Lydia Davis, Collected Bits: “Story”

By Melanie Yarbrough

I never heard of Lydia Davis until I saw the orange spine of her Collected Stories at Harvard Bookstore. I’m not a fanatical reader who seeks out every novel or short story by a certain writer; I’ve always taken the chaotic approach, reading whatever looks good or is recommended to me at the time. I’ve experienced a wide range of fiction with this method, and I do not plan to change it. Other than the downside of never having an answer to the favorite author question, this habit can make it difficult to get a full sense of a writer’s style.

For this reason, I’m drawn to collected stories of authors; I get the experience of reading multiple works from one person without having to commit to plowing through every high society commentary by Miss Austen. Such is the pleasure I’m currently experiencing with Lydia Davis.

I’ve heard that the things we hate in others are the things we hate in ourselves, and I think it’s true for the opposite. It’s nice to see the things we value or strive for being done successfully by others. Davis’ stories are short, sometimes shorter than the title they bear, but the length of the story makes no comment on the strength of the idea behind it. And now, a review in bits.

Bit 1: “Story”

The first story in the collection, originally published in Break It Down, convinced me that this was an author I needed to familiarize myself with. Perhaps that’s because it covers a subject I was dealing with at the moment I found this book, a subject that has stumped me in the past. The subject of relationships – particularly the unbalanced relationships – isn’t new, nor is it specific to me. All of the complexities involved when two people exchange wrongdoing, inflated intentions, and half-truths are in Davis’ “Story.”

The narrator offers too much information to us, information she keeps from the one person to whom it matters. Her stream of (self) consciousness begins with a message: “I get home from work and there is a message from him: that he is not coming, that he is busy. He will call again.” The rest of the story is spent in that limbo of waiting to hear from him. Rather than fulfilling some age-old stereotypical image of a woman sitting by a phone waiting for a man to call, Davis creates such a complete and flawed narrator that we are not allowed to focus on her obsession or irrationality. From the narrator’s self-indulgent third-person journaling to her outright stalking of the faceless “him,” there is not a moment that her thought process does not justify itself. With all of the information the narrator shares with us, we are not alarmed at her peeking into his window at the end of the night.

It is exhausting to be inside of this narrator’s thought process, and her pathos comes from recognizing that she is stuck in there. That her attempts to break free are beyond social acceptance or explanation. As little information as the “he” in this story provides the narrator, she provides even less to him about the consuming effects his actions – canceling plans to work then hanging out with an ex – have had on her night.Though it appears that her only goal is to understand fully what he’s done, to make sense of the holes in his story – patch them up rather than poke them through, exposing them – at the very end, when she is presented the opportunity to confront him, she does not take it. When he doesn’t fulfill her expectations of telling her “it’s all over between us,” she does not say a word. She has spent so much of her energy analyzing his actions, intentions and desires that she has forgotten to articulate her own.

The last third of the story begins, “I try to figure it out.” (5) But she isn’t trying to figure out what she wants, what this whole night means in the grand scheme of their relationship. Instead, she tries to figure out how to make the true things he’s said to her align with the false things, how to make the reality in her head match up with the reality around her. There is no desire to demand more of him, or even to find out the uncomfortable truth that seems to be bordering on obvious:

The fact that he does not tell me the truth all the time makes me not sure of his truth at certain times, and then I work to figure out for myself if what he is telling me is the truth or not, and sometimes I can figure out that it’s not the truth and sometimes I don’t know and never know, and sometimes just because he says it to me over and over again I am convinced it is the truth because I don’t believe he would repeat a lie so often. (6)

It is disappointing but not alarming to discover the narrator’s true intentions in her search for the truth, to “come to some conclusions about such questions as: whether he is angry at me or not; if he is, then how angry; whether he still loves her or not; if he does, then how much; whether he loves me or not; how much; how capable he is of deceiving me in the act and after the act in the telling.” (6)

It is on this painful thud of a note that Davis shows us the quest for truth is only as noble as what you intend to do once you know it.

Davis, Lydia. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009. Hardcover.

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