Lydia Davis's "Happiest Moment" and the Convoluted Temporalities of Very Short Fiction
Ezra Dan Feldman
When Sudden Fiction came out in 1986, collecting short stories from one to five pages long by a host of American authors, the editors, Robert Shapard and James Thomas, wondered what to call the volume and the genre. They settled on Sudden Fiction after abandoning the working title Blasters, which some of their contacts loved but others reviled. Of the name Sudden Fiction, Shapard writes in the introduction that "[a]lmost everyone liked it, not only for the sound of it, but for its representation of the form." Given the title's invocation of the temporal, it is perhaps ironic that the introduction is mostly about space—about the capacity of the short-short to "confer form on small corners of chaos." Since the primary consideration of the very short story from a publisher's perspective seems to be the space it takes up on the page, this is understandable, and in Flash Fiction (1992), Thomas gives some thought to the experience of fiction that may be apprehended "all at once," that is, without turning a page.
Nonetheless, the choice of Sudden Fiction as the title for the 1986 collection and as label for the form invites the considerations of time which Robert Coover takes up properly in "A Sudden Story," but which Shapard only invokes rather mystically at the end of his introduction. "If [short short stories] can stop time and make it timeless," Shapard suggests, "they are here for you, above all, as living voices." One can even detect Shapard turning away from time as soon as the issue comes up. Explaining the editors' satisfaction with the title, originally suggested in a letter from Robert Kelly, Shapard writes, "So, for the present—at least for the present book—the debate ends." Having speculated on the meaning of the short form's new, perhaps sudden, prominence on the American literary scene, Shapard drops the focus on the literary-historical moment, the present time of "for the present," in favor of the present object, "the present book." Nearly thirty years have passed since the publication of Sudden Fiction. The editors have stuck with the name-scheme, publishing Sudden Fiction International (1989), Sudden Fiction Continued (1996), New Sudden Fiction (2007), and Sudden Fiction Latino (2010). But it is not clear that anyone else is using the term, even though short short stories remain cool. This may indeed be because of the conceptual difficulty in treating very short fiction as a unified genre.
The diverse notes on the form that appear as a kind of appendix to the original Sudden Fiction make a good starting place for thinking through the form's potential. Kelly's very brief essay, "Sudden Fiction: Notes on Fiction That Knows Its Proper Space," seems to suggest an acceleration of life and narrative made possible by television and movies: "People who grew up, ourselves, with movies and television had less and less need for descriptive exposition, though at the same time a sustained hunger for instantaneous entrainment of place, mood, scene, atmosphere. The coup d'oeil that movies gave us is what short fiction has learned to enact." Today, however, we are more likely to think of short short fiction in the context of sound bites, tweets, texts, and Facebook status updates, snippets of text that often vanish almost instantaneously but can also go viral, taking on a significance that lets them persist in our media and our culture. Short short fiction can treat its own material in much the same way, either turning over and reproducing a phrase until it carries the weight of a life, or else passing instantaneously on. If the ultra-short form holds together as a set of spatially constrained texts, it can nonetheless be temporally capacious in surprising ways. In what follows I explore three temporalities of very short fiction: the instantaneous present, in which time nearly stops; the capacious present, in which a lifetime can appear and occur and be comprehended all at once; and the speculative present, the convoluted temporality of my title, which can dip with ease into the past and future, but always lingers as a set of open questions or open possibilities for character and reader alike.
