I want to tell you everything about Joy Williams’s The Changeling, but I fear there’s nothing sensible that I can say. When the book was published in 1978, Anatole Broyard dismissed it as an “arbitrary muddle.” In 2015, however, the Times Magazine offered (in typical Times fashion) a glowing retrospective with a headline admiring “The Misanthropic Genius of Joy Williams.” Three years later, Tin House revived The Changeling in a fortieth-anniversary edition with a fan-girl introduction written by Karen Russell. It’s a beautiful reprint, and reading it marked my first sustained encounter with Williams’s writing. I loved The Changeling because it confused me. I’m sure this is exactly what Williams wanted.
In a meditation on “Why I Write,” Williams admits she has no interest in entertaining or reassuring readers of their comfortable pretensions about what makes for a good story: “Good writing never soothes or comforts. It is no prescription, neither is it diversionary, although it can and should enchant while it explodes in the reader’s face.” As a resurrected novel, The Changeling feels brand-new yet prophetic, disturbing and disruptive. Williams’s book explodes in your face and makes you feel like you haven’t quite figured out how a novel is supposed to work. The Changeling is thoroughly transgressive, according to Russell, because it remains “uninterested in reflecting the familiar dramas of human life, or reproducing the conventional grammar of human thinking.” Williams’s project, as Russell describes it, of “annihilating transformation” is precisely what we need in these annihilating times of ecological devastation.
Although not an overtly environmental narrative, The Changeling offers a radical ecological vision that demands a reckoning with the inhuman forces of nature that don’t conform to human scales of time and space. The book’s own atemporal shape is weirdly confusing. It is a book you might read and never remember reading. It is a shapeshifting book about impermanence and metamorphosis. Readers are told near the end that “the spirit is changeling. And is forever being fashioned into endless and impending transformations” and we are forewarned near the beginning: “Every living thing suffers transfiguration.” Nothing else really happens in The Changeling except this endless and impending movement toward transformation, because that is the only story. If anything, The Changeling is an encounter narrative, a horror story that reads like a fever dream driven by the alienating desire to see “the lunatic face of God,” or, what Williams evokes as “that great cold elemental grace that knows us” and does not reflect our faces back to us. It is a book impervious to humanist (or humane) forms of storytelling, centered on a monstrous mother’s struggle to love an inhuman child, a love that “would entail accepting the monstrosity of salvation.” Because salvation requires an annihilating transformation of what we accept as human.
For this reason, I recommend reading The Changeling only when you are very drunk, preferably from no less than three or five gin martinis. This is the preferred drink of Pearl, the novel’s perpetually sloshed mother. Pearl drowns us in a surreal litany of meandering remarks about God, the devil, and sex, as well as about the dissipative pleasures of booze, the unknown boundaries of the universe, the variable laws of nature, the apathetic corruption of adults, and the uncanny, unreasonable, “utterly unselfconscious, utterly indecent” wisdom of children who are really just wild animals waiting to sprout fur, bare their claws, and sink their teeth into your neck. The children—and Pearl’s dispassionate observations of them—beat at the heart of the novel. They are trapped on an island ruled by Thomas, the family patriarch and Pearl’s brother-in-law, who has collected and adopted the children as his own private menagerie, mainly to experiment with their education based on a contorted philosophy of childhood. Not much takes place in the way of plot, except Pearl’s increasingly inebriated certainty that there is something appalling about the children, some horror they are planning to reveal about themselves.
Pearl exists in a limbo between the children and other adults living on the island, an eccentric jumble of rigidly empirical and wildly imaginative perspectives. Pearl is unable to decide whose world she belongs to, but she spends “most of her time with the children. They were always seeking her out and speaking outlandishly to her. Pearl felt that they had driven her to drink. But that was alright. They were just children.” According to Pearl’s hazy sense of things, she is a drunk simply because it is the only way to comprehend the children since they too are “like drunkards, determined to talk at great length and with great incoherence.” The children spend much of the novel pulling at Pearl’s body, crawling all over her while she lounges out by the pool with her bottles of wine and gin, chattering around her in an endless babble of bizarre propositions about how the world works. They are mystic visionaries, cruel and violent mythmakers, “always killing one another” in their games. Their imaginations are unbound by time. The children are enthralled by their own world-making power of stories that defy rationality. Pearl decides that their stories “are as good a way as any for explaining” natural phenomena as any other, though. She also begins to suspect that their stories and games are rituals preparing them for an inevitable, savage reckoning between the human and nonhuman forces on the island. They obsessively retell the buried history of the island to uncover the original sin of its first patriarch, who spent years murdering and butchering the island’s wild animals before attempting to murder his own children.
