October 23, 2020: “Break It Down” by Lydia Davis

Friday Friday Friday, Story366!

Last night, I held the fourth in the series of Moon City Press‘s Fall 2020 Virtual Reading Series. Pablo Piñero Stillmann rocked the house, and I had a good time chatting with him, in a live Q&A, afterwards. As I type this, I’m listening in on a 7.13 Books panel, another live Zoom event. And you know what? I think I really like these live virtual events. Really, I would never attend a panel like the one I’m in now, with all of these people, unless maybe I was at AWP. The audience for Pablo’s reading would have been very local if it were live in Springfield (as originally planned), which is great, but my students all had to/have to go, anyway, and now they can check the event out later, at their leisure, instead of rearranging their lives to be in a room, on campus, at a weird time on a week night. Sure, I don’t get to hang out with the authors—dinner, chats, carousing—but we get a lot in return. People from all over show up to these virtual events, people like me at the 7.13 event. People can watch them later. We can share all around social media. Virtual events are pretty neat.

I’m not saying that I’ll never want to go back to live readings, bringing writers to campus, when this coronavirus nonsense is finally over. Having live events, readings or whatnot, is part of university life. That type of reading series, however, is pretty expensive, including airline tickets, hotel rooms, and meals, not to mention drinks. We’re still paying an honorarium for the Zoom webinars, but not nearly as much as we would pay for a live reading—it’s much easier for someone to put ninety minutes aside for a Zoom event than it is forty-eight hours or more for a trip to Missouri. I suspect we’ll go back to having live readers, for sure, but will we have as many?

What I can see happening is blending the reading series between on-campus readers and these virtual events. I can even picture having a weekly or maybe biweekly virtual series, just doing readings, panels, and discussions on top of the live events. It’s pretty easy to do for me, just ninety minutes of time out of my day, as opposed to arranging a visit and hosting someone for a couple of days. I wonder, with how much success we’ve had: Why wouldn’t I do that?

I continue today with a Two-Timers Week at Story366, where I cover an author for a second time, with a different book. Today’s Two-Timer is Lydia Davis for her book Break It Down, out in 2008 from Picador. Davis is a luminary figure in short stories, the author of several books, including Can’t and Won’t, which I covered here in August of 2016. Great to visit Davis’ work again. Let’s go.

When I did that first post on Davis back in 2016, I tried to be all clever by making my post a short one, as Can’t and Won’t is made up primarily of shorts, what some people would describe as flash; some of the stories are a mere sentence in length. I made the case that in the spirit of her book and form preference, I should write a short post as well. That’s all fine and good, but it also might have been that I was busy that day, or just got lazy (typical me). So, that entry is like two hundred words long, by far the shortest I’ve ever posted.

I’m not going to pull a stunt like that today, but instead, cover the book more normal-like (for me, anyway). That’s not easy, because Davis is a writer unlike any other, her style completely her own, no real comparison for me to make, other than people who have come in her wake and imitated her.

The title story, “Break It Down,” chronicles the thoughts of this guy who just took a vacation with a special ladyfriend, a trip that included lots of sex. The trip has left him invigorated, an overall successful venture.

The guy’s no romantic, however, as he declares the trip cost him a thousand dollars, including travel, hotel, and expenses—it’s like he’s his own accountant when he remembers the trip. This is where he starts to break it down, first figuring that the trip cost him a a hundred bucks a day. He then counts how many times they had sex, and figures that it cost him about sixty dollars per coital encounter. An interesting way of looking at a vacation, let alone a relationship, but hey, this is our character, the premise of this story.

From there, Davis really breaks down this trip, as the guy starts to consider, believe it or not, elements of the time other than the actual sex. He thinks about cuddling. He thinks about conversation. He thinks of other instances of intimacy, all of it becoming incalculable.

Eventually, the guy considers how the woman has haunted him, how he can’t get her out of his head, when he’s awake or asleep. If he counts those moments—and he does—it becomes impossible to break down the cost per minute or event or orgasm. It’s a running count, too, as he can’t stop thinking about her. He longs for her. So, he’s no romantic—no way to overcome that dollar-per-fuck opener—but he softens a little, makes a change in the right direction.

That’s a rundown of the title story, in terms of theme and plot, but Davis’ writing is about so much more. It’s her style that she’s known for, her long sentences, exacting prose, and stream-of-conscious approach to narration. I read a lot of stories in this book and don’t remember dialogue or scene in any of them. Mostly, Davis just sets a character, in third or first person, on a thought, then lets them rip until they get where they’re going. That sort of makes these monologues, but really, they’re characters studies, in versey prose, these people’s psyches unraveling as they get further into their journeys.

There are a lot of highlights in the book aside from the solid title piece. “Story” leads things off and is about a woman’s obsession with a lover, a lover who she can’t be with, mostly because he’s with one of his former lovers instead.

“The Brother-in-Law” features a family that includes a brother-in-law, but nobody knows to whom he’s attached, what makes him a brother-in-law and not a total stranger.

“What She Knew” is a one-page flash, a piece that’s identity-play and wordplay at the same time.

“Visit to Her Husband” is about a woman who visits her ex, only to find herself distracted by him during the visit—neither are comfortable—and shut down when he explains he’s bought an expensive pair of shoes for his new girlfriend. Our hero finds herself distracted again after, making her visit a mistake.

“Safe Love” is another flash, just a few sentences, about a woman secretly in love with her son’s pediatrician and the safety of unobtainable relationships.

“What an Older Woman Will Wear” poises a woman, sitting on a bench with her friend, looking forward to some of the advantages of old age, including not giving two craps about what other people think of her clothes or looks or libido. She pontificates on other aspects of senior citizenship as well, some of them advantages and others disadvantages.

I could go on and on, as there are a lot of stories in Break It Down, some of them stretching to ten pages or slightly more, some just a few sentences forming prose poems. All of Lydia Davis’ pieces in this book follow the thoughts and considerations of her characters into impossibly fun and complex wormholes, and I love every story for its craft, sense of the world, and pure creativity. I could read Davis’ stories forever, and lucky for me, there are so many more out there.