The End of the Story by Lydia Davis
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I found The End of the Story a confusing book, and yet, it felt like it was purposely so. The narrative and descriptions could be emotionally precise: ‘slipping back through those years to an innocence or freshness that had a certain helplessless attached to it.’ Or both poetic and precise, ‘the sidewalks were full of canes and walkers, the old people swaying among them’. Or even in details, extremely precise, for example where the protagonist recounts both a 37- and a 14-minute conversation with her lover/ex-lover.
But a lot of the book is about being vague and imprecise. The narrative plays with how much detail to divulge, admitting that ‘memories are quite often false, confused, abbreviated, or collapsed into each other’. The locations are described in abstract without names. The lover/ex-lover only slowly gains physical details, over many pages. He is wide. He has reddish-brown hair. It is surprisingly late in the book that we learn he is 22 years old. A major argument occurs, and we are told she shocks him, but we are not to learn what it was that did so.
The End of the Story, winner of the Booker Prize in 2013, was written by Lydia Davis, her first and only novel. She is well-known for short stories. I like short stories so I’m not sure how I haven’t stumbled across her in my reading history. The novel is about a relationship between a 34-year-old woman writer and, as mentioned above, a 22-year-old man.
It is a novel about writing a novel, in a way that with the mechanics laid bare, I found interesting at first but then somewhat painful. What it reminded me of most was Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle of which I only read the first and meant to read the rest. The writing is clear and competent and often elegant, but most of all feels like a direct reflection of the author’s thought process, a detailed and complete, and somewhat cold recounting of a relationship, with all of the author’s thoughts, indecision about what to put in and what to leave out, and a level of forgetfulness of how events actually occurred. ‘There were five quarrels, I think,’ she writes, and tries to decide whether it would be better to conflate events for easier storytelling. ‘I was acutely aware of the smallest sounds in the room,’ she writes. We sometimes get, like in Knausgård’s writing, every detail, every thought.
Although I found this exploration of memory and the writing process interesting, it became less interesting the longer the novel went and actually found it hard to finish, reading about that constant ambivalence. And I felt disengaged with the main story. It’s a relatively short relationship, less than a year, I think, and while the narrator explains that she missed the man afterwards, and was hurt by the breakup of the relationship, her descriptions of him are cold. She’s mostly annoyed with him, distant and admits to treating him badly. She’s not particularly interested in his life outside of their time together. I think it’s about halfway through the book before I finally read a reason why she likes him, a physical attraction and comfort and feeling seen by him, that she got his full attention. She’s honest about it, admitting that she may have felt ‘that I did not have to love him very deeply, or considerately, for him to go loving me’.
But I found this a difficult narrative. Why should we care about the relationship when she didn’t care much for it? How are we supposed to care about her and how hurt she was by the break-up, when neither the relationship nor the man seemed very substantial. Then she becomes a stalker, after the end of the relationship and won’t leave him alone, won’t stop thinking about him, wanting him, calling him. This wallowing in broken-heartedness seems indulgent because he doesn’t seem worth it. He’s barely employable, drifting, happy to use people for his own purposes and not particularly truthful. But then I found it hard to find any sympathy or interest in the narrator for her self-pity, her coldness and her endless churning of thoughts.
It becomes evident that more important than the relationship is the story of the relationship, ‘even though the novel claims to be fiction and not a story about me’. It is about how to write the story, about what is remembered and what is not, what is falsely told and corrected, or left out.
I’m puzzled why this book was so praised and how it won the Booker Prize.