In the wake of a mysterious environmental cataclysm that has wiped out the rest of humankind, the Matriarch and her brother, and the family descended from their incest, cling to existence on the edges of a ruined city.
Perhaps reminiscent of something that might be served up by the Coen brothers ... The problem here is that the weirdness is not just a patent, surface feature of the world Williams creates. The narrative is all surface all the way down, a static world that is weird through and through, without relief ... a perverse tale of human remnants scratching out a bare survival like a lone pine twisting out of a stony cliff, but is it a tale well-told? Williams is an excellent debut author at the level of her beautifully wrought sentences, virtually all of them crafted with unwavering philosophical and artistic aplomb ... It is at the larger-scale narrative structure that Williams falters. If reading The Doloriad can be said to be a labor of love, it is, yet, a labor. Her paragraphs are lengthy, dense, and daunting, making for a difficult read. But more important is an issue of narrative structure ... Williams does an excellent job of establishing her characters and setting, but from that point on the plot flattens; there is no pulse. The beautifully-rendered gothic grotesqueries lead to a few dramatic set pieces, but there is no action rising toward a climax and resolution. The tale, like Dolores, seems to pull itself along the ground ... Williams may well have envisioned her work as experimental fiction and, if so, we might question whether the experiment, as a whole, succeeds. In the end, it can be said that this imaginative work does succeed, if not fully as stand-alone fiction then as evidence that an excellent new writer has emerged, one with a strong voice, one who is a confident crafter of deep and beautiful language that gives birth to vivid characters and sense of place. Missouri Williams, it is safe to say, is a writer to watch.
... distinctive, stylish and maddening ... long sentences heavy with metaphors and dependent clauses ... nearly devoid of plot, and even seems hostile to it; Williams listlessly moves her characters about like game pieces on a board ... Williams’s prose is fantastically elaborate, presenting itself in long, bricklike blocks of text. At its best, it reads as Faulknerian, sinuous and formal. When well matched with what it describes, it is evocative, and takes on a historical, almost biblical weight...t other times — most times, I’d argue — it’s exhausting and obfuscatory, employing intricate and occasionally tortuous strings of words to express simple ideas ... It’s pretty, it parses, but we’ve been looking at the world it describes for 140 pages now, and don’t require this kind of painterly elaboration. We just want to know, for instance, how a man with no legs managed to drag a corpse several miles back to his moth-infested lair — a thing that is supposed to have happened in the back half of this novel and is never explained ... The book’s prose style doesn’t ebb and flow depending on what it’s describing or whose mind it occupies; it’s a top-down narratorial mandate. This becomes a problem when it’s used to channel the characters’ vile thoughts, which are the only kind of thoughts they entertain. They regard bodily fatness, for example, as grotesque, and repeatedly equate it with stupidity and selfishness. Dolores is, variously, a cow, a larva, a moon, a lump. Are these merely the characters’ views and words? Or the narrator’s, the book’s, the author’s? The unnuanced style and roving third person make it hard to tell, leaving the book’s moral center impossible to identify. (Lost, drowned, reduced to stray iceblink, even) ... is, in all likelihood, frustrating, wicked and obscure by design, and explicitly aims to ignite rage in any advocate of body positivity. And like other gross-out, plot-averse novels with malign intent — Ottessa Moshfegh’s spring to mind — it perpetually deflects all criticism of its shortcomings, sotto voce, in the voice of Pee-wee Herman: I meant to do that ... evokes Beckett’s plays, or, in its static depiction of misery, Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings. But Endgame and The Garden of Earthly Delights are funny and don’t take five hours to get through. Ultimately this book, for all its ambition, isn’t for me. But, who knows, it just might be what your rotten little heart deserves.
The book doesn’t really have a plot, although the characters do indulge in the familiar post-apocalyptic activities of scavenging for supplies and growing food. Rather it wallows in the horror of this human urge to dominate and spread and destroy ... There is a real disgust with humankind working in The Doloriad. Williams uses a lot of insect language to describe her characters, comparing them to maggots, cockroaches and moths. They are an invasive species, worming their way around the earth. There is no epiphany about hope, no memory of what was good about people and civilisation. The question is whether Williams’s corrective to the cosy apocalyptic trend is good enough to stand on its own merits rather than as simply a reaction to a trend. The answer is, sadly, no. The novel is more interesting than successful and doesn’t hold together well enough to make sense of its author’s more idiosyncratic choices ... There is the odd provocative moment, some memorable prose and a refreshingly abrasive tone, but it doesn’t cohere. It aspires to be darker than it is. The body horror is ultimately more Human Centipede than the pure abjection of Clarice Lispector, who supplies the epigraph ... even if all The Doloriad ultimately does is show the naivety and silliness of all of the other dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction on the market, I’m still glad it exists.