As its title indicates, The Changeling is a fairy tale, but not a Freudian fairy tale about the human unconscious and unrepressed desires, or the ultimate need for children to transform into well-behaved, civilized adults. This is fairy tale in its most archaic manifestation; for Williams, fairy tales are pagan narratives about the fallen exile of humans from the brutal, indifferent, wild beauty of the natural world. Only the children—and drunk “holy fools” like Pearl—seem to have access to this world. The cold logic and isolation of the other adults in the novel, like the megalomaniacal Thomas and his self-absorbed family members, represent a greater danger to Pearl’s sense of sanity than the alien, irrational, obstinately magical inner circle of the children
Pearl not only drinks to understand the children but also to forget some terrible revelation. The Changeling is an apocalyptic book; it reaches inexorably toward an unveiling of some truth that readers, along with Pearl, expect will be devastatingly transformative. For Pearl, drinking becomes a magical, self-annihilating form of protection. She is convinced that drinking shields her from the wildness of the children, including—readers discover—her own. Pearl suspects that her son, Sam, is not the same child she gave birth to, and she drinks to drown out her “fearful thoughts,” and to reach some kind of greater vision of love that includes loving her inhuman, alien child. As Williams writes, Pearl “drank in the hope that her drunkenness would produce a clarity that would usher her into effective love. She drank because sometimes she felt her whole body gleaming with it. And whatever she wanted to see, she could see.” Here, Pearl teeters on a boozy precipice of revelation, a moment of holy madness and lucidity that is immediately punctured, or deflated, by the following sentence: “One of the children farted.” And that is the discomfiting brilliance of Joy Williams’s novel. If The Changeling is an apocalyptic novel, then it’s not one that reaches for some spiritually transcendent, metaphysically profound insight into the human condition that elevates us beyond our animal selves. Instead, “the monstrosity of salvation” is found in the meaty, stinking, profane intrusion of a child’s fart, revealing that everything “beyond the speakable is the beginning of the world.”
How can we say anything about a book that reaches for the unspeakable beginning? Let me try this another way.
A book begins with a woman sitting at a bar guzzling gin and tonics, holding a small infant in her arms, trapped in an eternally “passive and indecisive” present: “It was the present, it had been the present, and it was always going to be the present.” Like Pearl at the bar, The Changeling’s narrative remains trapped in the perennial present. Sometimes it circles back and sometimes forward and you think you are reading a book about the spiraling madness of a young, drunk, insensible woman, insensitive to the child she has rejected because she is convinced that he is not her child. The real child, Pearl believes, was lost in an airplane crash—and only Pearl along with another infant, mistakenly or haphazardly placed in her arms and tearing at her breast with sharp teeth, are the sole survivors. We don’t ever know for certain if Sam is a real child or a figment of Pearl’s inebriated imagination. We don’t know which option is more hideous; Pearl is either a monstrous mother, or “Sam” is demonic intruder who orchestrates the revolt of the other children on the island where Pearl spends seven years persistently drunk in the aftermath of the crash.
The time had passed. One sits down to a glass of wine and the years pass. Nothing magical about that. It had taken Sam almost seven years to become almost seven. And she had been with him all the while. And yet she did not know him. … Once, in the very earliest time, a human being could become an animal if he wanted to and an animal could become a human being. There was no difference. That was the way it was.
In the middle of the book, readers are still sitting around drunk and sloshed in the fretful stasis of Pearl’s mind. All you know is that you are in the company of a woman who spends her days drinking by a pool on an island inhabited by the invasive bodies and voices of children telling stories about murdered animals, abject witches, and predatory huntsmen. You still have no idea what kind of book you are reading. You begin to think that might not really matter. Okay, you decide, it’s a book about a drunk madwoman who thinks that her child and all the children around her are changelings. They are trapped on an island with a crumbling mansion, haunted by a primordial, violent past. The woman and the children are the playthings and pets of a rational magician. The book is a maze, a mirage, a mirror. You are inside a fairy tale, you think, and the question of sanity becomes as pointless as plot. By the end of the book, time is irrelevant, the adults are dead, and Pearl has either changed back into a child or become a wounded den mother, encircled by the lapping tongues, wet fur, and mewling snarls of children who have metamorphosed into ravenous beasts.
The book is a closed circle. You close the book, time has been suspended, some unspeakable horror now gnaws at you. You have read a book and found what is almost never found when reading books. You have not contacted other human beings; you have not encountered a comfortable reflection of your own human face, mirrored back at you by other human faces, desires, and needs. Instead, you have been forced to confront “that great cold elemental grace that knows us.” Yet you cannot say for sure what that cold elemental grace is because it exists “beyond the speakable.”
