Roughly ninety-three of the 124 stories in Lydia Davis’s new collection of stories Can’t and Won’t are written in the first person. I counted because I had an inkling, on first read, that the new feeling of openness in these stories might have to do with how many of them were written in the first person. I kept getting the feeling she was speaking as a narrator, and not as the author of a narrative, more often than in her previous work. I did not, however, count carefully, because I was self-conscious about my desire to count them, and was distracted by my self-consciousness.
Lydia Davis is the author of one novel and seven story collections. She was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award and has been awarded prizes for her translations of Proust and Flaubert. She is the winner of the 2013 Man Booker International Prize. Jonathan Franzen has called her “a magician of self-consciousness” and James Woods described her Collected Stories as “a body of work probably unique in American writing.” She is known for her precision, her astute rendering of human psychology, her peculiar brand of neurotic humor, and for reinventing the short story. Davis looks at the world—and herself—with a ruthless, penetrating gaze, almost paralyzing in intensity. There is a certain insistence in her attention—not only can I not look away, she forces me to look very hard.
Beyond this wholesale reinvention of the short story, Lydia Davis has also reshaped American letters through the ways in which she has played with narrative and autobiography. Each of her stories, regardless of subject, emit a substantial authorial presence; a specific mind working away at the subject, a particular glance that looks with a certain set of objectives. Sometimes Davis has turned that substantial authorial gaze on herself. A story written in the third person might very obviously be Lydia Davis writing about Lydia Davis. Other times, a story will be in first person, with a narrator, clearly Davis, writing about writing, or writing about life. As James Woods said, in his review of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis in the October 19, 2007 issue of the New Yorker:
To read The Collected Stories is to make a voyage around a composite narrator, who at times seems relatively distant from the author named Lydia Davis, and at times seems confessionally proximate.
Take, for instance, the opening sentence of the story “Selfish” from the collection Samuel Johnson is Indignant: “The useful thing about being a selfish person is that when your children get hurt you don’t mind so much because you yourself are all right.” While written in the second person, a specific narrator starts to develop through the accumulation of particular thoughts and phrases. As the story gains ground and the humor in it becomes difficult to maintain, something frail and true and human emerges. A backstory begins to take shape, but only slightly, as the narrator is now unconvincing as selfish, and the continued emphasis on selfishness only serves to evidence a kind of frailty. This kind of progression is what James Woods is referring to when he said that “this brisk, insouciant, almost naïve tone is often revealed to be a mask, a public fiction, behind which a person is flinching.”
In an email from Davis to Dana Goodyear in her profile in the March 17, 2014 issue of the New Yorker, Davis explains the general progression in this type of story:
The narrator takes a pose. Or I take a pose through a confident narrator—in the beginning. Then—as so often happens in actual conversation—once one begins discussing a situation in detail, reliving it, one’s emotions change, one’s relation to the material changes. And that’s what happens in the story. When the narrator goes into detail, . . . then she loses some of that confidence. She ends up pushing the difficult material away, saying, Don’t let it get near me.
Often, in a Lydia Davis story, there is a danger that the reader senses, a threat of being overtaken or crushed—a subject that must be controlled with language. I feel that this control is absolutely essential to the narrator’s survival. This danger, and the power that is demonstrated over language, is thrilling, stunningly effective.
Davis’s subject is often her writing, and much of her novel The End of the Story is about her difficulty writing the novel and about her process of writing stories. She was having a difficult time getting over a relationship, and writing stories was a way to distance herself from what she was experiencing at the time. Writing about current events in the past tense helped to turn down the volume on her emotions and helped to provide a sense of momentum. In The End of the Story, she is very explicit, and specific, about how she used writing to sort through and deal with many complex emotions. She writes “Certain things I wrote down in the first person, and others, the most painful things, I think, or the most embarrassing, I wrote down in the third person.” While these narrative strategies might have been enlisted for their therapeutic effects, the tension I as a reader experience, observing these dissections, is intense. Her stories cast me on the very edge of psychological risk-taking.
This practice of using the third person to write about herself comes up a lot in her work, and I often understand it as a way to clarify, to look at an event or subject objectively, to ensure a certain vigilance with the self as subject. The subject is pushed away in order to be evaluated, controlled, understood, made manageable. One of the effects of writing the story in third person is that it keeps the story from being simply a confessional; I see an engaged mind actively unearth and investigate, I watch as the finger approaches the kettle. The action of the story, the progression, becomes the activity of the narrator’s mind, or, becomes my own revelation of the narrator’s vulnerability.
Davis positions the reader in such a way as to be granted a level of access that often feels like a violation of privacy. As James Woods described it: “In Davis’ soliloquizing work, a narrator is often overhearing herself, and we are then allowed to overhear this painful and funny self-overhearing.” Take this opening sentence from “The Fish” from her collection Break It Down: “She stands over a fish, thinking about certain irrevocable mistakes she has made today.” The description seems inappropriately harsh, a judgment the narrator is making that I could dismiss as being unfair. But after a few lines, I also sense that the narrator is speaking about herself, which makes me consider the judgment in a different way: it now seems to act as an admission, and the story feels like the confession of a woman coming to grips with this moment. I am almost stunned by the beginning of the story, yet this initial blow subsides and is replaced with an intense, quiet empathy.
In Can’t and Won’t I encounter a narrator who is somehow more relaxed, somehow less cerebral than her earlier work. Now, what’s tricky is that this is still very much Davis—what’s different is that her precision in observation and the intensity of her exacting prose is focused more outward, and less on keeping feelings at a distance from, or perhaps in tension with, a speaker. The narrators of these stories seem more amused and, at the same time, more laid bare. This new, candid and bemused perspective is made explicit in the story “Writing”:
Life is too serious for me to go on writing. Life used to be easier, and often pleasant, and then writing was pleasant, though it also seemed serious. Now life is not easy, it has gotten very serious, and by comparison, writing seems a little silly. Writing is often not about real things, and then, when it is about real things, it is often at the same time taking the place of some real things. Writing is too often about people who can’t manage. Now I have become one of those people. I am one of those people.
What’s interesting is that this new stance doesn’t make Davis seem more vulnerable, but all the stronger, as if she’s no longer having to prove her mastery, her control, but, in fact, yields it quite easily. Her portraits have always been intensely revealing, so it’s not necessarily a matter of guarded or unguarded—I think—she just seems less interested in having to maintain control.
Can’t and Won’t includes two kinds of stories. People might consider one kind to consist of stolen—at the very least borrowed—content. Fourteen of the stories in the collection are based off of letters written from Flaubert to Colet, while nine stories in the collection come from other people’s dreams. How can she make someone else’s dream her story? How can “slightly rewritten” fragments from someone else’s letters be included in her story collection? Regardless of content, the marks of her particular eyes and brain are unmistakable. I think it’s a marker of this new openness—this new, more firmly planted narrator whose perspective is more often turned outward—that she can manipulate such stolen goods.
Take, for example, the dream piece, “The Grandmother.” The entire short story centers around one old woman brushing up against things: the gravel, a shouting man. The story turns, not on the reader’s discovery that she has been chewing her hearing aid, believing it to be a nut, but with her stubborn dismissal that the nut is bad. I get to laugh at her, a little, but I’m also now cheering for her, whereas before I found her to be cranky and tiresome. The untraditional, “found” stories in this new collection make clear that Davis’s attention, her authorial gaze, can be applied to anything she pleases.
The other kind of stories in Can’t and Won’t are introspective stories. This new work feels as though she is not afraid to be seen as pummeled, rather than using story and language to defend herself against pummeling. This new development is made clear by the noticeably different narrative tone in stories like “The Seals,” and “The Landing”:
I miss her so much. Maybe you miss someone even more when you can’t figure out what your relationship was. Or when it seemed unfinished.
–from “The Seals”
While Davis has indeed been frank before, even abruptly so, this kind of straightforward admission feels absolutely estranged from the tone of her previous work.
Just now, during these days when I am so afraid of dying, I have been through a strange experience on an airplane. . . It wouldn’t help to brace my feet if we had a fatal crash. But I had to take what little actions I could, I had to assert my tiny amount of control. In the midst of my fear, I still found it interesting that I thought I had to assert some control in an uncontrollable situation. Then I gave up taking any action at all and observed another interesting thing about what was happening now inside me—
–from “The Landing”
The observation of an interior mind at work is standard Davis, and so what feels new is the lack of tension in how these observations are expressed. Davis, the narrator, is still interested in how her mind is working, and now is quite open and willing to tell us about it. I get the sense that she is no longer paralyzed, there isn’t this abrasive shock. There is also less control to be had, less power to yield over anything. Perhaps, rather than psychological risk, what is at stake now isn’t stability, and the threat now comes from outside her own mind. There is much loss in Can’t and Won’t and the grief that accompanies that loss can’t be manipulated the same way neuroses can.
I thought it’d be interesting to see whether there existed an escalation in how many stories, over the course of her career, were written in the first person. So I continued to count. Break It Down (1986) has twenty-two out of thirty-four stories not written in first person, which means only thirty-five percent of the stories are in first person. Almost No Memory (1997) has twenty out of fifty-one stories not in the first person, which comes to almost sixty percent first person. Samuel Johnson is Indignant (2001) has fifty-two percent of stories in first person while Varieties of Disturbance (2007) is almost definitely written in equal amounts first and not first person. Seventy-five percent of the stories in Can’t and Won’t are written in the first person. So, scientifically, in this new collection, we’re getting, on average, twenty-five percent more Davis, directly.
Kayla Blatchley is a writer living in the Midwest. Her fiction has been published in Unsaid and the most recent edition of NOON. She can also be found online at twoseriousladies.org.