September 2011 Archives



Wow, what happened to the past two weeks? The last thing I remember it was two Sundays ago and I was thinking to myself, "Huh, the next few days will be pretty bus—" and the next thing I knew I was waking up in a ditch by the metaphorical tracks while a bullet train composed of book signings, broken computers, early-morning and late-evening meetings, social calls and looming deadlines, raced past my throbbing head. In the far distance, receding all the time, I could just make out the tiny shapes of overlooked blogging commitments I had passed somewhere along the way.

My commitment, for example, to re-read Beckett's could-be-called-a-Trilogy with blogging friend Anthony, who has by this late date posted his thoughts on both the first and second books. I can barely distinguish this commitment, way back last Wednesday, waving forlornly to me from a distant platform. I knew, though, that I wanted to take my time with this post even if it meant delaying, because Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable are among those books in my personal canon—the ones which sustain me, which arrived in my life at a key moment and changed my ideas about what's possible in literature and even in life. The ones whose lines and rhythms and bizarrely beautiful narrative voices reverberate in my brain as I go about my days. This, for example:

And I said, with rapture, Here is something I can study all my life, and never understand.

Or this:

And I myself will never lend myself to such a perversion (of the truth), until such time as I am compelled or find it convenient to do so. And I knew this swamp a little, having risked my life in it, cautiously, on several occasions, at a period of my life richer in illusions than the one I am trying to patch together here, I mean richer in certain illusions, in others poorer.

This re-read of Molloy, hurried and fragmented as it was, lived up to all my memories. A two-part, cyclical work, it has the most plot of any of these three books, which incidentally is not very much. We get two sections, both narrated in first-person by two different (but not all that different) men: the first is the ancient Molloy, who recalls his own name with difficulty; the second is Moran, who believes he is an agent sent to track down Molloy. Both men set forth, one after the other, on torturous, convoluted journeys—in many ways the same journey, since Moran attempts to follow in Molloy's footsteps—in which they persevere in spite of mental vagueness and rapid, inexplicable physical deterioration. Both men become obsessed along the way by seemingly irrelevant details—the best manner in which to suck sixteen stones in succession without sucking the same stone twice, for example. In the end both men, somehow, return to what we assume is their beginning point, although in both cases much has changed and this change exceeds their understanding.

This is the classic Beckettian "pointless journey," much like Mercier and Camier and Waiting for Godot. These are journeys in which a character seeks fiercely yet intermittently after something that never appears; something of which the traveler often loses sight or memory, which the reader suspects may not exist in the first place, and which the traveler would probably not reach even if it did.

Yes, I was straining towards those spurious deeps, their lying promise of gravity and peace, from all my old poisons I struggled towards them, safely bound.

I must admit that I find this construct oddly comforting, this idea that the objects of our obsessions are irrelevant to our overall experience—or, if not irrelevant, they are related in ways not immediately obvious, especially as they often go unexamined for long periods of time and our minds and bodies do not cooperate with our stated aims. Molloy knows, although he sometimes forgets, that he is trying to visit his mother: an ostensibly simple task. But he is unable to remember why he wants to visit her; he can barely remember his own name and doesn't recall if hers is the same; he can't ascertain whether the town in which he finds himself is the one where he (and she) live, and he is prone to getting distracted for months or possibly years at a time, being taken in by batty old ladies, or washing up on the seashore for months, perplexed by the stone-sucking dilemma. Likewise, private detective Moran believes that he's pursuing Molloy: a straightforward tail job. However, he's not even sure if his object's name is Molloy or Mollose: most of his "facts" on the case originate in his own imagination; he devotes most of his energy to bullying his son and housekeeper rather than constructing a plan; and in the end none of it matters anyway, as his legs inexplicably become stiffer and stiffer until he can barely move at all, and he abandons the search for Molloy in favor of dispatching his son for a used bicycle. Nothing is accomplished and nothing is known. And yet in the midst of the despair and laughter at this futility there are glimpses of an abiding attachment to human life.

