Monday, June 25, 2007

Lydia Davis: Break It Down

You might be tempted to read Lydia Davis's stories in passing, to treat them as quirky, funny entertainments. They are so short, after all, and you can page through one piece after another almost as if you're reading a joke book.

But the quirky facade is deceptive, and even the humor often causes a chill of tragic recognition.

Take "Break It Down," the story that gives the title to her 1976 collection of short stories. It's a simple story on the surface: the narrator is obsessively trying to quantify eight days of love, in which he spent approximately $800. In the process of evaluating the cost, he breaks down the love affair, and arrives at a surprising conclusion.

Initially, he figures that they had sex once a day, eight times total, so he spent $100 each time, or $50 an hour since they stayed in bed for two hours, an experience that he decides is expensive.

But he goes further--the cost must include the small moments as well. "You're with each other all day long and it keeps happening, the touches and smiles, and it all adds up...." Soon he breaks down the cost to $6 an hour as he tallies up all of those times when the lover is present or absent, because "you can't forget and it's all inside you all the time."

It's a laughable exercise to try to quantify such an experience, of course, but the narrator's project also begs many questions as he recounts the number of tendernesses, the beautiful and precious moments that add nothing to economic outcomes or better the world in any tangible way.

His tallies hit a wall when he reckons with the inevitable pain of the affair. Pain has to be part of the equation, but the recognition of it as inherent in the pleasures of relations--whether it's a pet, a child, or a lover--devastate the entire notion of trying to make this existential equation make sense.

"You can't measure it, because the pain comes after and it lasts longer. So the question is, Why doesn't that pain make you say, I won't do it again? When the pain is so bad that you have to say that, but you don't."

The story reaches this tragic epiphany, but then, to support the cliche that life is nothing but a cruel joke, Davis ends with this denoument. "So I'm just thinking about it, how you can go in with $600, more like $1,000, and how you can come out with an old shirt."

Another of my favorites in this collection is "The House Plans," an odd fable of sorts that also strives to arrive at a tangible value for a pursuit. In this case, the narrator wants to build the house of his dreams on a fairly abject piece of land that he sees beauty in.

The narrator sacrifices so much of his life to purchase the land, which has a ramshackle, practically uninhabitable house on it, and he proceeds to draw up extravagant blue prints--his work of art. By the time he finishes the blue prints, however, he doesn't have the money to build the house, so it becomes only a dream, one that he shares with a local hunter who randomly comes by--except that the narrator can't understand the hunter's country accent and the hunter can't understand the narrator's city accent.

It's a fable of the artist, who is unable to communicate with the world, or even his audience, except through his art or dreams. The hunter understands the blue prints, which become their only sustenance as other houses, cheap and gaudy and hastily built, start to crowd the landscape. They don't even have food at the end of the story, but they are happy.

Her stories read very much like she describes her process in an interview in Salon: "I don't write something unless I feel impelled to write it. In other words, I don't have a regular schedule and sit down every day and say, 'Well, what do I do today?' It's more that an idea or a sentence will come to me like 'What was he really feeling yesterday while he was walking through my yard and saying nice things about my flowers? Maybe underneath he was really distressed by the overgrown garden.' And that will make me go on from there."

In an interview with Francine Prose in Bomb, Davis talks about how she began "Break It Down." "I started doing these very short stories to break myself out of the rut of not writing or resisting writing. I told myself: You have to write two tiny stories every day. It didn’t matter how silly they were, I just had to finish two one-paragraph stories."

I just read the review of Davis's new book in the New York Times: Varieties of Disturbance. She might be best known for her translations of Proust (not her brief marriage to Paul Auster, with whom she had a son). McSweeney's provides a nice bibliography of her work, as well as links to reviews and interviews.