17 March 2008

The End of the Story, by Lydia Davis

It's extremely rare for me to give up on a book without finishing it. No matter how bad a book is, I'll generally slog through until the bitter end. And honestly, The End of the Story might actually be a pretty good book. But I just couldn't take it. I've read one of Davis' short story collections, Samuel Johnson is Indignant, and while some of the stories struck me as overly precious and got on my nerves, I LOVED others. I was even on the verge of buying copies of the book for several friends of mine, but ended up buying my mom two other books of hers, and was looking forward to borrowing them. Alas.

The premise of this novel is, I think, a worthwhile one - it's the narrative of a woman looking back on a failed love affair. Not even a serious relationship, a brief affair. According to the dust jacket, it contains reflections on the ways in which memory distorts and twists the past, along with thoughts on interactions between people. This sounded quite appealing to me. Perhaps I didn't like it because it hit a sore spot, but I don't think so. No, this book had two major strikes against it, and the second one was particularly deadly.

1. "Reflections on the way memory distorts" etc is a euphemism for "so much meta-language it reads like the blueprints for the text rather than the text itself". 60 pages in, we're still hearing about how HARD it is to write this novel. And there's barely been any plot yet. Mostly, we're told about the writing process, and what's apparently coming up. I am mildly curious whether the things mentioned early in the book are actually fully described later, or whether mentioning them actually serves to describe them. Curious, but not enough to actually finish the book.

2. The narrator is a fussy, self-centered, whiner. It's hard to imagine why on Earth anyone would ever want to date her in the first place. She mostly describes how sorry for herself she felt, and continues to feel. Under the pretense of analyzing her relationship, she explains that she was never really interested in the things her lover cared deeply about, and really didn't even know that much about him. She vaguely realized, for instance, that he was hurt by the fact that she never wanted to ride in his car or spend the night at his place instead of hers, but she was comfortable in her place, and his made her nervous, so she never did. What a jerk. One generally has the sense that she was completely unwilling to ever compromise. While she complains about feeling insecure because she's older than he is, she also uses this insecurity to completely ignore his needs and desires and focus purely on her own. What a jerk.
I don't know if the author is aware of how ungodly self-absorbed and irritating her protagonist is. Perhaps it's a brilliant act of literary creation, that she's so honestly depicted that perspective. But I am completely incapable of sympathizing with someone so wrapped up in themselves, particularly someone who doesn't even realize how atrociously selfish they are. So whether it's semi-autobiographical or not, I dunno, but in any case, it's not a narrator whom I want to spend time with. I tried, I really did, but 70 pages in, I couldn't stand to be in the woman's company any more, even if she does occasionally have a way with words. Actually, this fed into the first problem - not only did I increasingly dislike her because of the way she treated people and only thought about herself, and the way she refused to pull her shit together and take responsibility for her own actions, and was constantly fussy and complaining about her needs, but then to make matters worse, I had to endure her complaining about what a great effort it cost her to even tell me about it. LET ME SPARE YOU THE WORK BABY. Ugh.

It's unfortunate, because I think the whole experience has really turned me off her work in general. I imagine that anything of hers I read now, I'll be predisposed to see it as narcissistic posturing, and I'll have a hard time enjoying it. Maybe with enough time off, I can return to her. We shall see.

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