The Lydia Davis Symposium, Spring 2014
The End of the Story by Lydia Davis, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1994.
When I was first asked to write something about Lydia Davis—anything at all, be as creative as you want—my instinct was to say no. The request didn’t come at a good time (though it did come from a good source), and I didn’t know anything at all about Lydia Davis, and still don’t, apart from what I’ve been able to glean of her from The End of the Story , which I read a couple of months ago now. So I begged off initially. I was busy, I hadn’t read her, etc. The truth, though, was that I’d just finished writing a whole book about a writer I hadn’t read when I decided to write about him, so I knew it was possible to set out to read and write about writers we know nothing about. In fact, the moment when we are first introduced to writers, either organically in the case of my book, or artificially in the case of what I had already come to think of as my “Lydia Davis assignment,” is a common, and in fact unavoidable, literary experience. For all that, it is one that has tended be treated fleetingly in the history of writing about reading.
The first thing I did—out of curiosity and with no sense of committing to the assignment, though I recognize now that this was the point of no return—was look up Lydia Davis’ books. I did this electronically, but beyond the ease of electronic research (perhaps I would have succeeded in begging off had I actually been required to go to a library or bookstore) I don’t think my exact methodology is relevant on this point. When I say I didn’t know anything at all about Lydia Davis, that’s only partly true because it’s not as though she, or her name, really, meant nothing to me. The truth is that her name meant very little to me. Lydia Davis was a female, living writer, I believed, but that’s all I knew. So even a quick skim over the titles and descriptions of her books vaulted her from meaning very little to me to meaning quite a bit.
But by itself this was not enough to trigger readerly interest. I remember little from that initial digital strafing of Davis’ career. What I do remember is that she liked, or likes, Henry James, and I remember the description of The End of the Story. I can’t quote the description—it wasn’t memorable in that way—but it made it clear that the book was about an older woman having some kind of affair or relationship with a younger man. And this did interest me because I’ve had several relationships—four, to be exact—with women who are or were (I’m not 100% sure they’re all still alive) significantly older than I am (let’s say significant equals ten or more years’ difference in age).
Two of these relationships happened when I was twenty-six, coming back to back, and the other two happened when I was thirty; they came back to back too, so the psychologically inclined can probably be applauded for suspecting that these periods in my life amount to “phases” of one kind or another. Is that what The End of the Story is about, too? Well, maybe that was what I wanted to find out. But before proceeding, let me say that the relationships of “phase one” have already been treated by me in a short story, so I won’t discuss them here. And anyway it was “phase two”—an affair with a forty-one-year-old Korean woman who was unhappily married but happily gave herself to me until her husband discovered us and labeled her an “international call girl,” followed by an interlude with a professor of indeterminate age, who either fell into my arms or drew me into hers, depending on how you think about such things, and who was just barely not my teacher anymore when we realized the tension that had been building between us for several months—that I figured would most directly apply to Lydia Davis. I was right. Quite early in the book, The End of the Story makes it clear that it’s about a creative writing professor having a relationship with a much younger writer who is enrolled in the program in which she teaches, though he’s not in her class, and actually it’s possible that he’s not even in her academic program. I’m relying on memory here, and it may be that the younger man is a budding writer who merely socializes with the creative writing community to which the narrator of The End of the Story is attached, for a time, in a visiting capacity.
But even before I knew this much, two things interested me about potentially reading The End of the Story. First, and most obviously, I could read the book—if I read the book—with a reasonable expectation that it would have something to “do” with me. It’s true that in the last seventy or eighty years of literary history, books have, more and more, been put to the overt (and crass, in my opinion) use of empathizing with “others,” by which I mean there’s an assumption that what we do as we read is plunge ourselves into a reservoir of common humanity that is sunk deep beneath the experience of people who on the surface appear to be quite different from ourselves. I’m not entirely convinced that this for the best. Placing too much emphasis on empathy as the byproduct of reading overlooks the selfish impulses that lurk in the backs of our minds as we decide what to read in the first place. And in the case of myself and The End of the Story, I was drawn in by a selfish suspicion that the book “had something to tell me,” that its subject matter and my life experiences would fruitfully overlap.
Second, and more interestingly, I think, I ordered the book and then anticipated its arrival suspecting that I would identify with someone other than the book’s protagonist. I didn’t yet know that the book’s “younger man” was a budding writer having an interlude with an older writer and teacher, but I did know that on a number of occasions I had been a “younger man.” To read a book knowing that you will probably resemble a minor figure within it contradicts the common view that what we mostly do as readers is step into the point of view of a book’s central character and channel all its events through that sensibility, such that we essentially become that character, see through their eyes, feel their feelings, etc. But it can’t always work that way, can it? I can think of two writers, V.S. Naipaul (thinking about Conrad) and Dagoberto Gilb (thinking about Tolstoy), who have testified to the experience of what it’s like to read with a nagging thought in the back of your mind: not only are you not like the main characters in whatever book you’re reading, you’re pretty clearly more like occasional presences who may or may not be treated fairly within the work, and whose experience might have merited an entirely different book, had the story been taken up by another author.
