Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Balakian Award Winner: Alexandra Schwartz on Lydia Davis in The Nation

By Alexandra Schwartz

This year's Nona Balakian award for Excellence in Reviewing went to Alexandra Schwartz for her submission, “The Mind and Its Moods,” a review of two collections of stories by Lydia Davis, “The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis” (2009) and “Can't and Won't” (2014). The review was published in last year's Spring Books issue of The Nation (June 2, 2014). Reprinted here with permission of The Nation.

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.

* * *

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,&rdrdquo; 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.

In another paradox of Zeno’s, a runner takes off down a track. He has to cross a fixed distance to reach his goal, but first he has to reach its halfway point, and before that, the halfway point’s halfway point, and on and on and on. Reduced to its smallest units, action becomes impossible, the final leap forever deferred by the infinite, and infinitely tiny, steps that lead to the finish line. “Problem” is cut off abruptly, after eight sentences, with a statement—“U lives with W’s child but does not provide for it”—that begins a new problem without resolving the old one. The effect is like that of an argument that Davis describes elsewhere, which “itself became form of travel, each sentence carrying arguers on to next sentence, next sentence on to next, and in the end, arguers were not where they had started, were also tired from traveling and spending so long face-to-face in each other’s company.” Language moves thought, but not necessarily forward.

This predicament can be maddening, and also, often, very funny. Davis’s protagonist is the mind, and like any character, it has moods: tyrannically exacting and analytical, blithely silly, blocked, rigorous and clear, slippery, flirtatious. The main note in “Old Mother and the Grouch,” from Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, the third section of The Collected Stories, is comic petulance. For Old Mother and the Grouch, marriage is one impasse after another. Again and again they butt heads, neither willing to give in on anything: how many blankets they should use in bed, whether to have sex before, during or after a TV movie, if the “mean and petty” two-letter words that Old Mother likes to use in Scrabble really count. In their house, to be married is to be a Gallant eternally chained to a Goofus:

The Grouch needs attention, but Old Mother pays attention mainly to herself. She needs attention too, of course, and the Grouch would be happy to pay attention to her if the circumstances were different. He will not pay her much attention if she pays him almost none at all.

In theory, this sounds seriously bleak. In practice, it’s hilarious, a comedy wrung from a thousand misunderstandings and misinterpretations between two people who put up with each other despite their Punch and Judy show. On the story’s stage, they pinch and punch and slap, but some hint of tenderness is hiding in the wings. After Old Mother shuts herself in the bathroom for a long time, the Grouch asks if she’s angry at him. She’s only been picking raspberry seeds from her teeth. Just like that, the battle is paused—at least until the bell rings for the next round.

* * *

Has Davis changed over the years? Does she need to? Some writers scramble from style to style, looking for the best fit without ever finding one. From the start, Davis has found that she can make limitless combinations with the same ingredients, and they have served her wonderfully well, even as she has moved toward different, darker subjects. Varieties of Disturbance, the last volume included in The Collected Stories, is heavy with death, particularly that of Davis’s (or Davis’s narrator’s) parents. (“First they burned her—that was last month. Actually just two weeks ago. Now they’re starving him. When he’s dead, they’ll burn him too.”) The cycle that began with the difficulties of love, in Break It Down, seemed to have reached a natural stopping place, but Davis’s work is shaped by life’s regular concerns and quirks, not its poles. The cat still needs to be let in—that’s a story. A woman named Jane borrows a cane—that’s a story, too. It was only a matter of time before The Collected Stories, published when Davis was 62, became a misnomer.

Can’t and Won’t, Davis’s latest book, finds her settling into the older-woman persona she described with delightfully perverse anticipation when she was younger. The young Davis looked forward to “the slowing down, a little past the prime, when there would not be as much going on, not as much as there was now, when she wouldn’t expect as much, not as much as she did now, when she either would or would not have achieved a certain position that was not likely to change, and best of all when she would have developed some fixed habits.” She fantasized about being relieved from the pestering demands of sexual desire by age, and about the kinds of clothes she would wear when she didn’t have to care what anybody thought of her. The Davis of Can’t and Won’t fulfills her younger woman’s wish by sending long, detailed letters of complaint to a company that sells frozen foods to tell it that the peas on its package are the wrong color green, or to tell the management that its restaurant has misspelled “scrod,” its specialty, on its menu. “Who is this old man walking along looking a little grim with a wool cap on his head?” Davis writes, in a story called “My Childhood Friend.” “But when I call out to him and he turns around, he doesn’t know me at first, either—this old woman smiling foolishly at him in her winter coat.”

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.

Alexandra Schwartz is an editor at the New Yorker and a regular contributor to that magazine’s website. She also writes for the Nation, where she got her start publishing literary criticism, and her reviews and essays have appeared in the New York Times and the New Republic. She is a former resident of France, where she lived in Paris and in the town of Uzès, and of the offices of the New York Review of Books, where she served as a member of the editorial staff. She is currently at work on a novel.