I went on my way, that way of which I knew nothing, qua way, which was nothing more than a surface, bright or dark, smooth or rough, and always dear to me, in spite of all, and the dear sound of that which goes and is gone, with a brief dust, when the weather is dry.

All this is rife with the hilarity and horror of being a) such a rickety contraption as a human, who must b) glean your understanding of the world through flawed sense perceptions, and your reality is moreover c) divorced from standard assumptions about cause, effect, and continuity, but you must nevertheless d) shape your experience into some kind of coherent narrative, or else cease to speak at all. Beckett's work is often called "absurdist," but in my experience it's actually less absurd than most of us might like to believe. Instead, it seems to me an accurate picture of life without the mental filtering mechanisms we use to stay sane. The systems of habit and filtration we use to make sense of our world are so delicate and complex, and can veer off the rails with surprising ease—yet we take them for granted out of necessity, because otherwise even the simplest task would be impossible. We pretend, for example, that we are the same person from moment to moment, when our reality may be more fragmented and unpredictable ("A little dog followed him, a pomeranian I think, but I don't think so."). Or that we perceive the world and then narrate based on what we perceive, rather than creating or half-creating the world via our acts of perception and narration ("I resumed my inspection of the room and was on the point of endowing it with other properties when the valet came back..."). In the absence of these trusty shorthands, the task of communication, even with oneself, becomes daunting.

I felt more or less the same as usual, that is to say, if I may give myself away, so terror-stricken that I was virtually bereft of feeling, not to say of consciousness, and drowned in a deep and merciful torpor shot with brief abominable gleams, I give you my word.

Yet there is something in us which spurs us onward, so that we continue attempting until the very end, despite our inevitable failures and detours along the way. Despite the lack of externally-imposed meaning, and the gaping holes in any system we create to understand the world around us, we are compelled to continue trying, to continue shaping our narratives however we can, incorporating the contradictions and random-seeming obstacles that rise before and within us.

And of myself, all my life, I think I had been going to my mother, with the purpose of establishing our relations on a less precarious footing. And when I was with her, and I often succeeded, I left her without having done anything. And when I was no longer with her I was again on my way to her, hoping to do better next time. And when I appeared to give up and to busy myself with something else, or with nothing at all any more, in reality I was hatching my plans and seeking the way to her house.

Notes on Disgust
(For more information on the disgust project, see here.)

The subject of disgust in this novel would take another long post all on its own, and I have to admit that I often found myself swept away with the beauty and hilarity of Beckett's language to such an extent that I forgot to examine the sections that deal in disgust. They are there, though, and plenty of them. On my first read, I remember being struck by the repugnance of Moran's character, his cruelty to his son, and in particular the scene in which he gives his son an enema. There's also Molloy's allusions to the fact that he may have had sex with his ancient crone of a mother. On top of this is the obvious disintegration of both men's bodies throughout the course of their journeys; Molloy is elderly and Moran appears simply to be inexplicably disabled, but both are falling to pieces, and mixed up sexually and otherwise with other human bodies which are falling to pieces, such as the old whore who may or may not have been Molloy's one experience of "love" (whatever he means by that). At the time she approaches him,

I was bent double over a heap of muck, in the hope of finding something to disgust me for ever with eating...

If I were to hazard a hypothesis on not very careful analysis, it might be that disgust here is something unavoidable which must be accepted, no more or less "meaningful" than anything else in life (unless we make it so) and something which we are all bound to both feel, and to occasion in others. Molloy depicts an undifferentiated world, where questions and observations we normally filter out of our stories and our thoughts (why a person is not a landmark; whether we truly recognize our home towns) instead get dwelt upon compulsively and become ordering principles, substitutes for meaning. As such, the disgusting, which normally dwells in that undifferentiated mass outside normal boundaries, can be found wherever you look and is neither a sign of any particular quality, nor a deterrent to finding meaning there.

And if ever I'm reduced to looking for a meaning to my life, you never can tell, it's in that old mess I'll stick my nose to begin with, the mess of that poor old uniparous whore and myself the last of my foul brood, neither man nor beast.

