On the Inimitable Lydia Davis

by Andrea Scrima

In one sense, the stories of the collection Almost No Memory, originally published in 1997 and reprinted in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis in 2009, can be read as a psychological portrait of a middle-aged woman coming to terms with all the usual things life has to offer after a certain age: the convolutions of domestic discord, shrinking horizons, the sobering insight that very little can change us anymore. The voices are both many and one, converging in a polyphony of percipient anxiety and resignation: we hear “wife one,” an “often raging though now quiet woman” eating dinner alone after talking on the phone to “wife two”; a professor who fantasizes about marrying a cowboy, although she is “so used to the companionship of [her] husband by now that if I were to marry a cowboy I would want to take him with me”; and a woman who “fell in love with a man who had been dead a number of years.” There is also a woman who “comes running out of the house with her face white and her overcoat flapping wildly,” crying “emergency, emergency”; a woman who wishes she had a second chance to learn from her mistakes; and one who has “no choice but to continue to proceed as if I know altogether what I am, though I may also try to guess, from time to time, just what it is that others know that I do not know.” The list continues, from a woman wondering why she can become so vicious with her children to another whose mind wanders to sex at the sight of “anything pounding, anything stroking; anything bolt upright, anything horizontal and gaping” and one who is filled with “ill will toward one I think I should love, ill will toward myself, and discouragement over the work I think I should be doing.”

Almost No Memory strikes a different set of chords than the collection preceding it, Break It Down. While there is a dry hilarity to some of the stories, others take on a surreal aura. “Liminal” describes “the moment when a limit is reached, when there is nothing ahead but darkness: some thing comes in to help that is not real.” When the innocent cruelty inherent in the relationship between predator and prey stands for truths that lie just beyond our ability to comprehend them, animals take on the weight and magnitude of totems.

A fish, “motionless as it is, and dismantled from its bones, and fleeced of its silver skin” becomes emblematic for “certain irrevocable mistakes she has made today.” As the narrator and her lover wait for their young cat to catch a mouse, the napping predator becomes an indicator of the presence of love vs. the ongoing threat of its disappearance. The narrator imagines that the cat is really “keeping the mouse company . . . the mouse has had babies, in the stove, and the cat, too, is carrying kittens in her body, and her nipples are beginning to stand out in the downy fur of her belly.” Momentarily safe, the lucky rodent is presented as a kind of antithesis to the half-dead mouse the narrator saw in a former, doomed relationship, caught in a mousetrap but horrifyingly still alive, “flipping around on the linoleum with the trap closed on its head.” The narrator didn’t have the stomach to kill it: “She tried to believe the mouse didn’t feel much pain and was in shock anyway; certainly a mouse did not feel exactly the way a person would lying with his head closed in a trap, bleeding and freezing to death out there on the white crust of snow.”

Among other things, Lydia Davis is a keen observer of her own mind. Terse sentences delineate some of the most intimate and urgent experiences of inner life, while characters seem to stand for isolated aspects of the self in duress as it tries to put into words the unintelligible stuff of human behavior and emotion. To assemble these voices into a portrait of the author, however, would be to miss the point of Davis’s obsessive logic. Less a collection of individual stories than a precisely crafted architecture, each story leads into the next like rooms in a dream where hidden stairways and secret chambers feel eerily familiar. Whereas Break It Down explores the shock dealt to the mind in the wake of lost love, Almost No Memory converges around our tenuous connection to our past.

“Foucault and Pencil” describes in truncated prose a scene in which the narrator is reading Foucault as she waits to talk to what is presumably a therapist or marriage counselor. The argument she has had with her husband or lover entwines in her mind with an account of the difficulties she experiences in trying to understand the French text:

Short sentences easier to understand than long ones. Certain long ones understandable part by part, but so long, forgot beginning before reaching end. Went back to beginning, understood beginning, read on, and again forgot beginning before reaching end. Read on without going back and without understanding, without remembering, and without learning, pencil idle in hand. Came to sentence that was clear, made pencil mark in margin. Mark indicated understanding, indicated forward progress in book. Lifted eyes from Foucault, looked at other passengers. Took out notebook and pen to make note about passengers, made accidental mark with pencil in margin of Foucault, put down notebook, erased mark.

Davis presents the preposterousness of her inability to decipher Foucault in tandem with her inability to pinpoint where exactly she and her lover lose themselves in heated argument: confronted with the abstract realm of theory, her personal life is reduced to an errant mark that must be removed. But she perseveres, analyzing precisely where and why she fails to comprehend, finally realizing that the text was “harder to understand when sentence was long and noun identifying subject of sentence was left back at the beginning, replaced by male or female pronoun, when forgot what noun pronoun replaced and had only pronoun for company traveling through sentence.” The further the words stray from their source in tangible reality, the less useful they become as instruments for deciphering the things that happen to us in our lives. In her essay “Why I Write,” Joan Didion explains the difference between the intellectual and the writer:

Like many writers I have only this one “subject,” this one “area”: the act of writing. . . . During the years when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley I tried, with a kind of hopeless late-adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract. In short I tried to think. I failed. My attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered, by everyone I knew then and for that matter have known since, the peripheral. I would try to contemplate the Hegelian dialectic and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor.

