Lydia Davis in 2,000 words

Lydia Davis’ new book of stories showcases the author’s deft verbal economy and matchless diction. One story in Can’t and Won’t is a sentence just 22 words long; the title is a single vocable, the name of a city. Excluding the repetitions, the story counts only 16 distinct words — one of the briefest texts in a volume of very short fictions, few of which run over two pages.


Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before.

What qualifies this sentence as a “story”? We might say it’s a story because the author claims it to be; like many texts of Davis’s it seems to pose an implicit challenge: this is a story, read it as such. Accordingly, the text is reflexive, metaleptic: it’s a story above all, perhaps, because it raises the question of what makes a story and whether it is one.

But there are formal means to judge a text’s narrative status, too. Narratologists argue that a basic defining feature of stories is that they portray a change of state. This change constitutes an event involving one or more characters in a given situation, and the reader’s interest is sustained by the event’s implications as they play out in a narrated sequence. Following this definition, what is the event portrayed in Davis’s story? It’s implicit and precedes the moment of the telling: that the speaker arrived in a new place (where she had “never been” before). Crucially, however, the character didn’t realize she was undergoing a change of state at that time, whether because “Bloomington” was so unremarkable as to seem familiar or the character was too inattentive for some reason. Passing over these details, the story’s plot can be summarized as “I have arrived in a new city (Bloomington).” Interestingly, this corresponds to Jurij Lotman’s definition of the primordial plot structure of all stories: a person (or narrative agent) enters a space, a simple formula adapted by countless Hollywood scriptwriters as a stranger comes to town.*

can't and won't

The story thus fulfills the basic requirements of plot structure, and if we add that its seriality includes temporal markers (“now,” “a little while,” “before”), it has the shape of a complete narrative. Moreover, it remains at a level of radical abstraction, as if meaning to do no more than express the grammatical core of a tale, since it doesn’t answer the questions who, when, why, or even where (there are Bloomingtons all over the US). Davis’ story is a narrative reduced to its minimum. Why, though, does this narratological explanation seem so paltry, so inadequate?

It’s worth pointing out that Lotman’s morphology, so influential to later structuralist scholars of narrative, also doubles as a sexual allegory. Lotman claims that the agent who enters a space is prototypically masculine, and the space entered is coded as feminine, a distinction that supports a number of supposedly essential binarisms, including active/passive, outside/inside, motion/stasis, travel/home. If Davis’s story appears to match up with Lotman’s model, it however troubles all those distinctions and clearly deflates its “hero.” All the action happens offstage — if indeed it happens at all — while the speaking character remains ungendered and undefined.

Moreover, the story’s real interest lies in its suggestive ambiguity, and as such its plot resists a simple morphological analysis. Even if we read the story as the straightforward account of a speaker who gradually realizes she is in a place that is new to her, then the fact of her arrival there scarcely rises to the level of an event; after all, it escaped her notice she had done anything new. In this sense, then, the story relates a virtual non-event: nothing, or nothing much, happens. But narratologists speak of a second kind of event that concerns meaning and interpretation rather than literal actions; the turn in the narrative, its “event II”, would consist in the realization by the speaker that she is in a new place after all.** Given that a belated realization of this sort is somewhat unusual, the reader also participates in the event by assessing its peculiarity as a narrative premise and speculating on possible causes. But here again the event is so minor as to be almost negligable. This trifling quality is underscored by the word “confidence,” which, ironically, calls the speaker’s authority into question. The speaker’s supposed confidence implies a prior lack of self-possession, of course, but it also emphasizes how out of proportion her claim of mastery is to the situation at hand, namely, making a distinction that should have been obvious and achieving a level of basic mental clarity that should go without saying. At the levels of both event I and event II, then, hardly anything happens.

Exacerbating these non-events, the speaker’s statement also flirts with sheer self-defeating contradiction due to the ambiguous word “before,” perversely located at the end of the sentence, and unqualified, such that the time it refers to is left unclear. Logically speaking, “before” can always be measured backwards from “now,” and accordingly, the speaker’s statement can be reversed and read as wholly contradictory: she has been there before, since she has already been there “a little while” before “now,” the moment of the telling. The aptness of the phrase “a little while” becomes clearer in this light; it contrasts with the speaker’s avowed confidence — indeed, undermines it — and it is so vague that it could refer to 15 minutes, a whole week, or even, as an understatement, 6 months or several years. “Little,” a crucial adjective for a writer of such short fictions, unfolds here its perplexing suggestiveness.