Covering disgust


Here's an interesting little side-note to my ongoing disgust project: how to design a cover for a book about disgust? As I've been gathering together texts for the project, it's occurred to me that a designer working on a cover for a disgust book faces what could be a unique challenge: to communicate the content of the book by evoking disgust, while at the same time making the cover aesthetically appealing enough that a reader will actually pick the book up, rather than turning away in revulsion. It seems to me that no other emotion is by definition quite so difficult to reconcile with an advertising-style consumer appeal. Anyway, I thought it might be fun to look at a few different solutions to this dilemma.

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Daniel Kelly's Yuck! The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust (MIT Press, 2011) and Winfried Menninghaus's Disgust: Theory and History of a Strong Sensation (SUNY Press, 2003)

Solution #1: Instead of showing the disgusting object, show a person feeling disgust. It's an easy emotion to recognize, since, as both William Ian Miller and Robert Rawdon Wilson point out, "disgust face" (wrinkled nose, drawn-back top lip, extended tongue) seems to be pretty universal, even cross-culturally. I think it's interesting that in both these cases, the look and the disgusted person are themselves clean and inoffensive. The bodies portrayed are young, white, slender, and privileged (the man is wearing a suit) with not too much hair in the frame and skin that appears smooth and matte. The monochrome treatment of the photographs reduces their visceral quality—particularly that of the tongue on the Menninghaus cover, which is further neutralized by having the book's subtitle plastered over it. The monochrome also gives a faintly retro feel, especially to the man on the cover of the Kelly book. Both are without any specific visual background for context, which further reduces their immediacy.

In the Kelly image, the man seems to be disgusted at a glass of water or other clear liquid. We can imagine that he took a swig of gin when expecting water, or that he has added a few drops of foul-tasting medicine to his drink, but in general clear water is one of the least contaminating substances around. Whatever the man's source of disgust with his water glass, it's unlikely to infect the viewer.

I'd like to add that although I find both of these particular examples a bit "blah," inoffensive but not particularly appealing, there's no reason the "disgust face" cover couldn't be more striking if executed differently.

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Julia Kristeva's Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (Columbia University Press, 1984) and Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment (Dover Publications, 2005)

Solution #2: Portray the author, not the subject. Also used for plenty of Freud covers. Julia Kristeva may have written about the psychology of disgust and horror at the separation of mother from infant, but you can't tell by looking at her photograph, which depicts an earnest, thin, clean-looking white lady engaging in what appears to be thoughtful conversation, her mouth picturesquely forming a word and her head resting gently on her hand. The image of Kant communicates even less about him: a pensive eighteenth-century white gentleman with an emphasized cranium—the seat of both "judgment" and "critique," presumably. I'm guessing that the strongest attractive trait of a cover like this, is that anyone looking at the book will know that one is reading Kristeva, Freud, or Kant: bragging rights, in other words. (Although in the case of the Dover edition, we all know the most attractive thing about them is how delightfully affordable they are, which makes the lack of appealing covers pretty much beside the point.) Otherwise, these covers are fairly bland and communicate little about the themes or ideas addressed.

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Carolyn Korsmeyer's Savoring Disgust: The Foul and Fair in Aesthetics (Oxford University Press, 2011) and Sianne Ngai's Ugly Feelings (Harvard University Press, 2005)

Solution #3: Depict an object that could be disgusting, but in such an aesthetically appealing way that the attraction overcomes the repulsion. This is obviously a more subjective and riskier option, since the tipping point between aversion and attraction will be different for different people. Personally, though, both of these covers work well for me. They both communicate something about the content of the books, which in both cases has to do directly with unpleasant emotions including disgust; at the same time, they're both visually interesting and appealing enough to attract my interest even if I didn't know their subject matter. Unlike the covers we've looked at so far, these both use rich, bold color schemes and lettering that's integrated with the images. Unlike the covers above, they both portray objects that could actually be considered disgusting: a warty, tentacle-laden frog for the Korsmeyer, and a whole collection of deformed bodies (frog-headed man, woman with a body made up of tiny monsters) for the Ngai. Since it's a bit difficult to make out what's going on with the Ngai cover, here's a larger version:


I think this is actually quite disturbing! The humpy little four-legged beasts with human faces that make up the lower part of the woman's body and also mass across the bottom of the cover, violating the neat boundary between the green outer frame and the cream inner rectangle, are particularly grotesque, and their vast number only makes them more so. Malfunctioning and/or deformed bodies are traditionally a potent source of disgust, especially, as in the example of the little monster biting the toad-man's leg, when the boundaries between bodies are breached.

