Lieberman, "A Few Things Right with Lydia Davis"

In a recent interview with The Believer, Lydia Davis admitted that “the story” as a genre is “a hard thing to define.” With characteristic brevity, she explained, “I would say the story has to have a bit of narrative…It is flatter, rhythmically different from a poem, and less elliptical.” Davis’ definition of “narrative” here is undoubtedly elastic – and is therefore an applicably broad enough category within which to classify her idiosyncratic “stories.”  I put “stories” in quotation marks deliberately in order to consider Davis’ genre as distinct from “the short-story” and “the poem,” as Davis herself also identified “the story” as “a potentially larger category” than either – and any other – genre (Manguso).

For example, a late story entitled “Example of the Continuing Past Tense in a Hotel Room,” can be quoted here in its full, five-word entirety: “Your housekeeper has been Shelly” (Varieties of Disturbance 715). The story’s title exceeds the length of the story itself.  Still, “Example of Continuing Past Tense in a Hotel Room” is representative of Davis’ oeuvre for reasons other than its brevity:  it is an announced “example” of a real-world banality that Davis and her implied-narrator have reflected upon and since recorded, it is humorous in its absence of narrative context, it interrogates grammar and the way we structure the things we think and say. Though perhaps most importantly, it presents an unnamed subject’s curiosity in the ability of language to represent truth. 

To that end, Davis’ thematic concerns can be situated against her other work– as a translator of many French writers, including Maurice Blanchot, Michel Leiris, Gustave Flaubert and Marcel Proust. In Davis’ stories, we hear echoes of Blanchot and Leiris’ interest in using language as both a medium and a subject of interrogation (Deb); we can also sense permutations of Flaubert’s concern with finding a place for the banal in realism – and with using language as rhythmical as poetry and as precise as language of the sciences to do so (Fisher 2 November 2009). Of course, too, Davis’ stories are indebted to Proust, as much of her work is about how the self constantly attempts to make sense of thought and memory by translating it into language. During an interview with The Rumpus, Davis admitted, “I have no idea how translating has affected my own writing over the years,” but nevertheless characterized her process of translating as a pleasurable one: “One of the most enjoyable things about translating is an extended experience of writing in a style that I would never write in otherwise” (Gerke).

Davis’ stylistic and formal quirks do not bear resemblance to Proust’s extended (read: long) figurative comparisons about the relationship between sensory stimuli and their accompanying emotional associations. Yet Davis remains interested in Proust’s exploration of the relationships between internal experience / external experience and that which is posited or imagined as real by the self / that which is real. Above all, however, Davis is a writer who writes about language. More specifically, Davis has demonstrated a commitment throughout her career to writing about the ways in which the self always must grapple the difficult process of translating mental activity into language. In a notable variety of ways, Davis’ stories all seem to explore how the mind generates its own narratives during the process of rendering all aspects of interior life – memories, present sensory experiences, fragmentary thoughts, shifts in mood, and other interruptive perceptions – into written language.

Davis has developed different formal innovations for exploring this question in each of her different volumes of stories. In Break It Down (1986), the first collection compiled in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (2010), Davis most explicitly takes on the subject of failed love and lovers’ pain, showing the ways in which the mourning-self wrestles with the impulse to articulate memories into language as a way to deal with feelings of pain and isolation. In her single novel The End of the Story (1995), we witness a turning point in Davis’ career: like many of the stories of Break It Down, Davis’ novel is about the end of a relationship, narrated from the retrospective vantage point of an unnamed protagonist who is conveniently trying to understand her feelings of loss by writing a novel about it. In the novel, we see Davis deliberately create a narrator who aims to translate her painful memories into a single, cohesive and purportedly marketable narrative. By choosing to highlight the narrator’s identity as a novelist, Davis shows us a new, metafictional interest in the function of language – now concerning how the self uses language to create and circulate narratives in order to present the world with a kind of attempted objectivity. Thus in her subsequent collection of stories Almost No Memory (1997), Samuel Johnson is Indignant (2001) and Varieties of Disturbance (2007), Davis’ work locates language as a subject in and of itself, explicitly questioning the stability of language as a raw medium with which she and her narrators/characters use in order to gain increasing access to a more objective sense of reality by articulating it in the form of language.


