Lydia Davis recently won this year’s Man Booker International Prize, and a pavement-born wave of clammy guilt and embarrassment washed over me because I wasn’t familiar with her works. I bookmarked a few of her pieces published on various literary journal websites to add to the ever-growing and overgrowing list of essays, poems, and short stories that I hoard. The act of adding another work to the list makes me feel productive, comfortable, and well-read even though I always laugh as I do it, knowing I’m only kidding myself that I’ll read any of them. The laughs get heartier as the list grows longer.
But when I read Davis’ writing “blows the roof off of so many of our assumptions about what constitutes short fiction,” I stopped adding her (very) short stories to my bookmarks. It’s not often, or ever, that I read a piece of fiction “blows the roof off” of anything. I kept the article announcing her prize open in a browser tab. When that happens, I’m not able to close the tab until I give its contents the attention they deserve. These standoffs have lasted weeks.
In this case, the tab stayed open only overnight, and after seeing a link the following afternoon on The Paris Review Daily to a recording of James Salter reading Davis’ “Break It Down,” I knew this was my chance. After a quick listen, I could bring up in casual conversation with people that couldn’t care less, “Did you see that Lydia Davis won the Man Booker International Prize this year? You should check out ‘Break It Down.’” This ability to flaunt my literary pursuits, this channeling of Amory Blaine’s rather naïve preoccupation to achieve social standing using his erudition, is all I really wanted. Unbeknownst to me, consuming Davis’ work would give me a bit more substantive experience, though it left me feeling almost equally as neurotic.
I loaded Salter’s saunter through Davis’ “Break It Down” onto my iPod to keep me company as I moved at what I hope would be a substantially quicker pace on several miles of a recreational greenway later in the day. At the time of populating the iPod, I paid little attention to the only file already on it—an unlistened lecture entitled “Kierkegaard and Young Adult Anxiety” given by a fellow named Will McDavid who’s on staff at Mockingbird in Charlottesville. When I hit the play button while tightening the laces on my bright blue Adidas Adioses, it was Davis’ work that appeared first.
But it doesn’t matter which audio file, “Break It Down” or Kierkegaard, came first in the iPod’s rotation on my run. The relationship of Davis’ story to the Danish philosopher’s teachings–sex to ethics, decay to hope, untruths to truth–is what left enough of an impression to recount the happenstance juxtaposition, a conflicting dialogue best illustrated in a call and response format common to the church Kierkegaard often criticized.
Davis: The ticket was $600. And after that there was more for the hotel and food and so on, for just 10 days. Say, $80 a day. No, more like $100 a day. And we made love, say, once a day. On the average, that’s $100 a shot. And each time it lasted maybe two or three hours, so that would be anywhere from $33 to $50 an hour, which is expensive.
McDavid: People aren’t investing all of their emotional resources in the economy or in video games or in celebrity gossip because they’re just greedy or eager for distraction or gossipy. They’re doing it because religion…has too often failed to give a plausible account of the world—a kind of emotional plausibility.
Davis: You’re with each other all day long, and it keeps happening, the touches and smiles. And it adds up. It builds up and you know where you’ll be that night. You’re talking and every now and then you think about it. No, you don’t think, you just feel it as kind of a destination, what’s coming up after you leave wherever you are all evening.
And you’re happy about it, and you’re planning it all.
McDavid: Gerald Heard wrote, “As life has no meaning, we shall increase amusements until everyone is so distracted that they won’t be able to think even of their own deaths. This is of course pathetic nonsense, and were it not such wishful thinking, no rational being could maintain it for a moment.”
Davis: But it isn’t over when it ends. I mean, it goes on after it’s all over. She’s still inside you like a sweet liqueur. You’re filled with her. Everything about her has kind of bled into you–her voice, her smell, the way her body moves. It’s all inside of you, at least for awhile after.
Then you begin to lose it, and I’m beginning to lose it. You’re afraid of how weak you are, that you can’t get her all back into you again, and now the whole thing is going to be out of your body, and it’s more in your mind than in your body. The pictures come to you one by one, and you look at them. Some of them last longer than others.
McDavid: But this sort of modern hunger for meaning…can also be phrased as anxiety. In a world where we can’t be sure of anything…, we fear meaninglessness above all else. But anxiety is different than just fear. You can be afraid of an impending bear attack, for example. But anxiety makes a lot more sense in the context of the fear of personal failure in something.
Davis: But you can kill it too, even by thinking about it too much, though you can’t help but thinking about it nearly all the time. And then when the pictures start to go, you start asking some questions, just little questions that sit in your mind without any answers. Like, why did she leave the light on when you came to bed one night, but it was off the next, but she had it on the night after that, and she had it off the last night? Why? And all the questions, little questions that nag at you like that.
McDavid: Anxiety is reflective. It’s always related to the self. Fear is about danger, but anxiety is a special kind of fear. It’s a fear of our own failure, of not measuring up, of coming out on the wrong end on the performance spectrum.
Davis: If you have to figure in the bad times too, I don’t know. There weren’t any bad times with her, though. Maybe there was one bad time, when I told her I loved her. I couldn’t help it.
And immediately, right away after, she said, I love you too. And it sounded to me as if she didn’t mean it, a little flat. But then it usually sounds flat when somebody says, I love you too, because they’re just saying it back even if they do mean it. And the problem is that I’ll never know if she meant it. Or maybe someday she’ll tell me whether she meant it or not, but there’s no way to know now. And I’m sorry I did that. It was a trap I didn’t mean to put her in. And I can see it was a trap, because if she hadn’t said anything at all, that would have hurt me too, you know, as though she were taking something from me and just accepting it and not giving anything back. So she really had to. Even if just to be kind, she had to say it. And I don’t really know now if she meant it.
McDavid: In the examples I’ve given, anxiety is related to the future…. But in addition to the possibility of the future, there’s also a sense about the possibilities of the past—things that you regret from the past that, for some reason, make you anxious. So, think for a moment about a poor decision you made in the past or a damaging decision you made years and years ago—something you wish you could have done differently.
If anxiety is related to possibility, the thought that we could have done something differently is what produces it. And we always think we could have done something differently because on the surface, this makes us feel better. It keeps us from having to fully come to terms with the fact that we have messed up in some way.
Davis: We’d come to the end of it. Things always change, so this was really it. Over.
Maybe it works out all right. Maybe you haven’t lost for doing it. I don’t know. No, really, I mean, sometimes when you think of it, you feel like a prince really. You feel just like a king. And other times you’re afraid. You’re afraid not all the time, but now and then, of what it’s going to do to you. It’s hard to know what to do with it now.
Walking away I looked back once, and the door was still open. I could see her standing far back in the dark of the room. I could only really see her white face still looking out at me, and her white arms.
McDavid: Mary Karr, in her memoir Lit, talks about a time in her life when she felt small emotions instead of the big emotions. Specifically, she felt anxiety rather than sorrow. And that’s a powerful line because Kierkegaard, in a sense, is right. Knowing fully that you’re guilty of something produces sorrow. Your attempt to shield yourself from sorrow by thinking about how things might have gone differently is what actually produces anxiety.
Davis: You just look at it there and say, all right. I’ll take it. I’ll buy it. That’s what it is. Because you know all about it, before you even go into this thing. You know the pain is part of the whole thing. And it isn’t that we can say afterwards the pleasure was greater than the pain, and that’s why you’d do it again. That has nothing to do it. You can’t measure it, because the pain comes after and it lasts longer. So the question really is, why doesn’t the pain make you say, I won’t do it again, when the pain is so bad that you have to say that, but you don’t?
So I’m just thinking about it. How you can go in with $600, more like $1,000, and how you can come out with an old shirt.
McDavid: If you sort of accept the fact that it just went badly, there’s a sort of sorrow about it. There’s a guilt. “I messed up. I didn’t do as well as I thought I was going to.”
But there’s also a peace that comes from that–a deliverance from anxiety…a lot of times, anxious people want to know that they actually failed at something–that they’re guilty–because it takes out the second-guessing.
“As soon as guilt is posited…anxiety is gone, and repentance is there,” McDavid quoted again from Kierkegaard. “So how do we posit guilt in a way that it connects emotionally? In some sense, by meeting people where they are.”
I left my house for a run by myself, but I returned having met Davis and Kierkegaard — where they were, in their spaces. Alone, they’re a short story writer, novelist, and translator and a philosopher, poet, and critic. Together, they created a hunger for meaning that fueled anxiety, and this worthlessness produced in me a guilt of possibilities past.
I turned to Davis again after I crossed the threshold of my door. Perhaps Salter’s deep whispering and pregnant pauses made Davis’ story unnecessarily guilt-inducing, despite Kierkegaard’s lecturing that secured the feeling. I wanted a second opinion — in my own voice — or maybe I wanted further confirmation of a pain brought by my triviality. I found Davis’ “How He Is Often Right”:
Often I think that his idea of what we should do is wrong, and my idea is right. Yet I know that he has often been right before, when I was wrong. And so I let him make his wrong decision, telling myself, though I can’t believe it, that his wrong decision may actually be right. And then later it turns out, as it often has before, that his decision was the right one, after all. Or, rather, his decision was still wrong, but wrong for circumstances different from the circumstances as they actually were, while it was right for circumstances I clearly did not understand.
And I felt less than “often right” afterward. Maybe all of this thinking was wrong, after all, under the circumstances. I just wanted to go for a run.
I don’t know what Davis did, and she doesn’t either. In the words of Tennessee Williams, I needed a “bath-tub with hot water, as hot as [I] can stand it…to subdue the spasms” born from all of this second-guessing. And from the sweat, too.
I wonder if you can see the true depths of this story.
What a strange thing it is—the human brain![1. Davis, Lydia. “The Coachman and the Worm.”]