Nobody Else Sounds Like Lydia Davis
Remember Zeno’s paradox, the one about the millet? Drop a single grain of millet and it won’t make a noise, but put a thousand in a sack and you’ll hear them when they hit the ground. One near-nothing has become a big something: absurd, and not absurd at all.
There’s not necessarily a wrong way to read the stories of Lydia Davis, but there is a right way: begin at the beginning of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (2009), the sack that holds the four major collections Davis published between 1986 and 2007, and read until you reach the end, 733 pages and 198 stories later. Encountered alone, the stories are curiosities; together, they make a remarkable music. Some are the length of a paragraph, or a sentence. Some are the length of a sentence, but don’t have all the grammatical properties to qualify as such. (“Index Entry” is one of Davis’s many stories that rely on their titles to complete the circuit: “Christian, I’m not a.”) Many are stretched taut over a deceptively simple frame of declarative statements and deftly tuned with wit. The story “Safe Love” begins: “She was in love with her son’s pediatrician. Alone out in the country—could anyone blame her.” That the question is being stated, not asked, gives you all the information needed to answer it. Other stories go slack, unsure of how to end until the wick of the narrative gets too damp and fizzles out. Still, the failure to turn out a satisfying story can itself become the subject of a satisfying story, as in “The Center of the Story,” where a woman, her style much like Davis’s, struggles to write about a hurricane: “The story is flat and even, just as the earth seems flat and even when a hurricane is advancing over it, and if she were to show it to a friend, the friend would probably say that, unlike a hurricane, this story has no center.”
Davis is drawn to “people who can’t manage,” a parade of oddballs and loons she brings into focus through close, even anthropological observation. Timid Mr. Burdoff goes to Cologne to study German and seduces a tall Norwegian behind a statue of Leopold Mozart; Mrs. D has trouble with her maids; Kafka works himself into a froth over whether to serve potatoes or beet salad at dinner. But these are bit players, set apart from a core cast of characters who recur throughout Davis’s work: an ex-husband and his new wife, a son, a baby, a current husband, an aging mother and a dying father, all clustered around a first-person narrator, the subject of Davis’s sharpest scrutiny. This narrator, Davis’s “I,” is the center of her stories; she pins them to her point of view. When she was in her 20s and living in France, Davis began writing short because she wasn’t able to finish longer, more conventional fiction. She clearly didn’t set out to do anything remotely as grandiose as write an autobiography of her own consciousness, but that, as The Collected Stories reveals, is what she has produced, in bits and pieces, for the last forty years: a portrait of the mind as it goes about examining itself and its own habits over the course of a lifetime. We usually say we know a writer by her voice, but “mind,” in Davis’s case, is the better word. Nobody else sounds like her, because nobody else thinks like her.
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Davis called her first full-length book Break It Down. Fiction writers are generally concerned with building up; their job is to synthesize real and imagined life to invent something that could pass as whole. Davis works the opposite way, stripping a scene, or emotion, or relationship to its skeleton to get at the structure that operates beneath the flesh and fat of experience. Here is the first of four small paragraphs that make up “Visit to Her Husband”:
She and her husband are so nervous that throughout their conversation they keep going to the bathroom, closing the door, and using the toilet. Then they come out and light a cigarette. He goes in and urinates and leaves the toilet seat up and she goes in and lowers it and urinates. Toward the end of the afternoon, they stop talking about the divorce and start drinking. He drinks whiskey and she drinks beer. When it is time for her to leave to catch her train he has drunk a lot and goes into the bathroom one last time to urinate and doesn’t bother to close the door.
The description of the couple’s anxious behavior stands in for the emotional substance of what is going on between them—the drinking to ease the pain of their breakup, the man’s slip into the habitual intimacy of peeing in front of his wife. It’s a familiar minimalist strategy, but Davis isn’t a minimalist. Lean as her writing may be, it isn’t spare, in the Raymond Carver vein; what could be compressed into one clause (“they take turns going back and forth to the bathroom”) expands, instead, to cover a paragraph. Like Philip Glass, who hates being called a minimalist, Davis uses repetition to chart subtle vacillations in mood and tone. The woman wants to tell her husband about how she met her lover. He tells her about his girlfriend, but is preoccupied with finding a glove he’s misplaced. Later, the woman takes a walk, noticing the people she passes only when she bumps into them, and then goes to her parents’ house, where, discussing the divorce, she finds that she is eating an orange, “though she can’t remember peeling it or even having decided to eat it.” And that’s the story: symptoms of distress threaded loosely together, without climax, left to speak for themselves.
One reason to break something down is to make it more comprehensible, as you might make two lists, pro and con, to work your way through a particularly difficult decision. The goal seems to be to condense and clarify, to lend a tangled situation structure so that some action can be taken or, at the very least, some understanding achieved. In “A Few Things Wrong With Me,” the boyfriend of Davis’s narrator says that he has always disliked certain things about her, though he neglects to tell her what those things might be. Her mind attacks the riddle by formulating a series of concrete possibilities. Maybe she isn’t talkative enough, or is too boring when she does talk, or talks too much about what her boyfriend should be eating or about her ex-husband. She tries to distract herself by calling everyone she knows, first on the East Coast, then in California and then, when it gets too late, in England. Still, she says, “there will always come a time later that day or a day or two after when I ask myself that difficult question once, or over and over again, a useless question, really, since I’m not the one who can answer it and anyone else who tries will come up with a different answer, though of course all the answers together may add up to the right one, if there is such a thing as a right answer to a question like that.” That Davis’s narrator suspects that what is wrong with her isn’t the kind of thing that can be easily corrected by more or less talking, or exercising, or flossing, doesn’t mean she can stop herself from hoping that she can patch it up with some practical fix.
Many of Davis’s stories have the look of logic puzzles waiting to be solved. In “Problem,” she positions her characters on the page like a football coach sketching out a complicated play: “X is with Y, but living on money from Z. Y himself supports W, who lives with her child by V. V wants to move to Chicago but his child lives with W in New York.” Get out your pencil, you think, and start working it all out, the child and the money and the romantic entanglements, so that they can find their way to the right city and the right pair of arms. But Davis’s algebra doesn’t factor out, and how could it? Life doesn’t resolve itself along the lines of an SAT question or a Shakespearean comedy, machinations revealed, confusions clarified, the lovers neatly matched up and sent off out of the forest together to applause. There’s violence as well as pragmatism in the idea of something broken down; it’s the way we describe the dismantled body of a butchered animal, not to mention a bad marriage, or a person’s damaged spirit.