captured here is his own exuberant effort to locate literary territory of his own, something Barthelme himself had to advise young Mr. Williamson to do.
It’s not exactly a steady trajectory and you may not feel, in the end, that you’ve gotten all that far from where you began, but this is a collection where readers of his Oakland novels will find a sensibility still in formation, and where the unacquainted will encounter pleasurable varieties of the short form—essayistic, aphoristic, mosaic, narrative-driven, undriven, oftentimes fragmented. These stories rant and fume, allude and elude, as much as they climax or conclude. They chart a writer in the process of learning how to mean something, rather than just exude meaning.
In “A Man is Known by his Laughter,” the narrator gives us a whole lot of grief about how hard it is to drink cheap scotch and be an artist on a dead end street while being very, very unapologetic about how thoroughly educated he is. You may notice that the author shares a bit of biography with this narrator, but Williamson calls this fiction and so I will too, though it seems the inclusion of this piece is an instance of the author mocking his youthful self by simply allowing said self to run his wayward mouth. He struggles, contemptuously, and not a little pompously, “to not write with the critics of the future in mind,” against the crippling “institution of Aesthetics,” against whomever is attempting to make him out more blue in the collar than he actually is, and against the “Safeway-novel housewife.” On page 87 he even takes a moment to condemn “you.”
In the end he discards his books and maps and drives away, but not without reminding us that any work earning universal approval is probably not very good—and that may be why the story seems designed to meet the approval of no one. But it marks the first appearance in this collection of overt passion, of shameless heart, vitriolic and misdirected though it may be. As such it’s the story where Williamson begins to step out from within the coldly intellectual shadow of his legendary mentor.
Along these lines comes a story called “Skaters,” the collection’s penultimate story, in which a trio of young brothers discover pond-skating with the help of a stranger who hands out skates to local children. In the end, after having kept a pair only meant for borrowing, the narrator, an older man now, hopes to pay the good deed forward to a new set of youth—and that’s pretty much the whole story, one that doesn’t fear that most loathsome, embarrassing, and amateurish label: sentimental. Of course the story comes up a bit short and doesn’t leave you with much, but it signals a warmer kind of brightness in the constellation.
You won’t find too much here of what Williamson calls “Meta Realism,” that territory of his own I mentioned earlier (for that see his novels), but you will learn how a writer—a really good one, one with a legend to live up to—became who he is and not who he’s not. It’s well worth it.