The instantaneous present is legible in a story like Dan O'Brien's "Crossing Spider Creek." The protagonist, a man with a broken and bleeding leg, is trying to get his horse to cross a cold creek, and if he cannot get the horse to cross, he will die. He has tried twice, and twice the horse has turned back. He imagines that if the horse turns this last time (the last attempt for which the man has the energy), he will try to pull his rifle from its scabbard and shoot the horse, too, so that they can die together. This fiction offers enough backstory that we know a bit about the man and a bit about Carol, whose favorite horse he is riding and who "has never understood his desire to be alone." But the story opens and closes in a single instant: "Here is a seriously injured man on a frightened horse" it begins. And it ends: "Here is a seriously injured man on a frightened horse. They are standing at the edge of Spider Creek, the horse's trembling front feet in the water and the man's spurs held an inch from the horse's flanks." The story offers repetition without difference. It gives a still scene, explains the scene, and gives it to us a second time. We may think of the image (both opening and final) as a painting, a snapshot, or a still from a movie. It essentially lacks duration, and since it spells out quite clearly the consequences of both success and failure, the story does not leave us to ponder the significance of what we see. If we are to wonder, we really have only two options: "Will he make it across the creek?" is of course one question, but neither an answerable nor a very interesting one. The other slightly more satisfying question has more than one formulation, but I take the following to be exemplary: "How can it or could it be—why is it permissible in the universe—for so much to depend upon something as small as a colt's shyness or fortitude in crossing some very cold water?" The scope of this question, too, lies beyond the story itself, certainly outside its time.
An instant, frozen and made visual. That the very short story can render this seems natural rather than surprising. More surprisingly, however, the short short story can also dispense almost entirely with the visual on the way to encapsulating an entire life or a whole assembly of similar lives in the space of a very few lines. Robert Coover's "frontistory" in Sudden Fiction, called "A Sudden Story," exemplifies the creation of a capacious present despite being set, ostensibly, in the past. "Once upon a time," it begins traditionally enough. Or no: "Once upon a time, suddenly, while it still could, the story began." The formulation insists that the whole story will actually be the beginning of "the story" (whether this very story or another is not known). Coover's metafiction manages both to tell of the hero's encounter with the stupid, forgetful dragon and to insist that suddenness belongs to the dragon's perspective, or to the reader's, but never in fact to the hero's: "For the hero, setting forth, there was of course nothing sudden about it, neither about the setting forth, which he'd spent his entire lifetime anticipating, nor about any conceivable endings, which seemed, like the horizon, to be always somewhere else." Clearly the story might have developed from here as a critique of so-called suddenness. It could have been a rejection of the capacious and forgetful narrative present in favor of full attention to concrete history. As for the hero, "he'd been trekking for years through enchanted forests, endless deserts, cities carbonized by dragon breath." But this past is parenthetical, and this particular hero, in his moment of almost-heroism, "found himself envying, as he drew his sword [...], the dragon's tenseless freedom."
In this story, the reader, like the dragon, is a devourer, and the reader and the dragon get their meal: "Freedom? the dragon might have asked, had he not been so stupid, chewing over meanwhile the sudden familiar sourness...". The hero gets consumed, the hero's perspective erased, when the covers of a book like a dragon's jaws snap shut. So the story affirms the confinement of a long fictional life to the reading present in which we typically encounter it. Long though the fictional life may be, it's all present and only ever present in the reading. Although a "A Sudden Story" to some degree satirizes reading-as-consuming (after all, the dragon is "stupid") its closing parenthetical—"(Forgotten.)"—also concedes the inevitability of that reading practice. Its capacious present underlines what Kelly calls the "time of the experience of the text" at the cost of underlining the hero's lifeline, as perhaps always happens when a long life is pressed into a very short form. But if such a compression is necessarily metafictional, the resulting self-consciousness isn't alone sufficient to transform the temporality of the narrative from one that winks out when the story is over into one that blossoms and changes on the page and in the mind.
