Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Roxana Robinson on Reading Lydia Davis

By Roxana Robinson

I can't stand Lydia Davis, though, no, that's not quite it, it's that I can't stand Lydia Davis's work, though that's not quite it either, I can't stand reading Lydia Davis's work, because it's so relentless, so direct and intrusive, and it makes me so troubled and unhappy. I can't stand reading Lydia Davis's work because it insists on revealing something so naked and exposed, so powerful and vulnerable that I can't stand, really, to look at it. I can't stand reading Lydia Davis's work because it asks questions that I can't stand to answer, or even to have answered by her, by implication, such as, How is it, really, being alive? Or being alive and trying to stay married, or trying to be a mother, or a daughter, or being a thinking person, or simply trying to connect, in a useful way, with the rest of the world?

These are hard questions, and wouldn't I rather hear about such difficult things from someone who assures me that it's possible to work them all out? Wouldn't I rather read about them from someone who offers prescriptives and hope, and who reminds me of the limitless capacities of the human soul, rather than from someone who offers such a messy, complicated, chaotic view of things, full of surprises and insoluble problems and intractable antagonisms, like those, for example, between two people, who are both dedicated to being themselves but also to loving each other, which is, as soon as you consider it, an extremely high-risk proposition? And what about this other problem, the one of your own contribution to pain in the world, the way you have to kill things, like mice that invade your house, and cockroaches, the horrifying way in which you cause pain and suffering to sentient beings, and also the problem of inadvertent killings, like a caterpillar that gets lost on the stairs, while being carried outdoors, right in the middle of his rescue? Aren’t these miniscule and unimportant problems, that don't deserve such scouring, excruciating scrutiny? Wouldn't I rather read work by someone who dismisses these small insignificant things, instead of addressing them as though they were hugely significant, and part, in fact, of the continuing enterprise of the human soul? How important is it, how important, really, can it be, the way a mouse feels when it is caught in a trap, bleeding and helpless, and thrown out into the snow to die, or the way a mother feels when she has been unkind to her child, briefly and unintentionally, but still unkind; or the way a person feels after a highly unsuccessful–oh, all right–a brutally humiliating business meeting? Wouldn't I rather read work by someone, who deals with these same problems, perhaps, but who would smooth out their presence and minimize their importance? Someone who would accomplish this, in part, simply by posing her discussion of them into graceful, conventional prose, by asserting, simply through her writing, the fact that graceful writing and conventional thinking are part of the solution? Wouldn't I rather read work by someone who implies, in fact, that there is a solution?

And what about humor? Wouldn't I rather read about all these things from someone who had a less unnerving and hilarious and unpredictable sense of humor, who took them seriously, instead of finding the world irresistibly funny, as well as terrifying? Or someone who understood that humor required mockery and contempt? Because isn't that what so much contemporary humor depends on, taking a mocking or contemptuous view of other people's behaviour? Lydia Davis, absurdly, doesn't seem to know that. She doesn't mock other people, only herself, and she does that in a way we hardly know how to deal with. She finds other people inordinately interesting; she finds herself endlessly at fault. She finds herself seriously in error, though sometimes amusingly so. She is serious and amusing, both at once; in fact, frightening and hilarious, both at once, and how are we meant to know how to deal with that? She is tolerant and charitable about others, and disappointed and judgemental about herself, and this makes us uncertain about how to view her, as a writer and guide to these problems, since we can see that she is so competent, in some ways, at being human, and so hopelessly inept and incompetent in others, and this sort of tears us in half, dividing our sympathies and making us feel unsettled and anxious.

How are we meant to understand her view of the world, the fact that she takes so seriously the things we have always understood that you didn't have to take seriously, those things that you were instructed to sweep aside, those small aspects of yourself that you might despair of if you were so instructed, but which you have always told yourself to ignore, but which Lydia Davis quite frankly despairs of. Her work instructs us that life is lived in the small interstices between ourselves and other beings, and that those other beings include animals and insects; that every relationship is loaded and charged, dangerous and richly gratifying, that life is to be lived deeply and ruminatively, though without any real hope of success.

So you can see how much trouble it is, reading the work of Lydia Davis, you can see why I can't stand it. Can't you? Can you not stand it too?

Or what do you think? Really?

–NBCC member Roxana Robinson