lydia davis is someone you might characterize as a writer’s writer. or a critic’s writer. each of her collections of short stories is consistently received with high critical acclaim and praise; yet, she’s not “popular”, even by literature standards. you could say that delillo, pynchon, roth, munro – these are “popular” “serious” north american authors. but you could not say the same of davis (like william gass, jerzy kosinski, or david markson). for some reason, some amazing authors just slip under the radar.
i’d been meaning to read one of davis’ short story collections for a long time; i’d heard a great deal about her originality in the form and the excellence of her writing. nevertheless, the first book of hers i end up reading is a novel, her first and only.
given that i hadn’t read anything of hers before, i didn’t know what to expect. all i knew was that the plot of this book revolved around an unnamed narrator who was trying to piece together the arc of a love affair, to understand what went wrong, and to attempt to chronicle it in some sort of coherent narrative.
the first 60 pages or so were difficult. davis can be exhausting to read. as i kept powering through, i realized that one of the reasons for this is that her prose closely patterns the way thoughts will flow in the mind; in that sense, there’s repetition, there’s incompletion. it’s neurotic, self-conscious, self-absorbed, self-doubting. it’s as if my thoughts were vomited onto a page for all to see, which makes for an experience both tiring and cringe-worthy. having to live through one’s own thoughts is exhausting enough; having to do so doubly with a work of fiction is downright draining. the following is representative:
And when I realize that, I go on to consider that maybe what I found so intolerable after he left me was not the obvious thing, that he and I were no longer together, that I was alone, but rather the less obvious, that I no longer had that wonderful possibility available to me, of going to find him wherever he was and being welcomed by him. I wanted to go find him but did not know where he was, and if I knew where he was, and found him, I was not welcomed by him. (91-92)
in a way, though, davis’ the end of the story reminded me a good deal of the fiction of david markson. markson is one of the great american experimentalist fiction writers. i can’t think of many books more devastatingly sad than wittgenstein’s mistress. and yet markson’s works are slow accumulations of details. paragraphs are usually one or two sentences, primarily consisting of seemingly random facts. what makes his work so powerful is the cumulative affect of all these details, which build to powerful effect by the close of the novel. the end of the story, for me at least, was a similar experience. you’re tired, you’re exhausted, you just want her to stop already. but the endless sentences with infinite sensory details eventually build to their own, quietly powerful affect.
davis’ style is also quite unique. some descriptions stay with you for a long time. to wit:
But the afternoon would be long and slow, so slow it just stopped and died where it stood. (157)
oh, and davis is also funny. as in, laugh-out-loud funny.
my taste in literature has lately become a bit obscure. i’m tired of the great white males of american lit. there was a time when i loved a great deal of what they produced. roth, for example, was amazing. but then i got tired, tired of the self-importance, tired of their concerns. since i read georges perec’s life: a user’s manual and his w, or the memory of childhood during my master’s program in england, my tastes in literature have slowly been evolving. i’ve grown much more interested in fictional works that blur the lines between fact and fiction, between real and unreal, between what we know and what we only think we know. the in-between, the gray, is what fascinates me most. the self-reflection embedded in writers like sebald, auster, perec, marias, cercas, cortazar, hemon… the conscious meditation on what it means to write, to tell a story, to contain it in the form of narrative… in this vein, the end of the story is also profoundly concerned with writing, about the process of writing, and reading, and of the elusiveness of memory:
Little by little, as though the pages I had turned were forming a shield between me and my pain, or as though the four edges of each page became the four walls of a safe room, a resting place for me within the story, I began to stay inside it with less effort, until the story became more real to me than my pain. (173)
anyway. i realize i haven’t written well about the end of the story. my mind is a bit cluttered with other thoughts and i’m having trouble coming out with anything coherent. but oh well. this will have to do for now. to conclude, i’d like to leave you with one of davis’ short stories/poems:
Head tries to help heart.
Head tells heart how it is, again:
You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But even the earth will go, someday.
Heart feels better, then.
But the words of head do not remain long in the ears of heart.
Heart is so new to this.
I want them back, says heart.
Head is all heart has.
Help, head. Help heart.