Reading The Changeling is like finding religion, or—as Karen Russell concludes—“a transformation [that] requires an extinction.” For Williams, literature should take us beyond the merely human into the madness and logic of a world far vaster than our imaginations or senses are capable of perceiving. In an unpublished essay (cited at the end of the Times Magazine retrospective), Williams asks: “Could this obsessional looking at the human bring about the death of literature? … Was it only a dream that Literature was once dangerous, that it had the power to awaken and change us? Surely it must be, become, dangerous now. … Behold the mystery, the mysterious, undeserved beauty of the world.”
More than anything, The Changeling is concerned with our faith in “the knowledge that everything was outside oneself” in the face of nature’s indifference. Williams asks us to take the world seriously, in all its unknowable dimensions and “undeserved beauty.” The Changeling is by any reading a deeply religious book, but Williams’s novel does not give us a good and loving God. God is wild, cold, and merciless, and in the novel the wild animals and wild children are the manifestation of divinity. The animal-children who turn back into animals enact the novel’s saving grace, its monstrous salvation, and their transformation forces us to consider how the human, as the central project of literature, is a bankrupt endeavor. Humans have become incapable of metamorphosis because we have turned ourselves into poor, flat, self-reflective images of gods who have abandoned the larger nonhuman world in which we live. In her essay, “The Animal People,” Williams notes that the sacrilege of “anthropomorphism originally meant the attribution of human characteristics to God.” Somewhere along the way, in our stories and philosophies, the anthropomorphic impulse became only “a sort of rampant sentimentality” deflected onto the animals. “Our treatment of animals,” Williams postulates, “and our attitude toward them are crucial not only to any pretensions we have to ethical behavior but to humankind’s intellectual and moral evolution. Which is how the human animal is meant to evolve, isn’t it?”
The Changeling suggests that the extinction of the human animal is contingent on our ethical failure to see ourselves in relation to the nonhuman. We have stopped evolving and shape-shifting with a world that is determined only by relentless transformations. When faced with the annihilating forces of our Anthropocene hubris, Williams insists, literature should return to us a sense of awe and wonder at our own smallness in the universe; we must become like children again, not innocent of the world, but deeply attuned to its enchantments, its endless possibilities for change. Like the beastly children in The Changeling, whose merged voices haunt the final pages of the novel, our survival—on the smallest which are also, perhaps, the most cosmic of scales—requires an imagination that remains open to the world’s ruthless logic of endless and impending metamorphosis. “Nature is generous and insensible the heart of heartlessness nothing endures or is completed everything is in constant change,” Williams writes. This is the revelation that the wholly transformed nonhuman children offer Pearl, consuming her with their voices and monstrous love, calling her back to an understanding of her own savage, childish, animal heart.
This is not to conclude that we as readers reach any comprehensive, comfortable relationship with The Changeling’s revelations. By the time you get to the end of reading The Changeling, you’ll feel as if you’ve almost reached the last drop of your third (or fifth) martini, but the bartender has cruelly whisked it away before you could finish; you didn’t feel quite finished, or drunk enough, and so you order another, thinking just one more will unlock some mystery of the world that can only be found in a bottle of really good gin. In an essay making “The Case Against Babies,” Williams recalls a similar gin-soaked encounter and epiphany:
I once prevented a waitress from taking away my martini glass, which had a tiny bit of martini remaining in it, and she snarled, ‘Oh, the precious liquid,’ before slamming it back down on the table. It’s true that I probably imagined that there was more martini in the glass than there actually was (what on earth could have happened to it all?), but the precious liquid remark brings unpleasantly to mind the reverent regard in which so many people hold themselves.
Reverent self-regard, according to the argument of Williams’s essay, compels comfortably affluent people to keep reproducing tiny replicas of themselves, even though they know that the planet is already overpopulated. We already have too many humans, too in love with themselves, Williams points out, who consume the resources that others need to survive. Also, the thing about children, as The Changeling reminds us, is that you’re just inviting little strangers into your home, and then you have to feed them and love them no matter how unexpectedly unfriendly and monstrous they turn out to be. Better perhaps, or just as logical, to adopt some sort of animal.
Hope Jennings is a Professor of English at Wright State University. Her publications include a fictional biography of Mina Loy, Nostalgia (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2015), and essays on contemporary women writers, including Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Jeanette Winterson, Arundhati Roy, and Lidia Yuknavitch. She is currently working on several projects that explore eco-apocalypse and wilderness narratives in contemporary literary and visual texts.
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