Varieties of Disturbance

Reading Lydia Davis for the first time this morning, and drinking coffee on a grey Saturday as the first snow of the season falls. In this book, aptly titled Varieties of Disturbance, she displays a fine sensitivity for the aquifers of fleeting emotions, subtle evaluations and minute perceptions and sensations that constitute the unexamined dimensions of internal life. These streams can unconsciously determine moment-to-moment decisions, or influence larger ones as they rise, coalesce, and break into consciousness. In the stories I have read so far, the sensations, as advertised, are irritating. “The Caterpillar” relates finding a tiny caterpillar in the house, which the protagonist charitably decides to remove to the garden, but instead loses in transport on a dusty stairwell. Now more likely to step on it than save it, the nagging urge to find the caterpillar surfaces, hour after hour, spurred by incidental circumstances, and is followed by a faint ethical malaise that persists beyond any hope of rescue.

“Southward Bound, Reads Worstward Ho,” goes even further by irritating the reader directly, rather than irritating a character with whom one may or may not empathize. The brief narrative describes reading the ineffable late Beckett work on a bus trip, and is rendered in clipped, willfully efficient prose that echoes without mimicking Beckett’s own challenging words, which are themselves embedded directly into the story as little enigmas. Appended to this is a series of footnotes at the bottom of each page, where the tale is told more fully and comfortably. The footnotes contain maybe three times as many words as the narrative they amplify. This exploits the subtle and meddlesome dynamic one experiences when reading a book with footnotes: when does one interrupt the flow of one’s apprehension to get perhaps vital (perhaps useless, it can’t be known yet) information about what one is reading? The tension is sharpened once one realizes that the footnotes have more flow, and provide fuller information with less labor. Which was the narrative and which was the gloss? As I read, there were pinpoint peaks of discomfort that accompanied my decisions (was I really deciding?), as I switched back and forth between the spartan narrative and flowing footnotes, at times seeking the path of least resistance below, and other times pursuing a more hard-won satisfaction above. This in turn caused me to ask what reading is. To what degree was I goal seeking, and to what degree does was I truly following the writing, letting it lead to new territory? How were these dynamics playing out within the time-based activity of reading, and, in this case, what was I to do with the subliminal fabric exposed?

This is thoughtfully crafted, innovative and conceptually ambitious writing.