The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

Jorge Luis Borges wrote summary abstracts of novels that don't exist.

Samuel Beckett wrote novel-abstracts that do.

Lydia Davis writes abstracts of an abstract's abstract. Some push ten to fifteen pages, and can be good, like "Thyroid Diary".  Anybody who's ever had thyroid issues will particularly enjoy it.  If only the bulk of her stories were that long and that good.  But most average one to two pages, and are not very good, if occasionally clever and mildly amusing they be -- the way Bob Saget hosting America's Funniest Home Videos was clever and mildly amusing.  "Mown Lawn" is moderately amusing and linguistically clever, but it's an exception to the rule in her collected stories.  Many of her "stories" are paragraphs.  Quite a few are single sentences, single lines.  Lydia Davis is a molecular scientist of a writer conducting experiments at the sub-atomic level of prose.  She's too minimal to be a minimalist, and too miniscule to be a miniaturist.  

These are the facts about the fish in the Nile:

The above italicized ten words and colon are one such story-experiment, "Certain Knowledge from Herodotus," quoted in its entirety.  Naturally I'd of preferred quoting only an excerpt from her story rather than the whole story, but how?

No matter what the erudite tastemakers of contemporary literary fiction have to gush about Lydia Davis, even awarding her recently the Man Booker International Prize (one on the Booker panel, in fact, beamed about her "texts" and "apophthegms" without a smidgeon of irony), I'd rather read whatever "certain knowledge from Herodotus" I could glean myself straight from The Histories, rather than another text or apophthegm by this overly lauded, alleged genius of the short form.

These are the facts about the fishy abstracts in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.


Past the Point of Rubicon Beach by Steve Erickson

Tomorrow night, I fell asleep after an evening reading Pablo Neruda, William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Philip K. Dick and Charles Baudelaire, among others.  Others like the little remembered James Branch Cabell.  I'm not saying they put me to sleep.  I'm saying I'd been up for decades that evening, reading them.  When I did finally fall asleep, I dreamnt about Rubicon Beach by Steve Erickson.

My First Printing
They escaped into what I did not know (or is it do not know now?) how to describe except to say it was a disembodied window, its off-white frame set into the cobalt stucco sky.  Ink residue, left by lines and paragraphs, misted in the salty air.  A train that could not possibly exist here, just as impossibly as the window, occupied the tunnel through the Giant Oak on rails that disappeared in offshore fog.  I think I lived there, in a residence built into the Giant Oak, itself built above the bar, three stories above the tunnel. Story One was a strange library apartment studio in downtown Los Angeles.  Story Two was a river completely canopied by vines sometimes disguised as snakes.  Story Three is where I'd been living in the Giant Oak.  Either there or some place else out in the fog on the railroad track that wound around waves.  When I rose, I hastily jotted down the following before the words could also escape through that disembodied window: In between awakening and complete awareness, within the waning fog of dream's disintegrating curtain, where sleep laps luminously upon the tidal lagoons of consciousness, overarching your consciousness, corridor-like as it is, wild jungle vines -- alive -- seeking to slither down and poke and scratch you awake out of your raft floating downstream with no destination other than towns to be duped, duped, duped, though in being duped so many times, their being duped, the dopes, metastasizes into the duper's (the one who does the duping) abrupt doom, so do be warned out of your melancholic snooze through these moody, putrid river waters hanging with overgrowth and snakes:  this, all this, is the ambiguous, murky, treacherous, but deceptively placid, disorienting realm one encounters in Rubicon Beach, the mostly forgotten, sometimes out of print, second novel, by the somewhat forgotten (or is "overlooked" a better word, because I know I haven't forgotten him) author, Steve Erickson.

En route, up river of the book, can you explicate "the poem of no return"?, standing there in mud flats of the beach that doesn't exist but one day a tsunami may return nevertheless?  Can you deduce, in your canoe, with I hope your mathematical prowess, the Number of no return?  It's a new number that exists somewhere between nine and ten.  Can you ride the mystery train up sea from the shores of no return, to the Giant Oak, riding on rails built on water through the red tunnel of the moon, strange earthly emanations audibly abound, to the Rubicon gothic-like mansion (dare you enter it like you did before?) populated by memories disguised as flesh and blood, if they're not in fact corpses and ghosts?  Will you understand the Big Oak's significance at the apparent terminus of the mystery trains' track; that the end might not be the end but rather the beginning to the Frontier of No Return?  What exists beyond the Oak and the Gothic Mansion, beyond the Rubicon Beach?  Alternate realities? Delusions? Madness?  Dreams?

