Everything else is a glimpse into a dysfunctional, almost fractured mind that is sharpened by both its failings and its resilience. The literary result is obviously too evolved for a category to describe what Lydia Davis does with words, which is why she has been categorised as a short story writer.
Ali Smith, a fiction writer herself, probably came the closest when she came up with the term ‘prose stylist’ for Davis. That almost describes what she does. Almost, because the writer can invoke enough power with a single unpunctuated sentence hunched in the corner of a page to throw you into sudden despair. However, before you even know you have fallen flat on your face, she has moved on to an absurd snippet of humour, giving you no choice but to get up and follow.
‘The Letter’, best described as a window that opens up longer than expected into the lives of two people paying the price of hoping for a happy ending, is savagely sliced in the middle with the insertion of a series of sketches called ‘Extracts from a Life’ (Both from Break it Down, 1986). They read like notes that will make you laugh out loud at her childlike simplicity of how her love for grownups is born out of sympathy only because they will die or at how her encounter with Tolstoy left a bad aftertaste but thankfully she was saved by Dr Einstein. The childlike expression ensures you that she is not guilty in any way of jumping on the surrealism bandwagon. The contrast also shows a complex mind at work that throws you off balance.
The anthology is, however, premised on a contradiction as it tries to string together her collections in a linearity that does not surface, if it all, in her writing. The publishers themselves admit it was a task to collect her work since both the author and her work have an intrinsic elusiveness. “… I had been alone in that apartment so much by then that I had retreated into some kind of inner, unsociable space” from ‘Blind date’ in Almost No Memory.
The collection does mark her evolution as a writer — from her first collection Break it Down published in 1986 to Varieties of Disturbance in 2007 — you witness the understanding and control she acquires over her expression, how she masters it until eventually she emerges as a creator of her own language. She strips it. Layers that writers use as covers; she cuts them loose. Lydia Davis’ language today is naked and immaculately sculpted. You see the beauty of a semi colon, the grace of a comma that adds a silent understanding. How a period does not bleed out your imagination but adds to it. It also showcases the fact that the themes that she had picked are regulars. But they grow up with her too. She knew in her first publication the pain of happiness. But it’s a woman who is starting to understand loss with a more silent assertiveness in Almost No Memory. The same anthology makes the use of food as a sinister force that channels her confusion and anger. Her inner child is also retreating, scared of the wrath that is displayed in ‘Meat, My Husband’ or when she gives ‘Examples of Remember… that thou art but dust’.
This is how I discovered Lydia Davis, in Varieties of Disturbances: “I put that word on the page, but he added the apostrophe,” from ‘Collaboration with Fly’.
By that time her characters were not masked versions of her own disappointments and most had names and lives outside of her. Thematically, she had steered towards a direction that marked the beginning of a woman’s journey towards self-actualisation, transcending the ordinary human loss and meekly stepping into the metaphysical. Her horizon had broadened, the pain that accumulated over the years solidified into a foundation where she has arrived but it’s too strange a journey for her to not take.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 4th, 2013.
Like Express Tribune Magazine on Facebook, follow @ETribuneMag on Twitter to stay informed and join the conversation.
Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.
For more information, please see our Comments FAQ