BREAK IT DOWN by Lydia Davis

reviewed by C.J. McCarthy

RECENTLY, LYDIA DAVIS has deservedly gained acclaim for her collection of short fictions Almost No Memory (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997). In the early Eighties she was known mainly for her outstanding translations of some of the most important authors of modern French literature, Blanchot and Leiris amongst them. The mark of their resilient fictions is as evident in Break It Down, her breakthrough collection, as that of such American masters of shorter fiction as Abish, Barthelme and Cheever.
The blurb touts these 34 pieces as her ‘debut’ collection, but in fact it includes pieces culled from her three earlier books, The Thirteenth Woman (1976), Sketches for a Life of Wassily (1981), and Story and Other Stories (1983). Davis displays narrative and linguistic virtuosity in the range of approaches she takes to her material-from prose poem-like vignettes to interior monologues to fragmentary portraits. Even without its title, the collection’s binding concern is cleara determination to disintegrate the cosy dichotomies a neurotic age insists on appealing to: fear and threat, action and thought, desire and satisfaction, memory and aspiration.

Lydia Davis 


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If any other general comment can span the remarkable stylistic and intellectual scope of these pieces, it is that the author is less interested in the drama of action than that of analysis. The reader rarely accompanies a protagonist or narrator through a sequence of events, but rather is audience to a series of subsequent analyses. In the title story, for instance, reviewing a brief, intense relationship, a man attempts to tally the sex with the money he spent while with the woman. But (as for so many of Davis’ characters) the experience exceedsindeed resistsprecise evaluation; the more he strives to identify a finite number of events or acts, the more the relationship emerges as part of a flux which preceded and survived this encounter. Indeed, the narrator’s persistent efforts at evaluation are testimony to this:

So it’s not really $100 a shot because it goes on all day, from the start when you wake up and feel her body next to you … And it’s still all a surprise and it never stops, even after it’s over, it never stops being a surprise. It’s more like you have a good sixteen or eighteen hours a day of this going on, even when you’re not with her it’s going on … you can’t go off and look at some old street or some old painting without still feeling it in your body …

Such hindsight is, of course, complemented by developments subsequent to the remembered events. In “The Bone” a woman remembers seeing a young doctor remove a fish-bone from her husband’s throat:

More than ten years have passed since then, and my husband and I have gone our separate ways, but every now and then, when we are together, we remember that young doctor. ‘A great Jewish doctor,’ says my husband, who is also Jewish.

The sense conveyed in this, the piece’s final line, is that the bond between husband and wife has proved less durable than that between husband and doctor. Such finely-nuanced touches abound in these pieces-touches one is liable to miss if disarmed by their cool, playful, at times almost casual air, the effect of eschewing excessive sympathy for ruthless, systematic observation of her characters.
The natural landscape of Break It Down is a predatory one; so prevalent are images of decay that any hope for endurance (be it of a house, a memory or a relationship) seems futile. Equally, it is a world where little, accumulated certainties must fill the place of general truths:

Maybe the truth does not matter but I want to know it only so that I can come to some conclusions about such questions as: whether he is angry at me or not; if he is how angry; whether he still loves her or not; if he does, then how much; whether he loves me or not; how much; how capable he is of deceiving me in the act and after the act in the telling.

In one piece after another, this distinction between the recollection and the recollected is ruthlessly broken down. Ignoring the actual text of a letter, its handwriting, envelope and addressing are scrutinized in an attempt to reconstruct the physical act of its composition and the intentions of its author. Prospective conversations are rehearsed in advance, past conversations dissected, in the process only rendering their meaning all the more ambiguous. In rehearsing or resuscitating the speakers, Davis’ characters are simultaneously expending and expanding their desire, attempting to maintain some sense of relationship with others:

I sit down and write in my notebook that when he calls me either he will then come to me, or he will not and I will be angry, and so I will have either him or my own anger, and this might be all right, since anger is always a great comfort, as I found with my husband.

Among the forms Davis uses are those of the fable and the parable, playing ironically on the sense of unity and nostalgia these forms evoke. Simultaneously, she uses the cadence and symmetry of those forms to convey the sense of inevitability her characters experience, as in “In A House Besieged” (given here complete):

In a house besieged lived a man and a woman. From where they cowered in the kitchen the man and woman heard small explosions. ‘The wind,’ said the woman. ‘Hunters,’ said the man. ‘The rain,’ said the woman. ‘The army,’ said the man. The woman wanted to go home, but she was already home, there in the middle of the country in a house besieged.

Where her material will be served by it, Davis resorts to a whole gamut of styles and approaches. Irony, anachronism and hyperbole, for instance, are used only ever as a way of illuminating interpretation:

Of course any daughter, crying in the hour of her birth, is only a failure, and is greeted with a heavy heart by her father, since the man wanted two sons. He tries again: again it is only a daughter. This is worse, for it is a second daughter; then it is a third, and even a fourth. He is miserable among females. He lives, in despair, with his failures.

Typically here, Davis’ achievement is in maintaining sympathy for the father and daughter’s mutually dependent sense of failure while criticizing its origin. In short, there is no use of the many narrative strategies or devices merely to impress: where it might have proved merely witty to offer paranoias as literal representations, for instance, Davis uses this as a way of depicting a narrator determined to see purpose behind general phenomena:

People of all ages are hired by the city to act as lunatics so that the rest of us will feel sane. Some of the lunatics are beggars too, so that we can feel sane and rich at the same time.

Time after time, Davis explores such self-obsession without succumbing to its solipsisms.
In the community of isolated minds which makes up the cast of Break It Down, the possibility of communication is only ever conveyed obliquely. Perhaps the best example of this is the deceptively simple “French Lesson I”, which describes a rural French scene as a method of introducing the ‘student’ to a number of simple French nouns. In the course of the lesson, the narrator/teacher proposes that languages do not share any definite community of meaning, and refuses to accept that ferme and farm are equivalents, for instance insisting they derive their significance from the landscapes they are respectively home to. As the story progresses, however, a process of tacit association is used to reveal what began as idyllic as yet another potential scene of anxiety and violence. That is to say, the story can only ‘work’ on the basis that the readers will sense this—that is, that there is the possibility of a shared community of meaning. In this collective portrait of the complexity of human relationships, that between author and reader is no less complex or compelling than any other.

C.J. McCarthy

A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Fiction