Yet both these covers manage to be (I think) aesthetically appealing overall—and they use some of the same tricks as the previous covers we've seen. Both reduce the visceral quality of the disgusting objects by evoking an antique (Korsemeyer) or retro (Ngai) feeling, whether by evoking classic biology texts with the line-drawing style of the frog, or by gesturing toward the fashions of bygone eras with the hat, coat, and hairstyle of the gun-wielding woman. The use of color, too, echoes that in the previous covers: the warts and tentacles on the Korsmeyer frog are rendered less visceral by being shown in two-tone green-on-green, and the unified olives, creams, and browns of the Ngai cover make the scene depicted less jarring. Both the gesture toward the old-fashioned and the flattening into simple, pleasing color schemes have the effect of distancing the viewer from the possible source of disgust—and any extra distance decreases the sense of threat and contamination that goes with disgust. These covers remind us we're looking at a representation rather than an in-the-world disgusting object, which allows us to appreciate them from an aesthetic point of view.

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George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier (Mariner Books, 1972) and Robert Rawdon Wilson's The Hydra's Tale: Imagining Disgust (University of Alberta Press, 1998)

Solution #4: Depict a non-disgusting aspect of the object of disgust. Both of these covers depict directly the object of disgust (the working, unwashed poor in the case of Orwell; the mythological Hydra in the case of Wilson), but they choose to portray a non-disgusting or less disgusting view of those objects. The poor folks on the Orwell cover look tired and dirty, but they are seen in the cleansing outdoors rather than inside their contaminated hovels, and their bodies are encased in long coats, decreasing their contact with the viewer. Certainly there is nothing in this cover to suggest the scenes of filth, food, and stench that so troubled Orwell (his host, for example, serves him bread with a thumb blackened from emptying chamber pots). Likewise, Wilson in his book discusses how the Hydra is an excellent symbol of disgust because of the decay and stench it leaves in its very footsteps; yet what is depicted here is several heads, not the rot and decay associated with it. Both many-headedness and the dirt of poverty could potentially be disgusting, less so than other facets of the same objects. What's more, these particular depictions don't push for the disgust reaction: the hydra's heads, for example, are shown upright and separated from one another, rather than slithering in an undifferentiated mass, and the design's lettering comes between the heads and the viewer.

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Martha Nussbaum's Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law (Princeton University Press, 2006)

Solution #5: Go ahead and depict the unattractive object even though it may alienate readers. In ways I think this is the most honest solution to the whole problem of covering disgust, and particularly appropriate for Nussbaum's book, since she is arguing (as I understand it; I have yet to read this) that allowing ourselves to be ruled by our feelings of shame and disgust is morally suspect and philosophically unsound. What's more, the person depicted is not particularly repulsive—merely a nude white lady whose body, with its dark under-eye patches, pendulous breasts and mild degree of flab, does not conform to social ideals of beauty. As almost all of us similarly fail to conform to beauty standards, Nussbaum's cover suggests one problem with allowing ourselves to act on our disgust for this woman: namely, that we are setting ourselves up to be objects of disgust in turn, and that almost everyone would receive the same treatment in this woman's place. Since Nussbaum is making a moral argument for confronting our assumptions about what it means to feel disgust, and what conclusions we can and cannot draw based on that feeling, I think this is a fairly representative cover, despite its lack of aesthetic appeal.