But a logical analysis of the statement doesn’t do justice to its weirdness and disturbing elisions. Davis’s sentence is balanced in such a way that its two clauses mirror and invert each other; they seem tempted to go so far as a perfect self-erasure, “I have been here” baldly negated by “I have never been here.” In this way the sentence brings to mind the shocking artifice of narration at the end of Beckett’s Molloy: “It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.”

Moreover, like Davis’ story, Beckett’s contradictory statements foreground the contrast between the telling and the told; Beckett’s sentences are preceded by a metaleptic “I wrote,” while Davis’s “I can say” underscores the fact that the speaker is reporting, giving a verbal account, rather than “reflecting” on something or “knowing” it. The difference is crucial, as it places the speaker in the position of a narrator and not simply a character. As such, her role is to articulate the all-important distinction between the story as related and the events it refers to, between the how of the telling and the what of the told. Narratology refers to this distinction as that between the story strictly speaking and the discourse that narrates it. A reader typically reconstructs the story from the discourse, fleshing out the broader story-world implied by partial and incomplete textual clues. This activity creates the common impression that the story exists as something prior to and separate from the discourse, while it may be argued that the opposite is in fact the case. Texts such as Beckett’s often display the priority of discourse over story to emphasize the artifice of storytelling, a technique exploited by Beckett’s mentor, Joyce. And so a vital connotation emerges from the title of Davis’s story. “Bloomington” is not just the name of any old city, a name as banal as “Springfield,” it’s a literary name connected more to fiction than reality. Accordingly, “Bloom” can’t help evoking the protagonist of Joyce’s Ulysses, that notorious stranger come to town. And if Davis is revisiting in her way that ur-text of modern writing, it’s no doubt to underscore an impossible link, an impossible journey, a split between the telling and the tale. As Patrick O’Neill puts it, “Joyceans … flock to Dublin every summer to walk the streets Bloom once trod, but their ambition is essentially unfulfillable: a real entity can no more walk fictional streets than a fictional entity can walk real streets.”*** In other words, arriving in Bloom’s town, they might say to themselves, “I have never been here before.”

Crucially, however, the speaker in “Bloomington” says “I can say” rather than “I say.” The difference may seem minor, but it adds to the non-events of arrival and realization the non-event of speech as well. We can’t be sure whether the speaker makes her declaration or not. Accordingly, the supposedly confident can contrasts with the word that stands, Bartleby-like, as the first word on the cover of Davis’ book. But maybe “I can say” is more slippery than the alternatives can and can’t suggest. I can might be better thought of as the mark of sheer potentiality, rather than positive ability held in abeyance. As such, the speaker’s statement hovers right at the edge of possibility, at a moment of emergence, tracing the mere germ of a tale and the infinitesimal difference between what is and what is not an event.

But maybe, after all, “Bloomington” is just one of those notations a writer scribbles in a notebook, a passing thought, a mental tropism. We recognize notations similar to “Bloomington” elsewhere in the book, as when the author says she knows she’s in Chicago but isn’t yet aware she’s in Illinois (139); or when she mistakes the name “Alabama” for a town in Georgia (67). But even if we ascribe “Bloomington” fully to its author and to non-fictional reality, the story is highly suggestive. Davis, after all, is the English translator of Proust’s Swann’s Way, where we find a town that quite literally blooms from out of a tiny space. At the conclusion of part I of Combray, Marcel describes his hometown as emerging from his thoughts and senses like a blossoming flower. For all its modest dimensions, Davis’s “Bloomington” expresses something of the mystery, expansiveness and evocative power of Proustian anamnesis.

And as in that game enjoyed by the Japanese in which they fill a porcelain bowl with water and steep in it little pieces of paper until then indistinct which, the moment they are immersed, stretch and twist, assume colors and distinctive shapes, become flowers, houses, human figures, firm and recognizable, so now all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies of the Vivonne, and the good people of the village and their little dwellings and the church and all of Combray and its surroundings, all of this which is acquiring form and solidity, emerged, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.****


* See Jurij Lotman, “The Origin of Plot in the Light of Typology,” in Poetics Today I, no. 1-2 (1979): 161-184.

** See Hühn, Peter: “Event and Eventfulness”. In: Hühn, Peter et al. (eds.): the living handbook of narratology. Hamburg: Hamburg University Press.
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*** Patrick O’Neill, Fictions of Discourse (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), 36.

**** Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, Lydia Davis, trans. (London: Penguin, 2003), 48.

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