Didion’s distinction between the observation of phenomena and the abstractions we construct to comprehend them is crucial. One can safely assume, however, that Davis—who has translated Proust, Blanchot, Flaubert, and, for that matter, Foucault, and whom the French government named Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for her fiction and translation—comprehends a philosopher like Foucault; she is getting at something larger, namely, the ways in which words can stand between ourselves and experience, and the means by which language itself leads us astray.

Much of Davis’s writing is about writing. Like the eye of the hurricane casting a yellow pall on the city, “The Center of the Story” circles around an empty core that is initially presented as a narrative problem and that gradually emerges as a succinct analogy to the problem of religious faith. We are introduced to several people: a sick friend who realizes he believes in God when he finds himself committing what he considers to be blasphemy; a landlady from Trinidad who is subsequently “taken out” of the story; and a narrator studying the Bible, apparently for a scholarly project, as the wind whips up outside. There are rattling windows taped with large asterisks; a visit to a Baptist congregation, which causes the narrator to flee to a bathroom stall in a near panic; the problem of the devil; and the power of evil.

This comes close to the end of the story as it is now, but she can’t really end with the devil and a train ride. So the end is a problem too, though less of a problem than the center. There may be no center. There may be no center because she is afraid to put any one of these elements in the center—the man, the religion, or the hurricane. Or—which is not the same thing—there is a center but the center is empty, either because she has not yet found what belongs there or because it is meant to be empty: there, but empty, in the same way that the man was sick but not dying, the hurricane approached but did not strike, and she had a religious calm but no faith.

Another example of this kind of circuitous narrative can be found in “What Was Interesting.” The story describes a narrator’s attempts to write about an event that has left a painful mark on her: “a woman, slightly drunk but not too drunk to discuss a plan for the summer, was put into a cab and told to go home by her lover, the man with whom she thought she was going to discuss this plan.” Simple enough, perhaps harrowing enough if the writer sufficiently delves into the various emotions this scene has unleashed, yet the narrator’s friend, while acknowledging that this would hurt, finds that “it needs to be more interesting.”

The fact that they were involved in a love affair ought to have been interesting, because any kind of affair is usually more interesting than no affair, as two people in a story should be more interesting than one, and a difficult love affair should be more interesting than an easy one. As, for example, a happy woman walking arm in arm with her lover after a noisy restaurant dinner with friends . . . may be less interesting than being put into a cab with embarrassing haste and awkwardness, or finding a pair of keys that have been lost, as she did later . . .

Ostensibly about a writer searching for ways to make her story more accessible and appealing, what the narrator in fact does is drill deeper and deeper into what her friend apparently finds least “interesting”: the emotions a woman has experienced upon being treated in a callous way by a man whom she thought loved her. “This anger of hers, lasting so long,” which was “certainly more interesting to her, because in the end she found it harder to explain than the fact that she had loved him so long” is also the veiled anger a writer dealing in the less-than-obvious can feel in the face of what a culture deems “interesting” in literature today. In the final analysis, it is an act of defiance—one that is all the more effective for its subversive subtlety.

Much has been written about Lydia Davis’s pared-down “style.” Her sentences are crafted with an economy that borders on parsimony. What is less frequently observed, however, is that her devotion to exactitude entails a repetition of words and phrases that—to a reader who happens to be tone-deaf to her particular brand of deadpan humor—can come across as tedious and even peevish. In a steady flow of neurotic energy, sentences are arranged much like a child might stack up pennies in painstakingly precise towers to distract itself from bickering parents. Yet Davis’s observations nearly always contain a sly wit. Her repetitions are not the repetitions of Beckett or Bernhard; they do not circle around the unutterable core of what language, by its very nature, fails to convey. On the contrary, Davis’s sentences clarify. They insist. What is more, the continued reassertion of a thought and the perseverance in its reiteration frequently correspond to the respective narrator’s participation in a series of situations that find her hapless and misunderstood, situations that are highly distressing. Davis is concerned with correction, revision, rectification. If you no longer love me, if you are lying to me, then my only recourse is to recount, as precisely as possible, what happened, and in what sequence: what you said, and what I thought about it; what I believed you were thinking and not saying; what I said in response and what relationship this bore to what I thought and felt. In the absence of truthful communication and in the disorientation of shifting emotion, an accurate portrayal of circumstances is required to set the record straight. When spoken words no longer serve mutual understanding, language, in response, becomes a matter of validating one’s perception, a vehicle for self-preservation.

In On Style, Susan Sontag observed that “practically all metaphors for style amount to placing matter on the inside, style on the outside. It would be more to the point to reverse the metaphor. The matter, the subject, is on the outside; the style is on the inside.” In Davis’s case, she steers clear of metaphor and simile, wary at the slipperiness of words and the facility of the foregone conclusion. Her much celebrated “style” is, in a certain sense, an absence of style, an absence, in fact, of anything at all that could be considered stylish in literature. She devotes attention to each word as though she were using it for the first time: approaching it like a stepping-stone, she examines its suitability and sturdiness and secures her footing before proceeding any further.

