Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The End of the Story by Lydia Davis

Since a bunch of her books arrived at once on the hold shelf at my library, I’ve been on a bit of a Lydia Davis tear. This book is her only novel and it was published in 1995, though the book feels like it could be set in the 1970s.

Like her short stories, The End of the Story is feels very much like an internal monologue happening in an unidentifiable time, cold and fluid. The main character is trying to write a novel about a love affair she had with a man 12 years her junior, a student at the college where she worked. She tells the story in bits, interspersed with ruminations on the relationship and on writing the relationship. It’s difficult to get a firm grip on the narrator, but passages like this one give you some idea, and also make you (me) laugh with recognition: “At first I thought this novel should be like the sort of novel I admire… In that novel, the characters only walk in and out of rooms, look through doorways, arrive at apartments, go up and down stairs, look out windows from inside, look in windows from outside, and make brief remarks to each other that are hard to understand.” At least if you think what kind of books a person likes tells you something about them, as does the narrator.

In fact, she wonders if what and how her former lover read was what drew her him, one of the many possibilities she ponders. The fact that she has to wonder should tell you something about this book. In fact, the relationship seems quite trivial, and the man quite lame, despite all the thinking about it—since this book is really about writing and memory, it almost doesn’t matter. When the narrator reflects on the larger trajectory of her life, it all seems to follow from the obsession with the story she is trying to get out. Davis has a certain cutting way with these passages and they feel very real: “There seemed to be three choices: to give up trying to love anyone, to stop being selfish, or learn how to love a person while continuing to be selfish. I do not think I could mange the first two, but I thought I could learn how to be just unselfish enough to love someone at least part of the time.”

Despite the distance I felt from the characters, I really liked this book. I wanted to slog through the thoughts and be immersed in a struggle I find really intriguing. The end was really well done and effectively pulls you out of the head of the narrator while confirming that that is where you’ve been all along. Cool.

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