Holiday reading: chapter and curse

16:00, Feb 08 2014
Grant Smithies
HARD WORK: In many of the Lydia Davis stories, there is zero character development, negligible plot and much of the narrative is generated by the reader.

Shed a tear for the lowly freelance journalist. Like any other self-employed tradesperson, if we don't work, we don't eat, and we're entitled to a sum total of zero annual leave.

Consequently, while everyone else is taking a few weeks off, laying on their arse on a sandy towel, roasting pink under the sun, reading trashy novels on river banks, ducking their hands into picnic baskets for one more egg mayo sandwich, rummaging around in chilly bins for another hoppy IPA, I'm in my little home office, generating publishable prose by the yard.

But then, I get the last laugh. When every other poor sap has headed back to work, I am packing my bags in preparation for going bush, having stockpiled enough stories to bugger off for a week in early February.

I always go to the same place: a rented bach at Torrent Bay in the Abel Tasman National Park. There, everything gracefully resolves itself into threes: Solar lights, gas fridge, rainwater tank. Sausages, cicadas, sea. Togs, towel, toilet paper. Sunburn, sandflies, Schweppes. Gordons, Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire.

It takes me a few days to adjust to the absence of looming deadlines. Mooching around in a pair of salt-stiff shorts on the perimeter of civilisation, the only decisions facing me are what time to fire up the barbie, when it might be appropriate to open the first cold beer, and whether to swim at the front beach, the back lagoon, or one of the river pools up in the bush.

Oh, yes, and what to read. This is my favourite time to get to grips with an unfamiliar author, and every year I agonise over what book to take with me. Last year I hauled along This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz, a collection of sharp, regretful tales concerning pathologically unfaithful Dominican immigrant, Yunior. The year before that, I lost myself in Richard Ford's magnificent 1987 short story collection Rock Springs, in which a variety of lonely souls struggle to manage their disappointment in assorted bleak outposts in Wyoming, Arizona and Montana.


But there's only so much testosterone a reader can take, so this year I took along the collected stories of Lydia Davis, an American writer who has little truck with conventional short story style or structure. Many of her stories are only a few sentences long. Some are funny as a fit; others so sad, your heart nearly falls out of your chest.

Punctuation is meticulous; needless ornamentation shunned. Like a poet, she makes every syllable count. Like a philosopher, she challenges the fundamentals of what you thought you knew, taking you with her into a world where a different kind of logic prevails.

Sometimes there are sudden wild lurches in tone as the story careers towards a profundity that seems almost accidental. Other times, she has the calm clarity of a Buddhist monk, wringing concise aphorisms from complex situations.

A story entitled Samuel Johnson Is Indignant contains only half a line, namely "that Scotland has so few trees". Another, Spring Spleen, relays a world of information in its two short sentences: "I am happy the leaves are growing large so quickly. Soon they will hide the neighbour and her screaming child."

A longer piece, La Meurtre, is French lesson, murder mystery and radical reinvention of the short story form, all in one. There's even a tale told by a narrator who's constantly interrupted by hiccups.

In many of these stories, there's zero character development, negligible plot and much of the narrative is generated in your own head, based on a few fragments Davis has provided as starting points.

Yes, yes, I hear you say. But do you really want to work so hard, on holiday in the bush, near the beach? I was amazed to find that I did. Baking in the sun, my back wedged against the stop-bank by the jetty, I disappeared into Davis' singular world for hours at a time each day. I don't know if this was a good idea; when I left the bay a few days ago to come home, I felt very strange, as if my world had tipped slightly on its axis.

I suspect I overdid things. After all, this woman's stories are so concentrated, a few of them could last a person all day. As one reviewer noted, "reading too many of these 730 highly distilled pages in a single session is a bit like trying to down a bottle of Calvados".

Even so, by the time my week in Torrent Bay was over, I had drunk this book dry. The hangover is with me still, and I may never recover.

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