The title story “Break It Down” can be read as a kind of ars poetica for the rest of Davis’ early collection Break It Down.  The story begins, “He’s sitting there staring at a piece of paper in front of him. He’s trying to break it down. He says: I’m breaking it all down. The ticket was $600 and then after that there was more for the hotel and food and so on, for just ten days” (Break It Down 17). The story presents the reader with an unnamed male narrator’s attempt to “break down” his ten-day affair with a similarly unnamed woman by quantifying the activities he and she shared together in terms of their monetary value.  He explains, “Say $80 a day, no, more like $100 a day. And we made love, say, once a day on the average. That’s $100 a shot” (17). As a result, the story becomes a record of the narrator’s journal-like attempt to see how his recollected experience of being with his lover maps onto an externally-accepted, hierarchized mode of measuring the value of experience.  The haunting emotional valence of the narrator’s process of “breaking it down” enters the story only obliquely: it is when the narrator attempts to account for the “cost” of pain that his method collapses. He writes, “You know the pain is part of the whole thing…You can’t measure it…” (24). Certainly “Break It Down” is about the narrator’s efforts to make sense of his memories by putting them into language. Specifically, Davis locates as its narrative subject the narrator’s tendency toward articulating himself within terms of two almost-surgical impulses – enumeration and quantification. These impulses can ultimately be identified as a symptom of the narrator’s efforts to detach emotionally from his memories: his process is one of translating the activity of his mind into language as a means of self-defense against feeling pain and isolation at the end of an affair.

Break It Down closes with a story whose title announces a structure of explanation and enumeration, but which ultimately frustrates the reader by presenting far more associative narration in the story itself: “A Few Things Wrong With Me” (which I have used as playful fodder for the title of this essay) presents an unnamed female narrator’s circuitous musings on a failed relationship, once again. She begins the story, “He said there were things about me that he hadn’t liked from the beginning” (Break It Down 74). In the proceeding five pages, Davis narrator recalls “the way it all ended,” as she undergoes the process of cataloguing what “else…would have bothered him from the beginning” (77).  Like “Break It Down,” the text of the story itself reveals the first-person narrator’s attempt to use language as a means to distance herself from feelings of pain through the process of articulation and analysis. Ultimately, “by the time the night was over” the narrator resolves, “I wasn’t worrying anymore about what was wrong with me.”  (79). The narrator’s resilient conclusion (albeit only vaguely resilient) at the end of “A Few Things Wrong With Me” reveals the degree to which, by the end of Break It Down, using language – and specifically, writing “the story” – begins to provide Davis and her narrators alike with a recuperative exercise, a functional method of healing.


Davis is not a novelist. Although we can say that Davis is drawn toward formal experimentation.  Thus, in 1995, prior to publishing her second acclaimed collection of stories Almost No Memory (1997), Davis experimented by writing her one and only novel, The End of the Story (1995). Like “Break It Down,” The End of the Story is the account of a failed relationship, delivered to us by an unnamed, first-person narrator, who self-identifies her musings as a novel within the text of Davis’ novel itself. The novel jumps back and forward in time, cataloguing the narrator’s reiterative attempts to arrive at a cohesive narrative of the affair and to locate some kind of greater significance through representing her psychological processes in the form of a novel. Midway through the text, the narrator admits, “I’m afraid I may realize after the novel is finished what actually made me want to write it was something different, and that it should have taken a different direction (The End of the Story 87). The narrator’s repetitive articulations of her fears paradoxically present a rather precise articulation of the novel’s “central” theme – the impossibility of finding a center (let alone “the end”) of “the story.” The novel ends up being about the absence of a possible order or sense of “direction” for the self in the process of attempting to deal with loss by articulating it with language, and specifically, in the form of a novel. 

The End of the Story is a failed experiment for Davis – but a necessary one. While the novel contains a list-like series of successful vignette-narratives, the text itself does not follow (nor does it even attempt to create) a single compelling narrative, which novels are wont to do – and, well, should do. In terms of its subject matter (failed love), The End of the Story contains thematic residue from Break It Down. However, the novel’s exaggeratedly metafictional tilt reveals Davis movement away from simply exploring how the self translates thought into language in order to create solipsistic narratives for the self to make sense of experience and deal with particular feelings (as in “Break It Down”). In The End of the Story, we instead see Davis interrogating how the self might write and use “the story” as a way to hazard approximating a kind of objective narrative of experience to be received both by the self and by the rest of the (external) world alike.


