The Lydia Davis Symposium, Spring 2014
The End of the Story by Lydia Davis, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1994.
Lydia Davis’ fiction is not only, as nearly everyone notes, difficult to categorize; it is also surprisingly difficult to comprehend. Surprising, that is, insofar as the seeming simplicity of Davis’ style is simple only at first sight, while the humdrum familiarity of her subject matter conceals, under a placid surface, a dizzying capacity for defamiliarization. And in making us dizzy, Davis also attunes us to a distinctive blend of literature and philosophy. Her familiarity with the thought of Blanchot, Leiris, and the like is well-known. However, such influences aren’t crudely restricted to the “content” of her stories—after all, fictions which flashily allude to philosophy arguably only fetishize it, as a sort of accessory. Instead, Davis incorporates philosophy into the fine grain of her writing. Her fiction’s philosophical force manifests in the fidelity of its linguistic form to the treacherous texture of everyday experience. Hence, if it is hard to get a purchase on Davis’s prose, that might be precisely the point. As the critic and psychoanalyst Josh Cohen puts it in his essay “Reflexive Incomprehension,”
Davis’ minimal style, with its studied casualness of tone, the very American ordinariness of its idiom, has the paradoxical effect of inducing us to listen to an anterior dimension of language. This style is mimed in her fiction’s microscopically exacting focus on the contingent detail of everyday life, bringing to light a stubbornly untranslatable enigma at the heart of the ordinary. Davis estranges language not by setting it apart from everyday speech but by putting us in an almost uncomfortable proximity to it, forcing us to hear resonances of the unknown in the most familiar.
If the direction of Davis’ writing tends toward, as she once observed in an interview, “philosophical investigation,” perhaps it is fitting that almost all of it falls into the category of the short story—a form which, in her hands, affirms its affinities with the pensée, the fragment, the meditation. For this reason, it is tempting to treat her only novel (and this in a career of over thirty years) as an anomaly. The fact that this is far from the case confirms not only the consistency of her thematic concerns but also the concentrated quality of her consciousness, which articulates long and short forms alike along comparable lines, always with the same steadfast focus.
The “story” of The End of the Story is, as suggested above, deceptively simple. An unnamed narrator (who, like Davis, works as a translator) looks back on a love affair long since over. As with any such loss, she “couldn’t let go of it later.” So, looking back at herself not letting go, she tries to imprint an order upon her experience. Specifically, she sets out to turn the story of the failed affair and its aftermath into a novel. Already though, this apparently straightforward story of love and loss is mediated through multiple optics. Firstly, there are the facts; secondly, the narrator’s slanted experience of those facts. Next, there are the mechanisms of memory—always frail and fallible—through which this experience is recalled. Finally, framing this nested structure, we confront the encompassing act of writing—an act which, as Blanchot would have it, “issues from its own absence, addressing itself to the shadow of events, not their reality.” More confusingly still, if writing is the final stage of this sequence, it is also the first, since writing is what renders recollection. And this is to say nothing of the difference between the novel the narrator is writing and the one we are reading—the one written by Lydia Davis. Writing is a shadow that casts its own shadow.
This might be what Michael Hoffman means when he writes in his review of the novel that the narrative is “distanced or framed or negated” to such a degree that it is bathed in “negative space,” evoking an aesthetic of the “visionary negative.” The narrator’s state after the end of the affair (amplified all the more by the mediations of writing and memory) is one of profound uncertainty. Profound but thoroughly familiar, for we need not have read Descartes to recognize this kind of proliferating doubt:
I did not have good answers for my questions. I could always find a few answers for each question, but I wasn’t satisfied with them: though they seemed to answer the question, the question did not go away. Why had he claimed on the telephone, when I called him long distance, that we were still together and there was nothing to worry about? Was he ever truly tempted to come back to me after I returned? Why did he send me that French poem a year later? Did he ever receive my answer? If he did, why didn’t he answer it?
The fretful tenor of such passages—the air of escalating insecurity that Thad Ziolkowski has dubbed “high analytical vertigo”—is almost omnipresent in Davis. And her subject-matter is often similarly consistent. In this respect, The End of the Story represents the fruition (or the slowly fading afterimage) of a theme begun in Davis’ breakthrough collection Break it Down (1986)—a book which, like this one, fixates on failed romances and their wreckage. Indeed, the collection’s opening story, simply titled “Story,” contains content which Davis directly incorporates into her novel. In each text, for example, the narrator neurotically ruminates over her (ex-) lover, to the point of spying on him through his window. And in “Story” as in The End of the Story, this act of obsessive observation is inspired by a desire to “figure it out,” to “come to some conclusions about such questions as: whether he is angry or not; if he is, then how angry . . . whether he loves me or not; how much; how capable he is of deceiving me,” and so on.
“The Letter” (also collected in Break it Down) rehearses a similar scene of incertitude, likewise replayed in the novel. Here the former lover sends the narrator a French poem (untitled, although the line “compagnon de silence” implies that it is Valéry’s Le bois amical) from which she then tries to surmise his intentions. In so doing, she subjects the letter’s language to a restless speculation remarkably similar to that which mediates memories in The End of the Story. For instance, “if there can be no doubt about retrouvions,” she reflects, then she “can believe that he is still thinking, eight hundred miles from here, that it will still be possible ten years from now, or five years, or, since a year has already passed, nine years or four years from now.” Later, while “half dreaming” over the letter, she senses that “something of his smell may still be in the paper,” although she is “probably smelling only the ink.”
If the recurrence of such scenes suggests certain steady preoccupations in Davis’ work during this period, it also points beyond matters of content, toward an ambience or attitude that permeates much of her writing. Whether it is applied to a memory, a word from a poem, or a sensory perception, her narrators’ style of analysis is similar: in each case, a hyper-conscious observer hopes “to decide what I could be sure of, and what I didn’t know.” But time and again, the drive to decide only results in further indecision. The struggle to stabilize an object (a poetic line in a foreign language; a silhouette glimpsed through a window) intensifies its instability, leaving it blurred beyond recognition. Borrowing Graham Harman’s philosophical terminology, we might observe that such objects “withdraw,” exceeding their external relations. In Davis, moreover, the object’s recession reveals the rocks on which thought runs aground. That is, the world itself withdraws like a tide, uncovering a widening gap which consciousness unfolds to fill (“ten years from now, or five years, or, since a year has already passed, nine years or four years from now”) until it saturates itself, ad absurdum.
The severance of subject from object in Davis’ work—the way the mind finds itself shipwrecked, in the wake of a withdrawing world—can be characterized, according to Josh Cohen’s abovementioned essay, as a condition of “reflexive incomprehension.” Self-reflexive works of fiction—texts in which narrative consciousness fills the frame of reference, twisting and turning in on itself—typically tend, Cohen claims, toward a “subversion of knowledge” which is simultaneously a “recovery of knowledge.” Put simply, literary reflexivity undercuts received “truths” so as to express a deeper truth, at a further turn of the screw. However, Davis’ narratives run in a more disconcerting direction. Going against the grain of reflexive revelation, her writing “repeatedly carries us across an elaborate, often labyrinthine logical and emotional pathway only to leave both narrator and reader in ignorance.” The mind’s modulating inquiries cannot exhaustively capture reality. Instead, every attempt at explanation merely exacerbates the mystery.
This mystery—the residuum that remains when reality is incompletely “broken down”—returns us to the “negative space” that Hoffman discerns in Davis’ novel. Cohen describes this enigmatic effect in terms of the Levinasian il y a (literally, the “there is”), a stratum of “undetermined, anonymous being” that silently subtends our lived experience. The il y a is the neutral, impersonal “background” of existence: what life would look like with the lights out. Davis’ style of incomprehension seems closely aligned with such a dimension, perhaps even producing it, as if through a kind of epistemological echo. Her prose’s proximity to this unpopulated plane could also account for those commonly occurring passages—such as this, from the story “Therapy”—which strike an almost baffling pitch of banality:
At first, I would only sit in a chair picking hair and dust off my clothes, and then get up and stretch and sit down again. In the morning I drank coffee and smoked. In the evening I drank tea and smoked and went to the window and back and from one room into the next room.