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William A. Cohen's Filth: Dirt, Disgust, and Modern Life (University of Minnesota Press, 2005)

Solution #6: Gesture toward the idea of contamination directly, rather than depicting an object. I think this cover is so clever: rather than working to reassure the viewer that she is seeing a representation rather than an in-the-world disgust object, it breaks down the "fourth wall" and creates the illusion that the corner of this pristine grey-on-white book has been soiled. The viewer/reader's emotions in the moments before she realizes the illusion might run the gamut from disappointment and frustration to judgment and revulsion—which range is a pretty good representation of our reactions to "filth" in the world more generally. Although I haven't read this yet, I can imagine that having this little experience before I ever pick up the book, might be a more accurate preview of what I'll find inside than most covers can provide. At the same time, the suggestion of unspecified dirt on the cover is not extreme enough to deter most readers from picking up the book, especially as the rest of the layout is appealingly clean and minimalist.

What did I miss? Do any other disgust-related covers leap out at you? I was surprised at the degree to which analyzing these covers brought up many of the issues I've been reading about in the actual texts!

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

book cover

Way back when, in the days before Evening All Afternoon, I wrote about being so struck by the unexpected meter and richly textured language of Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem "Pied Beauty" while, of all things, taking a standardized test, that I wrote down the first line of the poem on a piece of scrap paper and shoved it into my pocket. My discovery of Hopkins probably still takes my personal prize for most intense aesthetic experience in a testing environment; never mind that I got the answer wrong. Ever since then I've meant to explore his poetry more fully, and the time has finally come...although I must admit that it's coming slowly.

Not that "Pied Beauty" is an uncharacteristic example of his oeuvre. Far from it: if anything, I've been surprised by the extent to which every poem of Hopkins's seems to be utterly representative of the rest of his work. They are nearly all, like "Pied Beauty," deeply attuned to the natural world, and, like "Pied Beauty," almost all those written after 1875 are in Hopkins's characteristic sprung rhythm. (Sprung rhythm differs from normal English-language verse in that it counts total stresses per line rather than total syllables. So technically, you could have as many syllables in a poetic foot as you wanted, as long as only one of them were stressed—a trick beloved of Bob Dylan. You could also potentially have many single-syllable feet in a row.) Almost without exception, Hopkins's word choice is as rich and suggestive as in "Pied Beauty," and his syntax is often much more complex. And, possibly most defining of all, his fervent, sometimes tortured Catholicism is the raison d'être of all but a small handful of these verses.

My slow progress is, I think, down to a combination of the last two qualities: the sheer density and unexpectedness of Hopkins's imagery is a plus, but a challenging plus. The religiosity, I must admit, gives this religious agnostic pause when consumed in larger doses than a poem or two at a time. I can't help but feel this is a personal flaw (a great book can be about anything, after all, and I read plenty of novels by and about Christians), but there you have it. Fantastic imagery, compelling rhythm, lots and lots of Christ and the Christian god.


The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
   It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
   It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
   And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
   And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And, for all this, nature is never spent;
   There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
   Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastwards, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Yes, I chose to pull this poem because of the odd image of God's grandeur "oozing" oilily; there are a few things here that might tie into the disgust project. Before I go there, though, a little diversion into Hopkins's odd placement in time; to me, he almost seems to belong to any era except the late 1800s, when this poem was actually written. The sprung rhythm, although pioneered by Hopkins in modern verse, was something he claimed to have gleaned from old English folk songs and nursery rhymes. This, together with his love of alliteration, archaic word forms ("reck," "trod") and almost kenning-like compound forms (no great example in this poem, but "The Windhover"'s "dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon" leaps to mind) give his poetry a faux-medieval cast. The oddness and experimentalism of his versification strikes me as Modernist. The way in which he cleaves to the natural world in the face of human corruption ("nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things") strikes me as high Romantic, as does the sheer intensity of his spiritual angst. I suppose the religious piety itself is the only thing about Hopkins that comes off as particularly Victorian, if you don't count the seven years during which he refused to write poetry out of a sense of duty to his priestly order.

It makes that test question very devious, is all I'm saying.

