By Joy Williams; Alfred A. Knopf (224 pages, $ 26)

Good thing this book is short, because if there was a lot more of its crazy shine, a reader’s head might just explode. In “Harrow,” Joy Williams, who has the sad distinction of being a writer and writer, but one of the best, created a future world slumped towards the apocalypse with a young heroine, Khristen, ready to ride the end of one reality and – hopefully – the beginning of another.

As a baby Khristen passed away and then returned which marks her for something, at least her mother holds her and we are led to believe, although Khristen herself tells us that she felt forced to please her mother by answering questions about the great beyond. After a tour of weird tutors (What is conscience? What is God? How do you spell commensurable?) And attending a weirder boarding school (“There were no books , no paper. pronounced. “), Khristen finds herself, now a de facto orphan, expelled in a transformed landscape where nothing works and where people wander,” wetting, like little flies after a rain “, which seem to be the only other living things around.

Eventually, she finds herself in a decaying seaside resort on a putrid lake occupied by an unlikely group of elderly eco-terrorists – “a seditious gabby lot, in very bad health but with kamikaze hearts, an army of old and sick people. , determined to refresh herself, by crazed violence, a plundered land. “

There she also meets a paying guest, including the birthday party for her 10-year-old son, Jeffrey, at a bowling alley on the grounds (“Frank Lloyd Wright designed this bowling alley. At first it was supposed to be on stilts” ) a frosted cake with a scene from Goya’s “Saturn devouring his son” – when it was supposed to represent Jeffrey’s father murdering his beloved grandfather. (“I knew the baker wouldn’t do that right!”)

Jeffrey, who loves the law and mumbles legal jargon, and later introduces himself, bizarrely, as a juvenile judge quoting Kafka, tells Khristen: “What I really wanted for my birthday was a mockup of a jury box in my room. “

That’s probably enough about the plot, as it is (having a destination “has always been more of a luxury,” as someone Khristen meets), because the pleasures of Harrow are anything but linear. As Khristen observes of Jeffrey’s Kafka tale: “The story was revealing yet impossible to interpret.

Lugubrious and / or elegiac like the novel is most of the time, it is also a strangely reassuring repository of cultural history, philosophy, psychology (pop and not), environmental concerns and mythical and linguistic traditions. – all put into perspective and often punctuated by Williams. twisted, awkward, generous mind. Sometimes it seems Denis Johnson, Margaret Atwood, and JM Coetzee got together, consulted Hegel, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard, and made up a story – then Samuel Beckett, Lewis Carroll, and Terry Gilliam all stacked up. But that’s all Joy Williams.

“The old and dear stories of possibility,” says its narrator. “No one wanted them anymore, but nothing had replaced them.” To which Harrow responds eloquently: So there!