At the same time, Davis has a fine ear for the humorous potential of a diction that can sound like a school librarian’s: “If I have a drink or two, I’m more easygoing, but I still speak correctly and don’t know how to joke with people unless I know them well, and often these are university people or the people they live with, who also speak correctly.” She calmly recounts the great care she takes with an old dictionary in her possession, which she treats, according to her own account, better than her own son: “Some of what I do for the old dictionary, though not all, I could do for my son. For instance, I handle it slowly, deliberately, and gently. I consider its age. I treat it with respect. I stop and think before I use it. I know its limitations. I do not encourage it to go farther than it can go (for instance to lie open flat on the table). I leave it alone a good deal of the time.”

Davis’s approach to language and thought, her reduction of expression to a minimum has something of a bare necessity to it. In Writing Degree Zero, Roland Barthes wrote: “Whatever its sophistication, style has always something crude about it: it is a form with no clear destination, the product of a thrust, not an intention, and, as it were, a vertical and lonely dimension of thought. Its frame of reference is biological, not historical: it is the writer’s ‘thing’, his glory and his prison, it is his solitude.” Indeed, Davis brings this “thing” to bear as she addresses the hardest task of all: how to figure out what the mind is doing when it’s sideswiped by emotion; how to unravel what it’s feeling and assign words to that. The irony of this, of course, is that a language this concise is bound to be emulated by those who seek to adopt its look and sound without necessarily possessing the corresponding inner necessity.

But no one sounds quite like Lydia Davis. One of the reasons why her prose is simultaneously very simple and very complex may be her immersion in another language and literary culture. Davis sets store in etymologies; sentences require feats of formal ingenuity in which each word means exactly what it is supposed to. Her skepticism concerning everyday speech reminds us of the many ways in which language bears the imprint of our cultural obsession with media. While the argument could be made that it’s precisely this constant infusion that keeps a language rich and variegated, American English seems to be traveling the opposite route, towards increasing uniformity. At heart, Davis is a rebel, quietly holding down the fort against the onslaught of popular expression, avoiding words touched by fad and meme. In the process, she has developed one of the most distinct and original voices in literature today.

Her achievement is to examine the means by which the mind makes thought from sensation and emotion, or, conversely, by which language itself determines the construction of thought. She also considers the manner in which these thoughts are then perceived and evaluated by the thinking subject. “Almost No Memory,” the story that lends this collection its title, is a study on how little we retain of lost time and the fruits of our endeavors. Ostensibly a meditation on the writing life, Davis’s dissections can be applied to human activity in general. “A certain woman,” while consulting notebooks she has kept on things she’s read and the insights gleaned from them, realizes that she recognizes only very little of what she reads:

Although most of what she read was new to her, sometimes she immediately recognized what she read and had no doubt that she herself had written it, and thought it. It seemed perfectly familiar to her, as though she had just thought it that very day, though in fact she had not thought it for some years, unless reading it again was the same as thinking it again, or the same as thinking it for the first time, and though she might never have thought it again, if she had not happened to read it in her notebook.

As the narrator pulls out notebook after notebook, she discovers that her “very sharp consciousness” has left comparatively little residue in her long-term memory; that her habit of writing notes while reading, “because this was her way of understanding what she read,” was nonetheless putting her at a crucial remove from some part of herself, because “she was not assimilating what she read into her mind, or not for long, but only into another notebook.” As Davis sheds light on the way in which much of what we do in life actually stands between us and the very experience we seek to absorb and express, she reduces her descriptions of events to the bare facts. As the narrator examines her notes and attempts to determine “just how they had to do with her, how much they were of her and how much they were outside her and not of her, as they sat there on the shelf, being what she knew but did not know, being what she had read but did not remember reading, being what she had thought but did not now think, or remember thinking. . .,” she leaves the accompanying emotion and anxiety unarticulated—and entirely to the reader’s imagination. But because it is also the title of this collection, “Almost No Memory” forms a sort of core, illuminating its companion stories in the odd glow of things only partially retained, of a life that has already, in large part, passed by.

This peculiar light lends “The Race of the Patient Motorcyclists” its poignancy. Elaborately equipped machines line up at the start, fitted with gleaming chrome and leather, mahogany inlays and antlers—decidedly male fantasies whose potential speed proves difficult to resist, for this is a race in which only the slowest contestant wins. Like life itself, the point is to hold one’s ground, to advance just barely beyond standstill, to defy the seduction of what seems like an easy victory with “their heads crooked back and their locks of magnificent greasy hair flying straight out behind” and stick it out in the long haul:

Far more difficult to train himself to patience, steel his nerves to the pace of the slug, the snail, so slow that by comparison the crab moves as a galloping horse and the butterfly a bolt of lightning. To inure himself to look about at the visible world with a wonderful potential for speed between his legs, and yet to advance so slowly that any change in position is almost imperceptible, and the world, too, is unchanging but for the light cast by the traveling sun, which itself seems, by the end of the slow day, to have been shot from a swift bow.