In greater seriousness, what about the grandeur of God massing and oozing like oil? The image communicates well the pervasiveness Hopkins is getting at here—that the entirety of Creation is so super-saturated with God's grandeur that it seeps out of the world like oil from a crushed olive, and masses as it "gathers to a greatness." Like a staining sauce about to drip onto the carpet, or pitch seeping out of a wounded tree. So yes, hard to ignore, certainly. But also kind of gross, don't you think? Maybe "gross" is going too far, but disturbing. There's something disquieting about the idea of any substance "oozing" out of every surface around one, regardless of what that substance is. But come to think of it, there's also something a bit contradictory about even trying to imagine "grandeur" that "oozes." Grandeur as a bright flash "like shining from shook foil," yes: light is usually conceptualized as clean and illuminating, both Godlike qualities. It's hard to be contaminated by light, or even by fire. But oil, especially oil described as "oozing" (as opposed to, say, anointing), strikes me as both dirty and obscuring, more like the "blearing" and "smearing" of trade and toil a few lines later, than like anything grand or numinous.

I mean, personally, I quite like this image of an oozing, oily god. A very tactile, yet slippery god. One of the things that drew me to "Pied Beauty" was Hopkins's celebration of an imperfect, impure-seeming creation:

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                  Praise him.

Elsewhere, though—even elsewhere in this poem!—Hopkins seems to hew to the more traditional opposition between "freshness" of the natural world and man's "smudge" and "smell." The Holy Ghost broods with "bright wings," which associate the divine with both nature (birds' wings) and the light that flames out "like shining from shook foil" in the second line. Even in "Pied Beauty," my reading is that Hopkins is able to appreciate the odd and "fickle" because they are backed by the everlasting, uncorrupted being "whose beauty is past change."

So to associate the divine itself with oozing oil caught me off guard. I'm not sure what to do with it, but I quite like it. Maybe it's meant to suggest the dangerous aspect of God; after all, the following line is "Why do men then now not reck his rod?" where "reck" denotes concern or alarm, and the divine "rod" brings to mind that of Aaron (which turns miraculously to a serpent when laid before the Pharoah, then consumes all the rods of the Pharoah's sorcerers). So maybe the contaminating and dangerous elements of an "oozing" substance are reflected in the aspects of God that test and punish. "Crushed," in the Biblical tradition, brings to mind the serpent crushed under Christ's heel, which is echoed by the mention of the rod, and even something "flaming out" with purifying fire could be dangerous. These hints of threat and punishment seem an odd fit for Hopkins's theology, which at first flush appears more of the "Commune with the goodness of Nature and you're communing with the goodness of God" variety, but it's probably more complex than that. After all, the man did write a long poem appreciating the divine powers behind a shipwreck.

So, I continue along my slow way. I'll leave you with Hopkins being slightly more predictable but no less lingually delicious about the degeneration of humanity; I don't need to comment in-depth except that the penultimate line is one of my favorites in Hopkin's catalog thus far.


On ear and ear two noises too old to end
   Trench—right, the tide that ramps against the shore;
   With a flood or a fall, low lull-off or all roar;
Frequenting there while moon shall wear and wend.

Left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend,
   His rash-fresh re-winded new-skeinèd score
   In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl, and pour
And pelt music, till none's to spill nor spend.

How these two shame this shallow and frail town!
   How ring right out our sordid turbid time,
Being pure! We, life's pride and cared-for crown,

   Have lost that cheer and charm of earth's past prime;
Our make and making break, are breaking, down
   To man's last dust, drain fast towards man's first slime.

The End of the Story

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As a break from the theoretical turn Evening All Afternoon has been taking of late, let me rhapsodize straightforwardly about the numerous things I love in the writing of Lydia Davis. In particular, I've just finished her 2004 The End of the Story, which treats of the end, beginning, and aftermath (in that order) of a love affair, and also of the process of transforming that love affair into a novel.