Lydia Davis, unlike Coover, approaches the very short form anti-heroically. It is not, for her, a form that allows forgetting, but rather "a nervous form of story. You don't have time to get used to it (forget it) as you read. It keeps itself more separate from you than a longer story, maybe because it is more recently begun, and so it is more demanding of your attention." This notion that a story can remain, as it goes along, "more recently begun" than another story, is typical of Davis's acute delineation of time. Her prose and her characters bring their pasts along with them, folding past into present into possibility. (They would never be caught tenseless, like Coover's dragon and the hero it chews up.) Davis's stories tend to demand a speculative attention—maybe because her subject matter is so often a feeling of unease, maybe because of her regularly discomfiting syntax. "The Sock," her Sudden Fiction contribution, begins by declaring, "My husband is married to a different woman now, shorter than I am, about five feet tall, solidly built, and of course he looks taller than he used to and narrower, and his head looks smaller." The husband in this story is not a bigamist, of course. It's just that the narrator continues to possess him, in memory and in language. The narrator thus economically introduces multiple modalities of time. There is an ongoing present, unmarked so far by events, in which characters have certain legal relationships to one another that elbow out the past: the (ex)husband is married again; the woman has a particular body; the narrator perceives the man who used to be her husband as having changed. Of course he would have changed—in real life. But while he might be narrower (thinner) than in the past, he wouldn't be taller and his head wouldn't be smaller in actuality. So besides the ongoing present, the sentence also initializes a running commentary that contravenes the narration. And of course the past is present here, in the phrase "my husband."
Quite a lot of rich detail comes through in Davis's "The Sock," which runs to two-and-a-half pages. We learn about the husband's typical behavior in the past; we learn how his mother's fear of being upstairs in a building has developed over time; and we learn of the narrator's habituation to a new normal. But at the core of the story lies a meditation on the eponymous sock, a focus of the narrator's speculations that catch her out of time:
It was a small thing, but later I couldn't forget the sock, because here was this one sock in his back pocket in a strange neighborhood way out in the eastern part of the city in a Vietnamese ghetto, by the massage parlors, and none of us really knew this city but we were all here together and it was odd, because I still felt as though he and I were partners, we had been partners a long time, and I couldn't help thinking of all the other socks of his I had picked up, stiff with his sweat and threadbare on the sole, in all our life together from place to place, and then of his feet in those socks, how the skin shone through at the ball of the foot and the heel where the weave was worn down; how he would lie reading on his back on the bed with his feet crossed at the ankles so that his toes pointed at different corners of the room; how he would then turn on his side with his feet together like two halves of a fruit; how, still reading, he would read reach down and pull off his socks and drop them in little balls on the floor and reach down again and pick at his toes while he read; sometimes he shared with me what he was reading and thinking, and sometimes he didn't know whether I was there in the room or somewhere else. I couldn't forget it later, even though after they were gone I found a few other things they had left, or rather his wife had left in the pocket of a jacket of mine – a red comb, a red lipstick, and a bottle of pills.
The sock resists forgetting not by persisting in time, but by drawing the narrator into a speculative mode, a speculative present. This isn't just reminiscence, but a folding over of events that include the recent past ("here was this one sock in his back pocket in a strange neighborhood"), the more distant past ("we had been partners a long time"), and the present of the narration ("I still felt as though he and I were partners"). There is also, embedded in the habitual past of the husband's reading in bed, the bisection of time into two possibilities: "sometimes he shared with me what he was reading and thinking, and sometimes he didn't know whether I was there in the room or somewhere else." The unforgettable sock somehow transports the narrator to the two possibilities equally, and not in the frozen mode of O'Brien's man and horse poised before the rushing water. These possibilities are ongoing, even though they are both past. They hang with the narrator, as with the reader, "later." We can infer that they persist even outside and beyond the time of the narration. Like O'Brien, Davis brings her narrative around to repeating a defining phrase. But while O'Brien's repetition begins verbatim ("Here is a seriously injured man on a frightened horse."), Davis's twists in the mouth and under the eye: "later I couldn't forget the sock, because [...]" becomes "I couldn't forget it later, even though [...]" This revision, however, doesn't get marked as progress of any kind. The two statements do not have unique places in the plot, but supervene on one another, versions of a single idea that derives its force both from its cause and from the resistance it overcomes.
