Williams’ tone is caustic and discomfiting; it brings to mind the moment in which we are living, when matters of science and public health are regularly ridiculed or redirected in favor of political or economic platitudes...At the same time, her vision is too capacious for Harrow to be read so narrowly ... The implication is that chaos is both our invention and our destiny, which means there can be no solace or forgiveness for our collusion with it. This is the source of Williams’ fierce and unrelenting anger, and it invests Harrow with a potent moral weight ... a piece of writing in the vein of Samuel Beckett or Franz Kafka, its humor weaponized by rage ... 'Before the eyes can see, they must be incapable of tears,' Williams tells us — excavating, as she does throughout this magnificent and moving novel, the middle distance between silence and experience.
Harrow reminds me very much of Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but, with apologies to the boys, it’s better than both of their novels put together. Harrow belongs at the front of the pack of recent climate fiction, even as it refuses the basic premise (human survival is important) and the sentimental rays of hope (another world is possible!) that are the hallmarks of the genre. This novel doesn’t care who you vote for or if you recycle ... a crabby, craggy, comfortless, arid, erudite, obtuse, perfect novel, a singular entry in a singular body of work by an artist of uncompromised originality and vision. For all of its fragmentation and deliberate strategies of estrangement, Harrow feels coherent and complete, like a single long-form thought or a religious epiphany. It’s also funny as hell ... To read this novel is to know and to be known (Galatians 4:9) by a profound and comfortless alterity, to encounter the cosmic otherness at the very core of the self.
... a blackly comic portrait of futility ... This is sarcasm of a high, artistic order, reminiscent of no one quite so much as William Gaddis. The story occupies the boundary of absurdity and incomprehension in the same way that humankind exists on the verge of annihilation, perpetually undermining itself in the process of rebuilding. The book’s structure is equally volatile ... This seems perverse until one recalls that it’s what Moby-Dick does, as well. Ms. Williams’s novel, a work of strange, disruptive 'holy havoc,' presents a ship of fools adrift in a drowning world.
As Williams’s books go, this isn’t a very good one. Her wit misfires more than usual; the ecological themes are overly familiar; there are no real characters to hang onto, and very little plot, not that anyone comes to Williams for scenario ... Expectations are funny things, though. If you blacked out Williams’s name on the cover and told me that Harrow was written by a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I would probably have thought to myself, 'A wild one has escaped the infirmary! I greet you, wild one, at the start of an interesting career. Please stop making me laugh while unspooling my intestines'...Such are the mental contradictions when reading a lesser Williams novel ... Williams’s characters strike poses and dispense thought bubbles, verbal pellets; they can seem to have stepped out of a Jules Feiffer strip. Everyone skitters sideways, as if they were crabs. Her humans are given to epiphanic exclamations that often have nothing to do with anything that’s happening. They’re trying to remain sane in a demented world. They’re total weirdos, in the best sense ... You skim Harrow, as if it were a book of poems, for the author’s observations, threaded as they are with acuity and chagrin and strange harbingers and vestiges of old mythologies ... Williams isn’t that kind of nature writer, one of the tenderheaded, cry-of-the-loon variety. Even if this novel is half-realized, like a wire frame awaiting clay for its head, its skepticism and sanity are consistently on display.
Energy flickers in and out of this writing, with its flatness and sudden, lyrical bursts. Williams is endlessly interested in the attribute of spirit and who or what possesses it ... summons a more alien palette, with Williams’s tone achieving a new, perfectly hostile register. Characters are ruthlessly dispatched and society’s foibles are laid bare ... Much of this would be hilarious, if it weren’t so sad ... Williams’s vision of an annihilated earth seems to have flown from the brain of Francisco Goya ... There is a way of understanding Williams that connects her imagery to the nature of grief, to how it makes experience gigantic and strange. She practices a kind of hallucinogenic realism, which takes at face value the psychological flights of characters deranged by loss ... Williams seems uniquely sensitized to the pressure that grief exerts on expression ... While the habitat of the novel has gone dry, Williams’s sentences swerve toward lushness. What she seeks is a healing language, something suited to God’s once-unbroken design. One could call this re-natured prose, writing that makes room for the rest of the ecosystem, and the simplicity of Williams’s sentences can have a pleading, encouraging quality ... Williams is evoking, and lamenting, another transformative moment: the Creation, in which God’s Word manifested as the universe, and language and nature met as one.
Harrow is about climate change the same way Twin Peaks is about who killed Laura Palmer. Its concerns—time, death, the afterlife—are more fundamental and eternal. The loose design of this strange and comic novel is something of a very slow picaresque, with the orphaned Khristen going to one place, then another, then one more ... Williams gestures toward plot, but there isn’t tension so much as stuff happening ... is thick with weighty symbols, but they are scattered, and looking for meaning in them can feel like reading tea leaves. Something is being suggested, but rarely precisely ... All of this—the pictograms, the philosophical conversations, the oddball characters—is tied together by the sense of a singular writer doing whatever she wants ... The prose here is quintessential Williams, her diction alternating between formal, occasionally lofty fare and folksy slang... And there’s no living writer I trust more with an adverb ... Williams has always wielded time as she pleases, making it appear to pass either very quickly or not at all. And she’s performed a neat trick with it here. Twenty years may seem like a long time to wait from one novel to the next, but Harrow connects so cleverly to her previous work that the familiarity has a way of collapsing the span between them. The past repeats itself even as it becomes the present. Time is cyclical and permanently ongoing, whether or not we’ll be here to witness it passing.