In any event, these were some of the thoughts I was having as The End of the Story wended its way toward me through the mail.
When it arrived, I didn’t read it right away. It wasn’t that I ignored it, I just didn’t dive right in. The first edition I ordered was a library discard, so “DISCARD” was stamped on the insides of the book’s front and back cover boards. The library that had done this had also hand-printed their name in the front matter, but they had since, presumably on deciding to discard the book, blotted out their identity with three swipes of a black magic marker, like a censor obliterating an offensive phrase.
Something on the title page grabbed my attention. The title of the book was printed in a telling font:
The End of the Story
I believe this font is called American Typewriter. And this is relevant, I think, because the same font occurs on a second title page two pages later, and then again, on a third title page, and then once more on the book’s first page—actually page three—where the first line is printed like this:
The last time I saw him, though I did not know it
The rest of the book is not printed in this font. The End of the Story does not have chapters, and so it’s not as though each chapter begins with this gimmick: separate sections are indicated by full breaks marked with plain asterisks (as opposed to some other more imaginative dingbat). But I still think there’s meaning to be drawn out from this. American Typewriter looks, as its name suggests, like an old typewriter, so text printed in American Typewriter tends to resemble pre-digital era manuscript pages. And The End of the Story is one of those books that is about its own creation. Part of the story is the narrator describing the process of writing the story you’re reading, and so the font perhaps suggests something about its rawness, about Davis’ attempts to give us a story unfiltered, unmitigated by anything other than the manual typewriter that her character—who resembles Davis—uses to transfer her story from her mind to the page.
Having said this, a plot summary seems in order. Or rather, two plot summaries. One: the unnamed narrator is a writer of some note, and at some point in her career she takes a visiting writer position in a city that feels very much like the Pacific Northwest, and she bounces into an occasionally passionate but ultimately tumultuous relationship with a bold younger man. And two: some years later, she sets about turning the events of this relationship into the book we are reading, and she chronicles the strain of the work on both her creative abilities and on the more appropriately aged man to whom she is now committed and who must witness her suffer the pain of reopening a wound that never fully healed.
As expected, I did identify a good bit with the story’s younger man. He is described as having reddish hair and a physicist father, and in these ways and a few others the character might actually have been based on me. One big difference, however, was the man’s dress, a kind of grungy mid-nineties lumberjack chic. That’s not me at all. And truth be told I found it a little ridiculous that a presumably cultured woman could fall for such a stock figure, and in saying this I realize that I’m probably echoing the reaction that a middle-aged female reader would have to a male-authored book about a teacher-student affair in which the younger woman is described, basically, as a Playboy bunny with librarian’s glasses who exudes untapped sexual and intellectual potential in equal amounts.
I’m sure it’s apparent by now that when I started to doubt, and even dislike, the younger man in The End of the Story, everything about the book shifted for me. I went from identifying with the younger man to identifying with the more appropriately aged man from plot two. This man doesn’t get a lot of pages allocated to him. But that’s his whole problem, because his partner’s angst over a relationship with a fairly pathetic stereotype can’t help but have made him question his judgment in having committed to her. And truth be told, I’ve been that guy too. I’ve been committed to at least one partner who allowed an old flame, a man much younger than I was then, to stir up trouble in our relationship. And if we’re being fully honest, then I should probably just go ahead and acknowledge that it wasn’t all that difficult for me to identify with the narrator of The End of the Story, either. I’ve had my share of involvements with younger women, though not all of them have been born of the arousing tension of a common academic discipline.
So long story short, even before I was all that far into The End of the Story I discovered the inadequacy of the expectations that had compelled me to read it in the first place. I thought that I would identify with one of its minor figures, but I wound up identifying with almost everyone in it, such that it seemed that Lydia Davis had completely succeeded in digging through to the common reservoir of humanity sunk deep beneath her characters, and beneath me too.
So then why wasn’t the book appealing to me that much? If what we want as we read is for books to “recognize” us—and for better or worse, that’s generally my view—then you’d think that a book that tickled a triumvirate of my past experiences would give me the sort of pleasing, uncanny sensation I might feel on hearing a fortune teller divine the truths of my life. But mostly, actually, I just got sort of annoyed. The narrator of The End of the Story annoyed me for falling into this doomed relationship, and for growing more and more obsessed about it as the book proceeded. The younger man annoyed me because he was so obviously a charlatan undeserving of attention. And the more appropriately aged man annoyed me because it struck me as weak-willed that he would remain with a woman preoccupied with a lover whose main function, obviously, was to help her stave off her own fading youth.
