Review: Concerning the Future of Souls

Concerning the Future of Souls

Joy Williams

Tin House Books, July 2024, $22.95

How did I get this book? NetGalley ARC

Concerning the Future of Souls is a follow-up of sorts to Joy Williams’s 99 Stories of God. Both contain ninety-nine very short stories—in one case that I can think of, a single word—that might be called prose poems or (very) short stories or microfictions or, as Maggie Nelson called them in her Bluets, propositions. The new book centers around Azrael, the angel who transports souls to the afterlife. (An entity that performs this work is called a psychopomp, by the way, which is an excellent word.)

This book, like much of Williams’s work, defies neat boxes, which means there are many more ways to read it than the usual front-to-back way. This is the way that I read it, and probably the way it should be read at least the first time. But the experimental form lends itself to experimental reading. Here are the suggestions I jotted down as I read:

  • Read one story a day, maybe with a warm beverage or a neat whiskey. It could be a way to start the day, a midmorning or midafternoon break, or the thing you do to close the day for ninety-nine days. Read and sip and savor. This will be far more interesting than any quote-a-day calendar.
  • Practice your close reading skills. It’s less daunting to do a close reading on a piece so short. Go word by word and consider what you’re being told, what you know about the world of the story and the characters. No need to know anything about Williams or the world she was writing in or even the stories that come before or after. Just take one story and read it as closely as you can. I would pick , “Wyrd,” for this myself.
  • These stories are short, but they are full of references to other things. In a spirit opposite close reading, look up every reference Williams makes, chase every rabbit down its hole until you hit bottom or get bored. Don’t make a note and get around to it later; stop and look it up. It’s not like you’re going to lose track of the plot.
  • Consider every story in light of souls—who and what have them, and who and what do not. Take into account the fact that Williams’s concept of souls extends beyond humans and even mammals in general to anything affected by climate change. Read and see if you agree.
  • In that light, remember someone you love who has died. As I was reading this book, my own grandmother was dying. These short pieces are not the typical comforting fare for the grieving, but I found that a collection of odd, deep, funny, tangential stories were what I wanted.
  • Use the book to break your phone habit. When you find yourself scrolling and scanning without engaging, stop and read a story. It not only gets you physically off your phone (unless you’re reading this book on your phone, in which case it might not work), the oddity of the stories themselves will jolt your brain into running in another direction entirely. Refreshing.
  • Pick up the book and read a story at random. Even if you land on the same story multiple times, you won’t regret it.
  • Appreciate the friendship between Azrael and the Devil and how they both relate to God, who is tough to have as a friend, apparently.
  • Similarly, this would make a great book for fucking around with bibliomancy. Ask a question or think of a situation you’re dealing with, then open the book up to a random page. The story is your answer. Since the book covers souls, life, death, heaven, hell, you can’t help but get a profound answer. Williams also uses brevity and imagery in ways that could unlock whatever problem you’re having.
  • Dare yourself to choose a favorite, then try to figure out why you like it. You may be drawn to a one-sentence story, or a dialog between Azrael and Satan. Is it the tone? A particular word? An association with your own life? What makes that one hit right for you?
  • Or you can just let Joy Williams tell you how to read the book, which she basically does in .

You can buy all of KHG’s books and those she recommends at Bookshop.org. You can also buy her books in paperback and ebook formats directly from her shop.

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