It's a good thing this is a short book, because if there were much more of its crazy brilliance, a reader's head might well explode ... Grim and/or elegiac as the novel mostly is, it is also an oddly reassuring repository of cultural history, philosophy, psychology (pop and not), environmental concern, and mythical and linguistic lore—all put in perspective and often punctured by Williams' wry, goofy, generous wit. Sometimes it seems like Denis Johnson, Margaret Atwood and J.M. Coetzee got together, consulted Hegel, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, and came up with a story—and then Samuel Beckett, Lewis Carroll and Terry Gilliam piled on. But it's all Joy Williams.
If you’ve read any of [William's] other books, you’ll know their experimental nature sparks electricity rather than burning readers out, and that’s true in this new, urgent novel as well. Between references to important and sometimes arcane classical literature and deliberately obscure vocabulary (gangrel, yaws, trephined, erlking, carling, to name just a few), Harrow insists that readers pay attention to the decline of the natural world. Williams brings up stories that may be imaginary in 2021 — like uteruses harvested from brain-dead bodies for rich women’s use — but feel all too probable in the world of Harrow ... Unfortunately, this strange plot’s center doesn’t hold.
To read Williams is to look into the abyss. She places her characters against bigness—the Arizona sky, the rocky Maine shoreline—in order to show us exactly how small they, and we, are ... Nothingness provides Harrow with its most consistent drumbeat. Sentimental language, our profit-maximizing society, and the ravaged world it has left behind: All must be purged before new life can reappear. Grace comes only after harrowing ... Like everything Williams has written, Harrow is a deeply theological work—the desert fathers, Saint John of the Cross, and Julian of Norwich are all mentioned—and the world it imagines is fallen in several senses ... Williams remains our great prophet of nothingness.
It’s difficult to give an account of Harrow’s plot because it is structured to be vague, fractured, and messy ... The very idea of cause and effect is a consolation of narrative, a kind of myth, where Joy Williams instead asks: Do we deserve to be consoled? How can we be consoled if we don’t even feel grief? ... Harrow might be the most 'postmodern' work by Joy Williams so far. Plots may be introduced but are just as readily done away with, as the novel refuses to bend to narrative expectations ... Characters have no more stability than the plot. They disappear wildly and often, sometimes without comment, at such a breakneck pace that those disappearances or deaths can hardly be reckoned with before there is another ... I fear I may be writing this so far in a way that is entirely humorless when in fact I find all of this deeply exciting ... This book feels so unreservedly Williams that fans of her work should jump for Joy. (Sorry.) The writing is quintessentially tight, yet also whimsical and acidically funny. Williams is a master of the absurd.
[A] slim, wry novel ... Precise and distanced, beautifully rendered and sparse, Williams’ prose is fascinating, her voice captivating. The sentences are at once clear and mysterious. The descriptions of this world, one that is not quite ours but close, are striking. The dialogue is haunting and engaging. Harrow creeps into your world. I finished the novel in two sittings and spent days trying to make sense of all that it offers, noticing water and land through a different lens, imagining the possibilities when we believe in the greatness that others see in us, and what happens when we choose not to.
Like Williams’s other novels, Harrow is not didactic, but advances a commitment to the examination of human behavior as part of a broader ecosystem we are all responsible for preserving. The heroes of Harrow...are the kinds of people to whom Williams continually returns out of a combination of awe, pity, and gratitude: People who are willing not just to take up their responsibility to the ecosystem, but to die for it ... Things get weird quickly. This is how Williams’s novels work: People already on the brink of collapse somehow hold it together as the world around them contorts to reveal new dimensions of wild horror ... The stubbornly principled activists of Harrow are projections of Williams’s political values as well as her status and way of life as an artist.
Balancing creeping despair with mordant humor and piquant strangeness pegged to Jeffery’s fascination with a Franz Kafka story, Williams asks if hope and compassion, reason and responsibility can survive once the wonders of wild and flourishing nature have been utterly destroyed. Brilliantly and exquisitely shrewd and unnerving.
Pulitzer finalist Williams returns with a dystopian saga of environmental cataclysm that is by turns triumphant, damning, and beguiling ... Rollicking with language that is at once biblical and casual, this builds like a sermon to a fever pitch. Williams’s well-known themes of social decline and children in danger are polished to a gorgeous luster in this prescient page-turner. The result serves as both an indictment of current culture and a blazing escape from it.
A memorable return for renowned storyteller Williams after a lengthy absence from long-form fiction ... There’s no resolution in sight anywhere in Williams’ deliberately paced pre–post-apocalyptic novel ... As the clock ticks away, Williams seeds her story with allusions to Kafka, bits of Greek mythology, philosophical notes on the nature of tragedy, and gemlike description...and all along with subtly sardonic humor ... An enigmatic, elegant meditation on the end of civilization—if end it truly is.