Davis's speculative present is most exquisitely at work in "Happiest Moment," from her 2001 collection, Samuel Johnson is Indignant. It reads, in its entirety:
If you ask her what is a favorite story she has written, she will hesitate for a long time and then say it may be this story that she read in a book once: an English-language teacher in China asked his Chinese student to say what was the happiest moment in his life. The student hesitated for a long time. At last he smiled with embarrassment and said that his wife had once gone to Beijing and eaten duck there, and she often told him about it, and he would have to say the happiest moment of his life was her trip, and the eating of the duck.
The story conveys the conjectures and meditations of no fewer than five personae. From the inside out, we can identify, first, the Chinese student's wife, who "often told him" about her trip to Beijing and her eating the duck. Then there is the Chinese student himself, who "would have to say the happiest moment of his life was her trip" (and how strange is that?). Third is not the English-language teacher, who doesn't report anything, but the author of the book in which the English-language teacher appears. Fourth is the woman, herself an author, who may be asked "what is a favorite story she has written," and finally there is the narrator, whose if-then proposition ought to contain, but fails to encompass, whatever else is told.
All this, of course, leaves out the "you" who may do the asking and with whom the reader may most closely identify. What makes the temporality of "Happiest Moment" so peculiar is that the inner circles of the narrative are more concrete than the outer ones. In a sense, we have a reversal of the usual phenomenon of narratorial unreliability: We are accustomed to thinking of an unreliable narrator as the central object of our investigation, the persona about whom we will certainly learn something even if we cannot believe a word she says. Here, however, "the eating of the duck"—divorced syntactically from the person doing it—appears as the story's most concrete core. Around this action, however, we have a set of people who attach value unreliably to that event. The Chinese student presents as the happiest moment of his life something that never happened to him. Is this evidence of the depth of his connection to his wife, or does it mean that he can only live vicariously? Why is he embarrassed? Maybe he has misunderstood his teacher's questions.
The same difficulties attach to the unnamed woman author, who is not asked for a "happiest moment" but for "a favorite story she has written." Presumably she hasn't written the story with which she replies. Is she dodging the question? Is she claiming that all reading is writing? Or does her hesitation, like the Chinese student's, imply either a misunderstanding or some kind of interruption to her train of thought?
"Happiest Moment," as a title, contributes to this operation of turning the story inside-out. It conveys the reader's attention past the outer layers of narration, directly to the story's temporal core. The happiest moment, the title says, matters more than the questions that elicit its narration. Nonetheless, the eating of the duck, with which the reader is left as the story's essence, can never serve the reader as a meal, but only as a spur to thought. Without explicitly asking the reader to identify either a favorite story or a happiest moment, these reported questions may lure the reader away from the narrative's most puzzling features.
In the introduction to Sudden Fiction, Shapard speculates that "the modern short story was an adaptation of many older story techniques, including those of short-short forms, to the overwhelming popularity of realism and its expansive embodiment, the novel." Though Davis's convoluted temporalities and layered narratives might indicate some resistance to realism, her note at the end of the volume gives a reading of realist short short fiction that is compatible with her own stories:
People write parables about a world that has nothing to do with the modern world, or parables that do partake of this modern world, or more realistic very brief stories, and these last often begin and end in the middle of things and present us with unheroic characters, reflecting our willingness, now, not to aggrandize our lives, in which if something happens it always begins and ends in the middle of something else and in which there are also, or maybe only, conjunctions of the ridiculous and less ridiculous over and over again.
The style of this note should be familiar already: Davis extends and deepens her list of what people write in a voice that invokes a collective disposition towards diminishment. Like Coover's "A Sudden Story," Davis's work leaves no room in the end for a hero, but she doesn't resort to a dragon to kill the hero off. Her "conjunctions of the ridiculous and less ridiculous over and over again" return her characters and her readers to multiple versions of the thoughts and scenes around which her narratives are carefully woven if sometimes frayed at the edges. We can't pin the down the present, and that's her gift: a favorite story and a happiest moment may meld with the eating of a duck, even if someone else is doing the eating.
1 Sudden Fiction: American Short-short Stories. Shapard, Robert, and James Thomas, eds. Salt Lake City: G.M. Smith, 1986. p. xvi.
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