I was particularly intrigued to pick up Davis's novel, as her stories tend to the radically succinct—one or two paragraphs each, a page or less. Nor is her work overtly expressive, consisting of schematic yet detailed accounts of a character's actions, surroundings, habits, or mental processes. Like Proust, whose Swann's Way she translated, Davis pays attention to nuance and is intrigued by the often-perverse twistings and turnings of the human psyche. Unlike Proust, her paragraphs tend to fit on one page, and can usually be enjoyed on their own as single, jewel-like units. While some writers are most impressive at the level of the sentence or the chapter, Davis shines on the level of the paragraph—either single paragraphs or, often, a longer paragraph followed by a shorter paragraph, which shows the earlier paragraph in a new light. It reminds me of the way haikus often work, with the last line casting the first two in a new perspective. In this paragraph pair, for example, the narrator is describing a dream she had just after embarking on the relationship around which the book revolves:

Later that night I dreamed I had found a short piece of his writing on the hall floor. It had a title page and my name on it and my address at the university. Most of it was plainly written, but it contained a passage about Paris in which the writing became suddenly more lyrical, including a phrase about the "shudder of war." Then the style became plain again. The last sentence was briefer than the rest: "We are always surprising our bookkeepers." In the dream, I liked the piece and was relieved by that, although I did not like the last sentence. Once I was awake, I liked the last sentence too, even more than the rest.
        I see now that since I hadn't yet read anything by him at the time of the dream, what I was doing was composing something by him that I would like. And although this was my dream and he did not write what I dreamed he wrote, the words I remember still seem to belong to him, not to me.

I find Davis's paragraphs so compelling because, while each one does suggest narrative motion, they are short enough that no real resolution is expected. They allow the reader simply to notice contradiction and live within it at the level of the thought or the moment, without requiring that contradiction to be resolved. Above, for example, the narrator observes the contrast between the lyrical passage and the plain writing that surrounds it; between the brevity of the final sentence and those that preceded it; between her opinions of the last sentence before and after waking. In the second paragraph we have the narrator's feeling that her dream-composition belongs to her ex-lover, which contrasts with her intellectual knowledge that it was created in her own mind. She doesn't seek to explain or interpret any of this in any explicit way, or decide that one impression is correct and the other incorrect. She simply lays out paradox in clean lines, and allows the reader to do with it what she will. I enjoy the aesthetics of art that simply dwells within contradiction, possibly because I find this so difficult to do in my own life.

Nor is it easy for Davis's narrator. Despite the detachment of the narrative style, and the fact that reading this book imparted to me a sense of calm, the narrator in her daily life appears anything but peaceful. She is anxious and high-strung, and her behavior both during and after the relationship is often less than admirable—although she seldom makes this explicit judgment herself, writing instead simply, "At that time I liked to drink. I always needed a drink if I was going to sit and talk to someone," or "Most of his friends were as young as he was, and [...] I did not regard people of that age as very interesting, even though I had been that age myself." Oddly, it's the understatement in Davis's prose that makes her depictions of depression and bad behavior particularly uncomfortable for me, as if, in calmly acknowledging these unattractive aspects of her own personality, the narrator is making room for me to do the same. The emotions felt at a given time are simply another piece of information to be recounted, no more freighted or difficult than anything else. Or, if they are more difficult, then this difficulty can in turn be acknowledged, and the narrator can live beside it.

But no matter how clearly I saw what I was doing, I would go on doing it, as though I simply allowed my shame to sit there alongside my need to do it, one separate from the other. I often chose to do the wrong thing and feel bad about it rather than do the right thing, if the wrong thing was what I wanted.

Although it can sometimes be sobering, Davis's un-emotive delivery can also be dryly hilarious. I was particularly tickled by her portraits of her own compulsive or inconvenient habits of thought, which often had me chuckling and insisting on reading passages aloud to my partner David. The same technique I outlined above, of returning to things previously discussed in order to cast them in a new light, can be extremely funny as well as meditative and thought-provoking, and Davis uses it in all these applications to good effect. My favorite humorous example of this technique, involving the narrator's confusion in the face of her own elaborate filing system for different types of fictional material, is too long to share here, but trust me, it's worth a read. Instead I'll give you this passage on lying awake scheming, which strikes me as both funny and a great union of form and content. Just as the brain of the sleepless narrator becomes more and more fixated on her crusading busy-bodying, the paragraph itself focuses in on a particular, esoteric scheme:

Now and then I am too excited to sleep, because I have a plan to reform something: if not what we eat, which should be the diet of the hunter-gatherers, then what we have in our house, which should include as little plastic as possible and as much wood, clay, stone, cotton, and wool; or the habits of the people in our town, who should not cut down trees in their yards or burn leaves or rubbish; or the administration of our town, which should create more parks and lay down a sidewalk by the side of every road to encourage people to walk, etc. I wonder what I can do to help save local farms. Then I think we should keep a pig here to eat our table scraps, and that the Senior Citizens Center should keep a pig, too, because so much food is thrown out when the old people don't eat it, as I used to see when I went to pick up Vincent's father at lunchtime. The pig could be fattened on these scraps until the holiday season, and then provide the senior citizens with a holiday meal. A new baby pig could be bought in the spring and amuse the senior citizens with its antics.

For some reason, the isolated sentence "I wonder what I can do to help save local farms" is especially funny to me.

But as much as I enjoy the humor, my favorite thing about Davis might be her examination of the subjectivity involved in our experiences of reality and in the truths we believe we know. The narrator continually struggles with what to include in her story and how to tell it. The same incident appears differently in her memory each time she remembers it, depending on her mood at the time of remembering, information she has learned in the meantime, or other external factors. In one case, she remembers the same house as three completely different settings: the kitchen in which she played a word game; the back yard through which she entered a party with her lover; the front door and living room she visited after he left her. What is the reality? Are these "really" the same place, or three separate places? Likewise, Davis explores the mental tricks of perception which create a surprising percentage of the texture of one's reality.

In the same way, I will decide to include a certain thought in a certain place in the novel and then discover that several months before, I made a note to include the same thought in the same place and then did not do it. I have the curious feeling that my decision of several months ago was made by someone else. Now there has been a consensus and I am suddenly more confident: if she had the same plan, it must be a good one.

Of course there is not actually another person making editorial decisions for the narrator, but her lived reality includes a ghost or an impression of this other woman helping her write. In combination with her koan-like style, it's Davis's insights into the unexpected reverses of human consciousness and behavior that will keep me coming back to her work. And although I think she's probably more accomplished as a "micro-story" writer than a novelist, The End of the Story has no problem sustaining its novelistic momentum from beginning to end. I look forward to more of Davis's work, in any format at all.

Notes on Disgust
(for more information on the disgust project, see here.)

Davis's style tends toward the schematic and is unlikely to provoke any disgust in the reader. Still, there is this interesting passage, in which the narrator, just before her lover leaves her, encounters him unexpectedly at a party:

It was a feeling of absolute displeasure to see him there, as though he were a hostile element in that place, a thing that intruded where it didn't belong, so that as I watched him among the moving figures, over the shoulders of the other people in the crowded place, those same features of his that had held such a positive attraction for me not long before, and that would exert such a fascinating force again not long after, were just then repugnant to me, blunt and deadly, primitive and vicious, without intelligence, without humanity, the color of clay.

What struck me so forcibly about this passage is the narrator's extremely Douglasian description of her own revulsion. Seeing her lover at this party disgusts her because he seems "a thing that intruded where it didn't belong"—matter out of place, just as Douglas describes. The narrator's momentary revulsion even causes her to perceive her lover's feature as "primitive," and we notice the dehumanizing tendency that so often goes hand-in-hand with the disgust emotion. The lover's appearance in a place that the narrator doesn't expect to see him, when she is feeling alienated from him, gives him a repulsive and marginal appearance, almost seeming to melt back into an undifferentiated lump "the color of clay," yet in his distorted, sub-human form is still monstrous, "deadly" and "vicious."

True to form, there were also times when the narrator is disgusted at herself, in particular a passage in which she remembers with loathing the chips and playing cards she and her lover bought at the store in an attempt to disguise their growing boredom with each other. But it's this passage that really stood out as intriguing and oddly extreme.


The End of the Story was the August pick for The Wolves reading group; our apologies for being late to our own party yet again, but ambitious summer reading plans do not make for timely posts. Please consider joining us during the last weekend of September for Marguerite Yourcenar's The Memoirs of Hadrian!

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography