Melting Plot

By Michael Reid Busk

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Posted December 10, 2009 in Arts & Culture

What makes a story a story? To ask the question a different way: why is it boring when someone spends 10 minutes recounting his trip to the grocery store, but interesting when he mentions that while he was shopping, the grocery store was robbed? The simple answer is plot. Good stories—we’ve been told—are like fugues: they begin with a certain theme (musical in the case of the fugue, narrative in the case of the story), then through a series of modulations develop that theme, such that by the end the resulting expression of the theme is both markedly different from and uncannily similar to the original. Stories of this type operate on the model of paranoia: everything is connected, everything matters. As Chekhov once said, “If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.”

Lydia Davis doesn’t play these games—at the core of many of her stories is the reality that there are many guns on many walls that never fire. And sometimes there are no guns at all, just walls. This of course jives with our own sense of daily life, but it’s still unsettling when you arrive at the end of a Davis story and nothing seems to have happened exactly, or something does happen that earlier parts of the narrative didn’t prepare you for.

In the historically-based “Lord Royston’s Tour,” first published in the collection Almost No Memory and now again in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, the eponymous British nobleman wanders about Napoleonic-era Russia from the Arctic Circle to the Caspian Sea—seeing things, meeting people, experiencing inclement weather—then is shipwrecked at the story’s end and drowns. Most writers would craft such a story as a rip-roaring adventure tale, but Davis presents it as a matter-of-fact travelogue. Part of its oddness stems from the almost complete lack of access to Royston’s thoughts and feelings. What matters to the story is that he is a wealthy, curious foreigner—any further differentiation seems unnecessary.

This is in part because in addition to plot, Davis also often jettisons the other crucial element of most fiction: character. Davis rarely names her protagonists, does not describe them physically, and almost always refuses to provide information about their pasts. Even more strange in the age of therapy, Davis vacuums most of the stories of emotion and even interiority, leaving the reader with events and ideas. This is true of her earlier collections, Almost No Memory and Break It Down, and in particular her latest two, Samuel Johnson Is Indignant and Varieties of Disturbance, which was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award. In fact, two of the longest stories in the second half of The Collected Stories are explicitly written in the form of linguistic or sociological studies: “Helen and Vi: a Study in Health and Vitality” and “We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders.”  

In the hands of a weaker writer, these methods would result in stories as dry and flavorless as saltines, but Davis at her best makes us question not only why we read in the first place, but what it is about ourselves that spurs us to chase constantly after meaning. To put it another way, most stories allow readers to be passive—all they have to do is keep track of the events and the characters’ names—but by the end of a good Davis story, the question the reader might ask (“What was the point of that?”) is actually the point.

This is particularly true of Davis’ shorter works, little nuggets as short as a sentence that at their best startle and probe the reader in the way a good parable does. These purposefully incomplete, elliptical summaries/vignettes/scenarios force the willing reader to fill in the missing pieces.

While books as long as The Collected Stories’ 752 pages are typically beach reads involving wizards or vampires, her stories—like those of her literary forebears Borges, Dickinson, and Bernhard—should be nibbled rather than devoured. After reading a few, what you begin to realize is that sometimes the most intriguing gun is the one that doesn’t fire at all.

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, hardcover, 752 pgs. List price $30.


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