Consider the face of no return of "Catharine" (not her real name but given her by her employer whose last housekeeper was also named "Catharine")  Poor, orphaned woman born on that jungle river, born, according to her soon-to-be-murdered father, with no "voluptuous virtues, except her face".  The Face of No Return.  But a woman no matter now robustly or curvaceously stunted her body might be, in time makes an art out of her survival, sculpting hyper-adept skills of communication out of the palpable stone of her silence, despite not knowing the English language, and using whatever perceived weaknesses she might present and instead turning them on their heads -- her weakness will decapitate your strenth -- into preternatural strengths that enable her to maintain her strict adherence to a ferocious independence no matter what entangled predicaments she encounters, whether it's her first kidnapper, those dipshit hitchhiking goofs, who smuggled her into the states in the backs of cars and vans ... She soon ditched her coyotes, her captors, only to have to face all those sharks wearing suits on Sunset and Wilshire Blvds who saw blood, but also money, in Catherine's haggard hair and bare feet...  Catharine will thwart their exploitative advances all: the photographers, the hustlers, the movie moguls and talent scouts.  Who needs them?  Not her.  Because she may be the most powerful woman who's ever lived, but lacking belief in her face, in herself, she so saddened by the perceived lack of having any "voluptuous virtues," can't yet comprehend her full power -- not yet understanding that her face is the most potent face, the most powerful weapon in the world -- a weapon she'll soon learn to use like an ax or meat cleaver -- an indescribable face of no return (this review is not a dream) that some men can't even look at for fear they'll be, at a glance, decapitated by it, lost in its vacuum of no return, while others devise their devious plans for Catharine's face's theft for their own selfish gains in photography and haute couture modeling and the fucking movies!, branding their perfect doll-woman possession like the most prized in the bovine herd, this the most powerful if not most beautiful, seductive woman whos ever lived, a woman so out of any man's league she's remained virginal all this time, untouched by hands or greed, but a wounded woman, no matter her awesome power, grieving her murdered father who'd foolishly lost his daughter in a game of cards when they lived on that dangerous river and couldn't prevent the Con-Man Kidnapper from stealing her from him; she, "Catharine", who was the sheer essence of that jungle Utopia they once lived so serenely in and is now gone forever.

A Nice Reading Copy
Catharine's face reminds me of the station portals from Erickson's debut, Days Between Stations.  It seems like Erickson took a leap and personified his first novel's stations, replete with that mystifying, inanimate light source with no known electrical or natural outlet, and instead evolved the idea of the inanimate stations into stations made out of the being or essence of select humans, these human stations of the Rubicon, like Catharine, station extraordinaire, transmitter of power and beauty and justice, since as Lake notes late in Rubiocn Beach, "there is a number for justice," but without skin and bones vitally infused with the number, the number is impotent.  I see Catharine imbued with that same sourceless station light of precognition -- that light that originates from all times and yet is not of time, so that Catharine exists concurrently in the confines of this phantasmal novel traveling at times on some vortex train track that can transport her here or there in the right now just as swiftly as it can accelerate her forward in the future, but not so far that they she can't decide to wait for her character cohorts, sometime or at some train station, in the past, beyond the river, toward the Giant Oak.

Whatever off-kilter cosmos Steve Erickson's novels inhabit, they've all started making more time non-linear sense to me when I'm reminded what Erickson said he learned from William Faulkner: that time in a novel keeps time not by clocks  -- "the clocks have all stopped, " remember? (and how could you not remember that preternatural zinger of a line from Rubicon Beach's cult-following predecessor, Days Between Stations?) -- but rather, to each character's intrinsic and individualized metronome of memory.  These days, I'm keeping time to Steve Erickson.  I'm far past the point of Rubicon Beach.  I could be walking on water as I read.


Relentless: The Memoir by Yngwie J. Malmsteen

The most intriguing parts of Yngwie J. Malmsteen's new memoir, Relentless, are his childhood and adolescence accounts of his musical maturation in Sweden.  Like most artistic geniuses, he was completely obsessed early on.  He'd forget to eat he was so consumed with his guitar.  When he saw Jimi Hendrix set fire to his stratocaster on one of the two television channels he could watch in Stockholm, he was hooked.  When he heard Deep Purple's Fireball album a year later, he was ablaze himself with an inimitable passion for the electric guitar that could keep him awake all night without the aid of amphetamines.  Had it not been for his mother's sacrifices and interest in classical music, Yngwie might have been just another dime-a-dozen hard rock guitarist to arrive on the scene in the early 1980s, soon to disappear.  But he listened repeatedly to his Mom's and older sister's records, and then one day he chanced on one of those two television channels, a documentary on the life of Paganini (he was twelve or thirteen at the time) and it instantly coalesced in him that what Paganini did on the violin he'd been striving to do on the electric guitar.  Faster faster!  And the metal icon was born.

The rest is neoclassical melodic hard rock and heavy metal history.  Yngwie justifiably stole the spotlight in his short-lived stints in the mediocre metal bands Steeler and Alcatrazz (circa 1983-84) that only hardcore metalheads barely remember.  His recollections of the culture shock coming from the relative safety of Sweden to the mean streets of East Los Angeles where he lived in a dilapidated and rat infested warehouse with his Steeler bandmates, is scary when it isn't so hysterical.  Imagine Mozart teaming up with street corner hobo musicians and the street corner hobo musicians roughing him up and then kicking him out of the band because he refused to be less creative and spontaneous -- refused to be less of who he was, the singular musical prodigy -- and wouldn't play-their-rote-music-by-numbers on stage or in the studio?  That was Yngwie: heavy metal's Mozart turning heads in the clubs on the Sunset Strip, upstaging his Steeler and Alcatrazz bandmates.

But Yngwie was much too much of a rising force to be kept down for long, and launched his successful and well documented solo career. Besides self-glorifying accounts of his godlike guitar virtuosity (granted, Yngwie's merely speaking the gospel truth about himself when he does) there's about half a dozen red Ferraris of his described in painstaking detail.  Rolexes galore.  A posh Miami mansion on the Atlantic.  A Jaguar crashing into a tree and his resultant coma / near death experience, that somehow did not get him off booze and other predictable rock star excesses.  After his first marriage failed, he married one of his devoted groupies, and by the sound of it, the world's finest psycho-bitch ever.  Hearing how he got duped twice by seedy managers who posed as his friends, and proceeded to embezzle millions of his earnings, is just so head shakingly sad.  How could such a genius in music be such an ignoramus with money?  Yngwie was near bankruptcy, but then he found the love of his life, his third wife who became his manager (and they're still happily married today) and he launched a comeback!  Had a kid he clearly dotes on and is so proud of.  Gave the universe "Arpeggios from Hell."  Performed with a world class orchestra in Japan.  Did I mention that Yngwie was the first metal musician from the States (he now considers the U.S. -- not Sweden -- his home) to perform live on stage behind the Iron Curtain, four years before the brouhaha of Bon Jovi, when the press falsely named them the first to do so?  Well, Yngwie is certainly relentless in reminding us of that feat of his in the former Soviet Union time and again.

I'll mention now, even though it's unrelated to the review, that Yngwie gave me the finest metal concert experience of my life -- twice so far in fact -- at House of Blues in Anaheim, California.

Yngwie's colloquial writing style is like yukking it up with him over a beer after work.  He's earthy in one breath and technical-guitar-jargon the next.  "By the time I hit eighth or ninth grade, I said to myself, 'I can't freaking do this shit anymore,' by which "shit" he meant "schoolwork".  "I was taken on at Tord's Guitar Verkstad, a very famous luthier shop ... That's where i first saw a guitar with a scalloped neck.  A scalloped neck has a fret board with concave depressions between the fret wires ... I was so intrigued by this that I tried it out on an old neck of mine, and I was pretty amazed at how you could control the notes with the left (fretting) hand.  So I started scalloping all my guitars."

So Yngwie gets repetitious at times in the telling, his stories are generally so good that hearing them again is like listening a second time to a live solo improvised just enough from the studio recording that the solo sounds almost new.  Even if his editor was out to lunch, Yngwie's fans won't mind much.