Friday, August 10, 2012

Yesterday with Lydia Davis (or, what I do in school these days)

The menu
"Story", by Lydia Davis

Lydia Davis’ “Story” is a five-paragraph metafictional text about an argument between lovers. The narrator, a woman, has received a message from her lover telling her that he would not be visiting her that evening. 

The narrative, an interior monologue, portrays the woman’s point of view. Davis uses this device to great effect. The reader closely follows the narrator’s thinking process and thus becomes privy to her obsessive reasoning processes. At the same time, however, she is portrayed as scrupulously reflective and sincere in her desire to “figure things out”. This makes the reader sympathetic toward the narrator’s unusual, pathological behavior.

The first three paragraphs are an account of what the narrator thinks and does after receiving her lover’s message. She drives to his home and, when she finds that he isn’t there, leaves a note at the door. She succeeds in calling him up and learns he had gone to the movies with an old girlfriend. He promises to call back, but when he doesn’t, the narrator attempts to call him twice, and decides to drive to his house. He comes out, and tells her that his ex-girlfriend is sitting in his room, talking to him about something that is troubling her. 

The fourth paragraph begins with the narrator saying, “I try to figure things out.” But instead of figuring out what she wants from her lover, or out of their relationship, she merely tries to figure out how to align what she thinks are the the truths he had told her, with those that she believes are lies. She tries to align the reality in her head (that is, she is in a relationship with this “lover”, and that the relationship subsists) with the events she had just narrated (which suggest there is no real commitment; if the narrator and her “lover” are in a relationship, then it is one that is grossly disadvantageous to her, and must therefore end). 

After telling the reader that, “He (the lover) says the only reason she (the ex-girlfriend) is there is that something is troubling her and he is the only one she can talk to about it,” the narrator reports that the lover says:

“You don’t understand, do you?”

This statement makes for dramatic irony. On the one hand, it could mean what the narrator intends it to mean--that she doesn’t understand why he is the only person the ex-girlfriend could speak to about her troubles. On the other hand, there is also the possibility that the lover is trying to make her understand that he is not committed to an exclusive relationship with the narrator. This is suggested by all the details previously narrated by the woman in stream-of-consciousness fashion--her eagerness to seek him out; his all-too-casual dismissal of her during their argument over the phone; his unfulfilled promise to call him back; “the fact that he does not tell [the narrator] the truth all the time”. 

In the last paragraph, the reader realizes that the narrator is not intent on figuring out “the truth”, but only “if what he is telling me is the truth or not,” so that she can “come to some conclusions about such questions as: whether he is angry at me or not; if he is, then 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 light of the narrative situation, this last statement seems to comment on what we think as “fact” and “non-fact” (fiction, a “story”) in daily life--that is, in our relationships with other human beings. It suggests that what happens in a relationship--for example, in an argument--and one’s account of that relationship (argument) do not necessarily coincide, and what one might claim to be truth, is only always perspectival. This is what makes the story metafiction.  The pathos of the story and the sympathy that the author is able to generate for the narrator come from the realization that the narrator is trapped by her own thought processes, and desperately trying to get out of it (the desperation to seek out the lover, “to figure things out”). 

The use of interior monologue and dramatic irony are particularly effective ways to underscore the point that each person has no absolute view of the truth, and is perfectly capable of deceiving, not only another, but the self “in the act, and after the act in the telling.”

p.s. Yesterday's nightmare, courtesy of this story. Lydia Davis stories tend to screw up my mind.

No comments:

Post a Comment