Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Books: The End of the Story, by Lydia Davis

Only three or four pages in, I knew that I was going to hate this book. I was on the fence about reading it in the first place, it being from a female author, and on the topics of memory, loss, and love (a dangerous and boggy territory for any writer, but for women in particular). In fact, because I had no recollection of how this book made its way onto my reading list (the person I thought recommended it has denied ever even hearing the name Lydia Davis, much less recommending this, her first novel; nor did it come, where some crappier recommendations have, from Slate, to which I pay much too much attention, but which hasn't mentioned Davis since I began reading it), I considered, after the first 40 pages, to add it to the short list of books I'd started but didn't finish. I could see that I wasn't going to get a thing out of it, except an evening lost. So, being myself, I decided to call the evening lost, power through, and finish the goddamned thing then and there.

It wasn't until I sat down to blog this morning that I found out that Davis, the tedious, insecure, neurotic, depressive, and ugly (sorry, low blow I know) creator of this sad, lonely diary parading itself as a novel is not only a McSweeny's author (really, there is no way; I refuse to believe it), and not only a successful translator (the creator of newly acclaimed Proust), but the ex-wife of Paul Auster (really?!), and, to top it all off, a recipient of a bloody MacArthur genius grant. If she's a genius, I'm MacArthur.

Okay okay okay. So what, exactly, about this book fills me with such disdain? Davis takes advantage of the post-modern tendency toward self-consciousness and, rather than building up a riveting, wry, impressive, shocking edifice only to tear it down and build it again from the pieces, as regularly do writers like Barth, Pynchon, Foster Wallace, Eggers, etc. (all men, it's true, but I can't help that), she catalogs her fretting about wanting to write, and calls that collected fretting a novel. Devils advocates will argue that Eggers frets aplenty in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius—beginning in the very introduction!—but I shoot back to them that it's not the same. Eggers' fretting works to propel the story; many things happen in A Heartbreaking Work. In The End of the Story, nothing happens. Paragraph after paragraph describe Davis' painstaking process: "I don't know why I need to reconstruct all this. . ."; "I have tried to find a good order, but my thoughts are not orderly. . ."; "I am trying to separate out a few pages to add to the novel and I want to put them together in one box, but I'm not sure how to label the box. . ."; "And every idea had to be written down so that I would not forget it, even though I knew that later some of these ideas wouldn't seem worth remembering." Lady, here's a hint: none of these ideas are worth remembering. They're not worth writing down. They're not even ideas! Buy a goddamned remote control and turn off the inner monologue!

Perhaps this is what happens when you spend too much time with (fussy, self-obsessed, neurasthenic) Proust. He, too, is on my short list of books I began and never finished, but I intend to finish not only the half-read Swann's Way, but also the entire seven volumes of À la recherche du temps perdue. Perhaps I'll try Davis' translation, since I didn't have much luck with Scott Moncrieff. Perhaps she'll redeem herself.

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