Of course these criticisms resemble the criticisms that I had ruthlessly self-administered during the various old relationships that The End of the Story brought to mind. But there were other problems too. I peeked at the end and saw that the book had been titled for its last line, a practice that always strikes me as cheap and unimaginative. As well, I didn’t like the way it straddled the line between fiction and nonfiction. It seems odd to say it, but I think I would have liked The End of the Story more had I picked it up thinking of it as a piece of nonfiction. Then it would have been a brave book, one in which Lydia Davis stood tall and acknowledged painful flaws and obsessions. But as is, we’re forced, as readers, to endlessly think of “the narrator of The End of the Story” instead of “Lydia Davis,” and so we are forced to hedge on our emotional investment in the book every time we start confusing the narrator with Lydia Davis, because the book’s being a fiction means that anything and everything in it might be invention. (I note now that the first edition of The End of the Story omits the usual “A Novel” either on its book jacket or its multiple title pages. However, the front matter describes it as “1. Man-woman relationships—United States—Fiction. 2. Women—United States—Psychology—Fiction.” And a 2004 reprint edition does include “A Novel” as part of the title.) I find this a problem because a lot of the book’s plot lines up with what I think we’re encouraged to conclude about Lydia Davis, the real person, such that the book becomes a fiction that applies to the real world by seeming just half a step away from it. That’s cowardly, in my view. Such books tend to undermine real novels, by which I mean fictions that don’t resemble the real world at all, but still aspire to be relevant to it. It can be argued, I think, that a book that coyly straddles the fiction-nonfiction divide makes it harder for books that don’t straddle the divide to seem relevant to the world in which we all live, breathe, and die.
I was also a bit put off by the book’s chronology. It’s admirable, of course, that the book begins with its ending—it means this will not be a simple boy-meets-girl story, or boy-meets-inappropriately-aged-woman story, in which our investment hinges on whether the relationship works out in the end; we know it won’t—and the choice ensures that the reader’s attention is steered to something other than plot as the main driving force. So is the book instead driven by character or language? Not really. The characters tend to remain sort of faceless (or at least they seem so in my memory), and even if Henry James is one of Lydia Davis’ favorite writers, she only infrequently pulls the stops on her sentences in The End of the Story. The only things that remain, then, as possible driving factors (at least as I see it) are truth and ideas. Nonfiction and creative nonfiction tend to be driven by truth—biographies, histories, memoirs, matter because they are factual, they really happened—and I’ve already complained that The End of the Story is a novel that relies too heavily on the reader believing that it’s “real.”
So ideas, then. This holds up. More than anything else, what a reader is supposed to latch onto, I think, so as to be tugged through The End of the Story, is the authorial sensibility that is torturously struggling to organize the chronology of these events, not in order to heighten the drama of them, but so that we wind up feeling closest to a writer suffering through first draft woes, attempting to transform a story that, told chronologically, might read as a simple record of someone slipping into madness (the narrator of The End of the Story eventually becomes something of a stalker), into a literary event in which a poignant humanity is cross-sectioned and examined. The real subject of The End of the Story, then, is the creative process, a process that, a little deceptively, twists a tale of questionable propriety into a profound unveiling.
All of which has its interest. And my real hope here, for all that I’ve done by way of griping about The End of the Story, is that I’ve succeeded in suggesting that even if the book riled me up, maybe even pissed me off a bit, it also got me thinking, which is what all good books do. And that brings me to the thing that I thought about most from the very first moment I was asked to read Lydia Davis and write about her. Even before I read The End of the Story, and for a long time after I read it, I struggled with whether I should review it, or produce a piece of criticism of it.
What’s the difference between a review and a criticism? A review offers judgment but generally little by way of interpretation, whereas a critical act interprets while withholding qualitative assessment. I was torn between the two because, really, I wanted to do both, and furthermore I wanted to include and even emphasize that which tends to be omitted from both reviews and criticism: myself, the perspective and bias and experience of the reviewer/critic. That slowed me down. At least until I realized that The End of the Story itself, in including the process of its own creation, contained the thing that I most wanted my treatment of it to exhibit. In other words, the real story, in either a novel or the story of the effects of a novel, is the sum of the thoughts that pass through the mind as you anticipate, experience, and consider in retrospect the event that is the ostensible subject of what you have to say. To conclude, then, The End of the Story is the story of a writer critically appraising her own experience so as to create a novel from it, and it was this thought, this realization, that enabled me—and that’s what literature does, enable us—to return to the beginning of my own story.
J.C. Hallman is the author of a number of books, including The Chess Artist, In Utopia, and Wm & H’ry. Next year, he will publish a book about Nicholson Baker, B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal. He lives in New York City.
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