Nobody Else Sounds Like Lydia Davis
Most writers who take the self as their subject follow the path paved by Rousseau and the incredible boasts that launch his Confessions. “I am not made like any one I have been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence,” goes the cry. “If not better, I at least claim originality.” Rousseau, who thought he was too extraordinary to have imitators, spawned legions of them, from Walt Whitman to Kanye West, people who interrogate the self in order to celebrate it as loudly as they can. Davis belongs to a different, more conflicted line. Like Augustine, who confessed his sins in the hope of having them absolved, she pushes the self to the front of her work to try to escape it altogether. Her narrators aren’t narcissists, chronically puffed up on self-love. They understand that there’s nothing astonishing or unique about choosing a fish from a restaurant menu, no matter how agonizingly contorted that choice becomes. Instead, they suffer from solipsism, the idea, or fear, that nothing exists beyond the self. In the mirrors of their mental fun houses, the self looms freakishly large, obscuring everything around it:
These days I try to tell myself that what I feel is not very important. I’ve read this in several books now: what I feel is important but not the center of everything. Maybe I do see this, but I do not believe it deeply enough to act on it. I would like to believe it more deeply.
This is from “What I Feel,” a story included in Almost No Memory (the second section of The Collected Stories), though it could have come from any one of her books. “If I believed that what I felt was not the center of everything, then it wouldn’t be,” the narrator explains, “but just one of many things, off to the side, and I would be able to see and pay attention to other things that were equally important, and in this way I would have some relief.”
The best story in Can’t and Won’t, called “The Letter to the Foundation,” is also one of the best stories Davis has ever written. The narrator is writing to members of an unnamed foundation to thank them for a grant she was awarded a few years before. She has waited longer to get in touch than she intended, and is now far past the initial shock and pleasure of receiving the grant. She expected that the grant money would allow her to stop teaching at the local college, an experience that has been “crushing and almost debilitating.” Her students are uncurious and unsympathetic, the experience of facing them profoundly alienating. But the money wasn’t sufficient to rescue her from teaching, and when she tried to enjoy the small freedom it did give her to do what she wanted on certain days, she found herself thrust into a kind of vortex of despair: “the very freedom I was enjoying seemed to say that what I did in my day was arbitrary, and that therefore my whole life and how I spent it was arbitrary.” That feeling reminds her of a time when, waiting for a friend in a bus stop diner, she saw an elderly man order from a bored-looking waitress who was new to the job. An older waitress swooped in to tell the other one that the man couldn’t eat nuts. “I liked the fact that the older waitress was taking care of her steady customer,” Davis’s narrator writes in her letter.
Then I had a thought that was odd, though not unpleasant: I realized I could just as easily not have witnessed this scene, if I had chosen to stay in the bus station. I could have been sitting across the parking lot in the waiting room while this scene was taking place. It would still have taken place…. And then, I had a stranger and less pleasant thought: not only was I not necessary to those scenes, and not necessary to those lives that continued to go on without me, but in fact, I was not necessary at all. I didn’t have to exist.
Relief from the ego’s burden turns out not to be relief at all, just a terrifying vertigo state of nonbeing. Davis’s narrator has pushed herself away from the center and out of sight.
She’s missing a link, though. Without her there as witness, the episode in the restaurant would have gone on in exactly the same way. Then it would have ended, and this is where art comes in, to structure and preserve life. Davis’s narrator doesn’t have anything to do with what passes between the waitresses and their customer, but in recording it in her letter, she carries it forward, allowing it to be seen. Looking over the letter writer’s shoulder is Davis, doing the same thing. The story is a double record. Both are necessary, because they are necessary to the reader; to us.
Yes, this responsibility to report can be exhausting. In “Not Interested,” Davis’s narrator tells us that she has grown bored by everything: dreams and the act of dreaming, friendships, novels and stories, even “by the act of thinking: Here’s another thought, I’m about to find it interesting or not interesting—not this again!” A few pages later comes the story “Writing”:
Life is too serious for me to go on writing. Life used to be easier, and often pleasant, and then writing was pleasant, though it also seemed serious. Now life is not easy, it has gotten very serious, and by comparison, writing seems a little silly. Writing is often not about real things, and then, when it is about real things, it is often at the same time taking the place of some real things.
Davis’s narrator—and it seems safe to say that the line between narrator and Davis, always thin, is all but invisible here—is sick of writing about people who can’t manage. She has, she says, become one of them too, and what she should do instead of writing about them “is just quit writing and learn to manage. And pay more attention to life itself. The only way I will get smarter is by not writing anymore. There are other things I should be doing instead.”
The work of writing interferes with the work of living. As the writer removes herself from the world to observe and analyze it, the world keeps going by, yet it also comes into being through description. Call it Davis’s paradox. What are the other things she should be doing instead? “Writing” doesn’t answer. Davis does, though. Turn the page, and there’s another story.