Wednesday, January 26, 2011

1-2-3 What Are We Writing For? - #7

STORY: "The Family" by Lydia Davis
FROM: ALMOST NO MEMORY (Picador USA, 2001, © 1997)
BASICALLY: An experimental story in which a maybe biracial family goes to the park. Something horrible possibly happens but I wouldn't swear to it. The family members are not named, but each action by each member is numbered.

Lydia Davis likes to be weird, and I admire that. She's fond of leaving her characters unnamed, of irony, of overt structural meta-commentary, and of strained relationships. She maps the circuitous routes of mental mastication, the way a thought keeps building on itself. I think her voice must have first struck me when I discovered it around 2001 because I was so accustomed to male experimental voices—Donald Barthelme, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges—and Davis was as confident and interesting as any of them, but palpably different in the way she traced the refractions between people, the way she expressed female identity.

Davis writes stories (or aphorisms) that are only a single line long, and stories (or parables) that are a paragraph, and longer short stories. But she doesn't write stories that follow established rules. She doesn't conform to norms. She has the capacity to genuinely surprise you.

The thing about breaking new ground, though, is that there's often a cost. Not everything works. A lot doesn't work at all. Of course, even failed experiments can suggest the possibility of a story that could work using that technique. Sometimes the point of experimental fiction isn't the story being told—Bitsy's in love with Dippy but Dippy loves Bootsy, yadda yadda—instead, it's about the fictional mode itself. Using the medium to examine the way we see and reveal ourselves through the medium.

With all that said, I have to admit that I don't entirely know what to make of "The Family." I picked it more or less at random, and I'm sure there are plenty of other pieces that I could have raved about, but it seems like Davis has sacrificed all the things that are enjoyable about reading a story for making an inscrutable commentary about structure and objective voice.
That sounds exactly as exciting as it is!

The story opens by setting the scene: "In the playground near the river, toward evening, in the lowering sun, on the green grass, only one family." She doesn't say that the children are swinging, but reports on the sound the swings make and how the shadows of the "swinging children foreshorten, fly over the grass into the weeds." It's all elegant and spare—so far so good.

Then Davis starts describing what each person in the scene is doing. I presume they are all part of the one family? Though they don't seem like much of a family, and maybe when she said "only one family" she meant it in the sense that there are a bunch of people, but only one group happens to be related to one another. I can't quite tell. Characters include: fat young white woman, white baby, little black boy, older (than little black boy) black girl, young black man, long-haired white girl, tall bony wrinkled mustachioed white man in baseball cap, and older white man (wait, nevermind, I think he's the same as the mustachioed man, and he's got a walkie-talkie so I think he's a security guard). Got all that straight?

These characters—maybe a family and a security guard, or maybe not—all interact with one another, and their actions are listed numerically with absolutely no elaboration or explanation. Have a taste, won't you?
(23) White girl squirms in arms of young white woman, breaks free and runs again, crying, toward river. (24) Black girl, taller, follows, overtakes her, lifts and carries her back. (25) Young white woman holds white girl who struggles, hair covering her face, while (26) black girl swings on swing holding white baby, and (27) white man stands still, back hunched, hips forward, eyes invisible under visor of baseball cap. (28) Young black man goes off toward concrete hut in setting sun and (29) returns to call out to white woman, who (30) leaves white girl and follows after him with baby to concrete hut while (31) black girl continues to swing alone and
…It goes up to (47), in case you were wondering. I don't think I'll be spoiling anything to say that, in the end, the family leaves the park.

But hey. I'm not wanting to merely mock this effort. I think that as story—you know, from a reader's perspective—it's pretty snooze-inducing. I don't know why these people go to that concrete hut. I'm not sure what relation they all have to one another. There's some kind of conflict-ish-type-thing, but I really couldn't say what it is. And the only curiosity that propels me forward is the literal sequence of numbers.
But…"The Family" does have some things going for it. By lacking most of the things we normally associate with story, like character development and motivation, it draws our attention to the inner workings. How to get from one place to another, how strange it is to see characters described as combinations of race and sex (which makes me think that maybe names are just window dressing, or shorthand, and I'd never thought about it in that way before…Hmm…) Here is narrative filleted wide open, all the blood drained out, and with neat labels pointing to this specimen's forty-seven parts
Of course, it's a loathsome but very real possibility that I am simply Missing the Point. (Noooo!) After I'd read the story a couple of times, I noticed that the blurb on the back of my book says, "In 'The Family,' one horrifying afternoon in the park is succinctly described in forty-seven human actions." Er, what? When did something horrifying happen? I mean, there was some unnecessary slapping of children, but…seriously, WHERE ARE THEY GETTING THAT? This is gonna drive me crazy. And then, the essay here remarks admiringly that the "staging, both visual and literary, fractures the story, at the same time displaying the desire to create order in a nonsensical or painful world." Which sounds pretty impressive, when you put it like that. There's a lot more than nothing here, it would seem
Davis has a way of opening a crack behind the story and, as it turns out, it's stories all the way down. Even if I haven't tempted you to go read Lydia Davis, you should absolutely go read this fantastic interview with her at The Believer—her brain is chock full of interesting things to say, and they are eloquently said, believe me.


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