Davis continues to explore how using language might provide a means to attain a sense of objectivity in her later collections of stories, beginning with Almost No Memory (1997). In doing so, Davis moves away from exclusively exploring her earlier focus of failed relationships and lovers’ pain and takes on the subject of language itself (plus reading it and writing with it).  In “Foucault and Pencil,” a story at the beginning of Almost No Memory (1997), Davis presents the reader with a series of past-tense actions – listed without subjects and articles. For instance, the story begins “Sat down to read Foucault with pencil in hand. Knocked over glass of water onto waiting room floor. Put down Foucault and pencil, mopped up water, refilled glass” (Almost No Memory 151). Given the intimate content of the list of activities, the story is presumably a first-person narration. The narrator admits that s/he finds Foucault “hard to understand,” presenting the comprehensibility of language itself into the foreground of Davis’ thematic concerns. The speaker ultimately presents a redemptive conclusion, resolving that “Certain long ones [sentences] understandable part by part…” That is, the narrator can make sense of Foucault’s language by dissecting certain sentences “part by part,” expressing this idea in the form of a staccato sentence fragment. The list-like informality of the story’s style shows Davis’ new interest in just using the necessary components of language in order to present skeletal articulations of ideas.  Hence this story marks the beginning of Davis’ movement from exploring the use of language in a highly subjective landscape toward an interest in how the very act of using language – and of analyzing it “part by part” – might provide the self with a means to access a more holistic and perhaps increasingly objective sense of comprehension and self-comprehension.

“Examples of Confusion” is perhaps most indicative of this movement in Almost No Memory. In seven pages, we are presented with a first-person narrator’s numbered list of things that are announced to confuse her. The narrator writes, “I look at my bare feet on the tiles in front of me and think: Those are her feet” (Almost No Memory 300-301). Here, Davis presents a scenario of the self using language in a decidedly new context: the narrator is not “breaking down” her memory of a failed affair, nor is she anatomizing the “few things wrong with” her in an interior monologue, but is looking at her body parts, disassociating from them, and with her mind, identifying them and articulating them with objective declaration, “Those are her feet.” Here we see Davis’ interest in “breaking down” thought by translating it into language become less oriented toward revealing how the feeling-self deals with said feelings by articulating them with language and more toward putting pressure on the potentially unstable foundation of language itself as a medium of articulation and expression.

With Samuel Johnson is Indignant (2001), Davis’ stories become increasingly anti-narrative, approaching the sorts of post-structuralist concerns of much of the French literature she translates (Deb). In a story called “Interesting,” Davis presents us with a list of things deemed both “interesting” – and not – by yet another implied, unnamed narrator.   The story begins, “My friend is interesting but he is not in his apartment. Their conversation appears interesting but they are speaking in a language I do not understand. (Samuel Johnson Is Indignant 357).  Despite its humor, this story also deals with highly theoretical questions about the relationship between thought, spoken language, and physical existence. The narrator can identify her friend as “interesting,” but presents the potentially destabilizing claim, “…but he is not in his apartment.” Is her friend no longer interesting? Can she no longer identify him as such because he is not in his apartment? Is she even near his apartment? We don’t know. The list-like structure of this story affords Davis the ability to catalogue related and almost refractory interrogations about the nature of language, and in doing so, presents the reader with a brief story that is nonetheless incredibly dense with philosophical interest in the relationship between language and how it can structure our sense of a legible reality.

The title of Davis’ most recent collection of stories, Varieties of Disturbance (2007), harkens back to the story “Five Signs of Disturbance” of Break It Down (133). We see in Varieties of Disturbance Davis shift from an earlier concern of how the self uses language and story-making as an exercise to deal with his/her subjective reality toward an interest in using the story itself as a functional device to engage in examinations of thought and language.  In this collection, we encounter one of Davis’ longest stories, a 25 page story entitled “We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders.” As its title suggests, the story is an almost ethnographic account of a series of get well letters written by fourth-graders to fellow fourth-grader Stephen, who, hit by a car, has been hospitalized with a disease called osteomyelitis.  The story is divided with different subheadings, including “Formulaic expressions of sympathy” and “News,” which are subsequently analyzed by the highly detached narrator: “Many of the children’s letters include the standard “We [or I] miss you” or “We [or I] miss you very much,” often paired with “We [or I] hope you will be back soon” (Varieties of Disturbance 545) In “We Miss You,” Davis takes a fairly typical narrative scenario and uses it as an opportunity to offer her reader a rigorous scrutiny of colloquial language and syntax.


It is no coincidence Davis is a translator, as her own fiction is deeply invested in the constant human need to translate thought into language. In “Getting to Know Your Body,” Davis presents the reader with an eerie pair of aphoristic (and almost syllogistically structured) declarations: “If your eyeballs move, this means that you’re thinking, or about to start thinking. If you don’t want to be thinking at this particular moment, try to keep your eyeballs still” (Varieties of Disturbance 569). In this story, Davis suggests the existence of a kind of metaphysical relationship between the corporeal and the cerebral: that is, movement of body implies movement of mind. In this essay, I sought to explore Davis’ related interest in the cerebral and the verbal, interior and exterior – the relationship between thought and language. Davis’ reader must also be self-reflexive, as her stories require that we too scrutinize their spare use of language in our process of reading. Davis’ stories make up for their economy of language with profundity about all the difficult conditions of being human – corporeal, cerebral, and verbal alike.