The peculiar coloring of such descriptions—minimal, muted, but numinously so, as if touched by the aura of all the events they leave unregistered—resembles the silence that fills the air after the voicing of a question. That such questions remain unanswered reflects Davis’ sensitivity to quotidian flatness—her eye for the empty expanses of the everyday—yet it also suggests something more metaphysical. Indeed, what matters most in Davis is not so much the specific sense of a given question, nor the identity of its addressee (thus, in the novel, the lover is left unnamed) but the fundamental fact that the question “does not go away.” Somewhere between the self and the world, Davis’ narratives paint the blank canvas of the question’s persistence. At this level, a book like The End of the Story is less about a love affair than a universal enigma—after all, the narrator’s endless questioning could equally well be addressed to an absent God. So the problem is not simply that we cannot recapture our lost loves; rather, it is that reality itself is unresolved and radically answerless.
The End of the Story plays out against such a background of answerlessness, balancing as if above an abyss. The tightrope the narrator walks is tethered to her ideal of “order”—a law which she wants to apply to the “story.” Order, however, is hard to establish:
I need to put more order into what I remember. The order is difficult. It has been the most difficult thing about this book . . . I have tried to find a good order, but my thoughts are not orderly—one is interrupted by another, or one contradicts another, and in addition to that, my memories are quite often false, confused, abbreviated, or collapsed into one another.
Davis herself has remarked of her novel that “what interested me, in the end, was how the narrator’s mind worked, not the actual experience of the love affair.” However, her statement belies the extent to which these two terms end up seeming indistinguishable. The narrative’s real interest lies in the way the mind occludes and eclipses actual experience—indeed, this is what produces the book’s unique pathos. If the narrator is perpetually “in the wrong place to understand, either too far inside each thing or too far outside it,” there is something quietly tragic about her awareness that her own mind has caused this confusion. She is, in this sense, inseparable from her sadness, which is instinctive and internal—her heartbreak is part of her, rather than part of the world.
In some respects it is easy to forget—and thus unsettling to recollect—that every event in this book is a mental event; every character a construction of one woman’s memory. Of course, her frequent metafictional reflections (where she self-consciously frets over the shape of the story) disrupt our suspension of disbelief, and press against the prospect of order. More importantly, though, they remind us that what we are reading is not the thing itself but the thought; that the book follows the faulty logic of memory formation, leaving its fabric full of rifts and ripples. “I see that I’m shifting the truth around a little,” the narrator admits, “at certain points accidentally, but at others deliberately,” just as we do when retrospectively reassessing a relationship. And, as always, it is the accidental aspects of memory that prove the most painful—those tiny cracks and inaccuracies that increase the distance between us and what we want to recall. Consider Davis’ narrator reminiscing about the first night she spent with her lover:
By the front wall he lifted a stem of thorns that hung down from an overgrown climbing rose so that I could pass without scratching myself. Or maybe he couldn’t have done this in the dark, and it was on another day, in the daylight. Or it was that night, but the night was not entirely dark. In fact, it is only dark in my memory of that particular night, because I know there were two bright streetlamps nearby: one of them shone into my room.
If it is dark in her memory, this may be because memory always darkens its objects, slowly corroding their reality and replacing them with simulacra. Of the lover himself, she notes that she is “used to the version of his face” she has crafted from memory: “if I saw a clear picture of him, I would have to get used to a new face.” She is also aware that writing partakes in the same corrosive process as remembering—such that “there were days when I wrote about him so much that he was no longer quite real; I had managed to drain him of his substance, and fill my notebook with it, which would mean that in some sense I had killed him.” Hence, the entity to which her writing refers is not the man she once knew; it is only his imprecise mental image. The consequence of this, as Christopher Knight acutely comments in his essay on the novel, is that “the narrator’s relation with him increasingly looks like a relation with herself.” The sensation is similar to when we see a stranger’s face in a crowd, thinking, fleetingly, that it belongs to a friend. Here, however, there is only one face, one consciousness, isolated and delimited.
Accordingly, The End of the Story seems to assume the form of a firmly closed circle. The narrative maps the outlines of a mind whose contents, despite their dissimilar surfaces, are crystallized from a single substance. Within the world of this book, the flickering mirages known by names like “lover” and “novel” are only modes of the narrator’s aloneness. Moreover, this structure mirrors the fact that we know, from the start, that the romance is over—making its end a prerequisite of its beginning. This colors the narrator’s memories of her relationship, imbuing even the earliest moments with an atmosphere of finality:
After he left me, the beginning was not only the first, happy occasion; it also contained the end, as though the very air of that room where we sat together, in that public place, where he leaned over, barely knowing me, and whispered to me, were already permeated with the end of it, as though the walls of that room were already made of the end of it.
