by Weston Cutter
I wish, like James Wood, I could remember the moment I first experienced Lydia Davis (assumedly, Eggers remembers the first moment, too), but I can’t. I know I saw her name in some other author’s interview, and I know that the first thing of Davis’s that I loved wasn’t, in fact, one of her electrical and mercurial stories, but her novel The End of the Story, which knocked me several steps up or down from wherever I was—that was like 10 years ago.
Surely you know Lydia Davis—MacArthur grantee, published everywhere, Auster’s ex-, Proust translator, and now, thanks to FSG, someone whose work (the majority of it—all the stories, anyway) you can buy in one fell hard-cover swoop.
You probably saw the Woods’ effusivity a couple weeks back about Davis, and regardless of the surprise that Woods like someone like Davis’s writing, I think he’s pretty spot-on in characterizing her work as deeply, astonishingly of-the-self/selfish. Even the trickiest of her stories, the ones that only barely adhere as ‘story’ (at least as typically conceived), demand some narrative self underlying all of it. Here, from Samuel Johnson is Indignant, is the entirety of “They Take Turns Using a Word They Like”:
“It’s extraordinary,” says one woman.
“It is extraordinary,” says the other.
Seriously: just dig that little bit. Start with the fact that the mundanity of the situation totally upends or ironically shatters the word they’re bothering to repeat, but past that it’s better: that title, and how we’re left aware, because of it, that speech (and, from there, that interest, that evaluation of what’s ordinary and extra-) may or may not have something purely to do with pleasure, with using a word we like. Plus there’s the social construct around it, too: maybe we love and hate who we love and hate simply because we’re all fond of words similarly, akin to how we gravitate toward those with whom we share interests in sports teams.
All this, I fully submit, is headier and more involved than a ‘typical’ short story’s gonna ask of the reader, but Davis is, I think it’s fair and safe to say, absolutely loading her stories with these sorts of questions and ideas—is loading her stories up to seem and read like the top steps of ladders descending into considerations we likely haven’t had. It’s, of course, dicey to ask readers to this stuff—the threat of over-filligree-ing things and the (perceived or actual) snootiness of making story after story so cerebral. However: Davis is a master of exactly this stuff, and her stories end up less like what some of us may like stories to end up like (solid, rest-on-able, character/plot/theme/etc) and more like whispers you turn in an attempt to hear and keep just missing. Maybe that’s the highest compliment: there’s no fiction writer today more involved with building and inventing mystery. Buy the book.
I liked lots of Mallon’s Yours Ever through the first 146 pages, but page 147 was what knocked me flat out:
“In the realm of love, however, e-mail’s most peculiar characteristic is the way it so often
becomes not a means to romance but the entirety of any involvement. The e-ffairs into
which so many postmodern people stumble are, like the chaste pen-palships of times past,
relationships sufficient unto themselves, whereas epistolary romances traditionally sought
their own extinction—the moment when physical separation would end, along with each
party’s need to write to the other.”
Maybe it’s just me, but the insight astounded me, and I realized that though I’d been largely enjoying the first half of Mallon’s book, I hadn’t really noticed the complexity and depth at work re: letter writing.
Let’s say this: Mallon’s Yours Ever is probably as valuable a book as anybody on the anti-Kindle bandwagon could hope for. Not that he’s expressly plowing any of that territory, but it’s hard to read Yours Ever without feeling, page-by-page, some distant dinging tang of ache not for letters themselves, but for the system and style and manner they were embedded within (not to sound too old or fuddy-duddy or anything, but you read this and then cut to some local story about teenagers sexting each other and you sort of go mentally hobbled).
Here’s how the book works: in nine chapters, organized by theme (Absence to Friendship to Advice to Complaint to Love to Spirit to Confession to War to Prison), the reader’s given essentially a long and awesome walk through people s/he should already be interested in, or, with just the right stimulant, will be—we get F. Scott Fitzgerald and Meghan Daum, get Rilke and Clemens/Twain, get Heloise and Abelard, Freud and Jung, and Hanff and Doel (84, Charing Cross Road). Maybe most interestingly and excitingly, Richard Nixon comes through, by the end, as one of the most compellingly interesting characters in the book.
The book is, in the best way, an active a physical reminder—not necessarily just of the stuffy, mannered times past, when letters were easier and more common (and the USPS, subsequently, not quite in such an intense budget crunch), but of a time when more people bothered reflecting, bothered putting pencil to paper and transforming thought into narrative (insert start of argument here re: how the infinite amount of space now available for writing diminishes it—one blog’s just as good as the next and etc.). If the book works for most of us the way I’d expect it does or will, you’ll want, at the end, to write to someone you care about, and maybe offer a book recommendation.