22 January 2014

Ars Brevis

I pulled down a book the other day. Well, 'pulled down' is not entirely accurate. I picked up a book off the floor the other day. It wasn't just lying around randomly on the floor, though. It was in a row of books lined up relatively neatly in front of one of my bookshelves.

See, I worked my way partially through college and a large part of graduate school shelving books in the libraries at the respective schools I attended, so, out of habit more than anything else, my books are by and large and for the most part organized in my own sort of system: novels in one place, alphabetical by author; short stories on another shelf, by author; poetry, likewise; philosophy, etcetera; psych, religion, …well, you get the idea.

The book I picked up was a book of short stories and it was on the floor with some other collections of short stories, as I said alpha by author, in front of a shelf full of mostly novels (read novels, that is, unreads are on other shelves in other parts of the room). My shelved short story section is in a glassed-in bookcase down in the family room and is, at present and has been for some time, too full for additions, so I have several places like tables and out-of-the-way sections of the floor where I keep my otherwise reasonably well-organized collections until such time as I can either obtain more shelving (i.e., room for shelves) or, heaven forfend, get rid of some other books from other shelves to make room for them.

I was in the mood to read some short stories I hadn't read in some time, or, better yet, some I'd neglected to read. Best yet, some really short ones. And I had seen something that day, or the day before, about Lydia Davis winning a prize recently—the Man Booker International, if memory serves—and I knew she wrote mostly really short pieces. So I went directly to the line-up on the floor where I was something like 95 to 97% certain I would find one or two of my two or three collections of her works. And viola!

Funny story. On the back was this bar code. That in itself is not funny, I realize that, but bear with me. The bar code itself looked rather ancient: it was sort of clunky and the lines were larger and thicker than you see them nowadays. I hadn't seen one quite like it in some time and it drew my attention. Not least because it had a bright yellow strip across the top. Turns out I'd bought the book at BORDERS. For $13.00. That's what was printed on the bar code sticker on the back of the book.

The title page informs it is, was, a First Edition (paperback) published in 2007. I'm going to assume that's when I bought it. Of course, the funny part is BORDERS, the store, the company, the entity, no longer exists. It used to be a nationwide chain of big brick-and-mortar retail bookstores. It later developed an on-line presence, but never quite made it business-wise and went out of business quite some time ago.

So here's this book with an antique-seeming bar code sticker on the back indicating it was purchased from a now-defunct book-as-commodity retailer sitting in a pile—well, not really a pile, but you know what I'm saying—on my floor. Unread. Having survived the downfall of this massive corporate giant. Funny, huh?

Turning the book over there are two things on the front cover that instantly jump out at you. One is a round, silver and black sticker that says 'NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST'. The other is a rather life-like picture, if you can call it that, or image of a common housefly.

The cover itself is barely legible. It is a sort of cream color. And the lettering on the cover has a very similar coloring, though it is of a somewhat shinier texture so that when the light hits it just right you can read 'LYDIA DAVIS/ VARIETIES OF DISTURBANCE/ STORIES' in block letters. But in most lights you can't really read the words on the cover as they blend into the background. The fly, however, or rather the illustration of the fly which is crawling on the lower serif of the 'I' in Davis's last name has an almost three-dimensional aspect including translucent-looking wings and fuzzy shadow. On first glance, it looks like a real fly and something within almost makes you want to swat at it. Cool stuff.

So, my thinking went (and goes), what is the meaning of that fly on the cover? Why is it there? I say the fly because, unlike the NBA sticker—which itself will pull off and in fact has a slight rip at about 11:30 of the clock where it looks like I probably at one time thought about pulling it off and even attempted but abandoned same—the fly is integral to the cover design.

Well, I thought, flies are often symbols of ephemerality. They, if I remember correctly, only live for a day or two, then die. And Lydia Davis writes really short stories. That doesn't mean to imply her stories are short-lived or ephemeral works of art. It's the shortness thing I'm attempting to highlight and equate. Here for example is one of her short stories in its entirety:
"Representatives of different food products manufacturers try to open their own packaging."
That's it. I read that and I'm like WTF? What does that even mean? The title of the story is: "Idea for a Short Documentary Film." But still, pretty damn short.

I'm not sure quite how that qualifies as a "story", [especially given my serial posts here at WoW re: Ur-story—for which click "Serial Posts" at right]. But, at least according to a couple of pretty serious prize-giving organizations, to wit: the NBA and Booker, it certainly qualifies as something. So, there it is. Short, short stories = Fly image on cover.

But then I realized you know what? her book of ephemera (certainly my copy of it) has outlived a massive U.S. corporate entity which sought to commoditize it and monopolize the entire U.S. and potentially worldwide bookselling markets unread, for the most part, in a stack (not really, it was more of a line as I said) on my bedroom floor before I could even get a chance to shelve it properly (this latter having more to do with issues relating to my own hoarding and procrastinatory tendencies and lack of shelf space than anything else, but that's hardly relevant here). So, yeah, the fly on the cover took on another, albeit private, meaning to me the neglectful owner of the book (or at least a copy of the book). A meaning that has more than a trace of irony, no? The fly became the emblem of the book itself, or even BOOK ITSELF. Emblematic rather than symbolic. But wait. It was the Borders corporation that was ephemeral and the book which endured. Davis's book (or at least my copy of Davis's book) outlasted it. So shouldn't the fly, in my own little private symbology, instead be emblematic of the commoditization and corporatism of late capitalist America? My head was spinning from the contradictory realizations.

But then—sorry, I know that's the second straight paragraph I've started with that little narratival throat-clearing tick, but this thing is rapidly winding down so you'll just have to deal with it—I thought once more about the title of the collection: "Varieties of Disturbance". And I realized that, of course, yeah, the simplest explanation was probably the best: houseflies are annoyances. Disturbing little things buzzing around our heads, landing on us and itching, that sort of thing. So, that's probably all it meant, the fly, that is: this is a collection of stories about a variety of things that disturbs or annoys Lydia Davis—like, say, tearing into various forms of corporate packaging and making ironic, post-modern films about having the creators of same being forced to deal with their own annoyance-producing items. Not that whole meta- thing about the fly representing the stories themselves (or books or even artworks, for that matter) that have as their aim to somehow existentially disturb us. That would probably be reading too much into it.

I mean, after all, we're not supposed to judge books by their covers. Am I right? And I was comforted by that thought.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

1) Musca domestica: The adults live from two weeks to a month in the wild, or longer in benign laboratory conditions.

2) This was a very long blog post about a short story writer. I assume that was deliberate...

Jim H. said...

Thanks for the link. Too lazy to do the research, tho' I like the cache of folklorey wisdom it gives the narrator.

I'm thinking about submitting it to a journal or two as a fictional short story.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

In the category, "Allegedly Short Stories", the Academy is please to recognize...