Perhaps the remembrance of things past cannot help but be “permeated” with their end. The closure of this cognitive loop is enacted when Davis’ novel concludes by returning to its opening scene—in which the narrator sits in a bookstore, whose owner offers her some “bitter tea.” This scene, she explains, “ceremonially” marks the “end” of her short-lived relationship; and with it the end of her novelization. Nonetheless, in itself, it is of no obvious purpose. As elsewhere in Davis, the foregrounded moment is merely what Franco Moretti would call a “filler.” That is, the scene exemplifies those empty measures that often occur when narrative finds itself idle—sitting; smoking; drinking tea; passing time while awaiting the next event or epiphany. Such insignificant interludes might make up much of a typical novel, though they are what go most unnoticed. In this sense, the narrator selects the scene almost arbitrarily, purely to put an end to something endless. As she emphasizes in her final sentence, “since all along there had been too many ends to the story, and since they did not end anything, but only continued something, something not formed into any story, I needed an act of ceremony to end the story.”
But beyond its immediate effect, this deliberately inadequate ending also evinces something deeper. In its blending of ends and endlessness, it demonstrates how Davis’ novel combines—without reconciling—two paradoxical qualities. In The End of the Story, and arguably across Davis’ stories more broadly, the composition of a fictional form coincides, at all times, with the preservation of “something not formed.” After all, any closed circle’s circumference still opens up a continuous curve. Closure and openness, answers and questions, fixity and infinity: to these unsettled oppositions we could also add the “written” and its counterpart, the “unwritten.” Thus, the novel that Davis’ narrator writes is itself encircled, like any novel, by a halo of hypothetical, unfinished books. In this way, the written work retains an internal relation to an idealized, unwritten other:
I’m afraid I may realize after the novel is finished that what actually made me want to write it was something different, and that it should have taken a different direction. But by then I will not be able to go back and change it, so the novel will remain what it is and the other novel, the one that should have been written, will never be written.
Late in his life, in a series of lectures inspired by his own unwritten novel, Roland Barthes examined Mallarmé’s distinction between the “Album” and the “Book.” The Book, argued Barthes, aspires to perfection—it aims to provide an accurate “representation of the universe, homologous to the world.” To create such an artwork would be to reflect “the totality of reality and history, from the perspective of transcendence.” The Album, by contrast, remains rooted within reality, rather than striving to stand outside it. The world as rendered by the Album is incomplete and chaotic; “not-one, not-ordered, scattered, a pure interweaving of contingencies, with no transcendence.” Needless to say, neither Barthes nor Mallarmé crudely confuses these two entities with actual literary texts. The binary is not taxonomical but conceptual; the push and pull between these two poles shapes the production of literary works. On the one hand, the Album and all its manifestations: the fragment, the essay, the unfinished effort. On the other, the Book and its corollaries: the summa, the opus, the completed oeuvre.
But Davis’ book complicates this dichotomy: it can be read either as a ceremonially “ended” story, or an enigmatically endless one. More than this, though, maybe the novel dissolves these very distinctions. “It is strange,” remarks Valéry, “how the passage of time turns every work—and so every man—into fragments.” He then notes, “nothing whole survives, just as a recollection is never anything more than debris, and only grows sharper through false memories.” In encompassing the far points of this passage—exposing its own relentless corrosion, while charting its sharpened refinement—perhaps Davis’ novel reveals the paradoxical brevity of the long form. Likewise, maybe her writings should not be divided into a “novel” and a set of “stories,” but seen instead as stars in a constellation, or points upon a continuum. If this is so, then The End of the Story’s accomplishment is to span, with startling simplicity, the full width of writing’s spectrum—projecting an image whose clarity is consonant with its decay. “The future of the Book is the Album,” writes Barthes, “just as the ruin is the future of the monument.” His following metaphor reads like a perfect description of Davis’ novel; few figures capture it quite so well:
The book is destined to become debris, an erratic ruin; it is like a sugar cube dissolving in water. Some parts sink; others remain upright, erect, crystalline, pure, and brilliant.
David Winters has written on fiction, criticism and philosophy for various publications, including the Times Literary Supplement, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Guardian and The Independent. He is coeditor in chief of 3:AM Magazine. Links to his work are collected at whynotburnbooks.com.
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