A Big Fish in a Little World

Review of Break It Down by Lydia Davis

By Sam Bertolino

“Break it Down” by Lydia Davis

People did not know what she knew,” is often a line I pull apart and then pretend to understand. I’d like to sit down with Lydia Davis and ask her what she knows. But instead I’m inclined to sit here and read this line and attempt to comprehend it. 

People did not know what she knew

Break It Down consists of several short stories, one of which is “What She Knew.”  This is quite a strange piece, a thread of some larger untold story. It’s about a young woman who is greatly confused when a young man finds her attractive. She doesn’t quite see herself as a young woman, you see. It’s a piece about identity, and insides that are fitted to the wrong outsides. It must be understood more broadly, though. It’s probably easy for us to feel estranged from our own selves. To feel cheated by the very flesh stretched over our bones. These are internalized objects; such jarring, private existences within our bodies which sometimes we barely know ourselves. And yet we know these parts so well, and we can name them, sometimes:, “often a fat man, but more often, probably, an old man.” These internalized objects are like wedges on a wheel that is always turning. In fact, we may sometimes be a fat man, but we are also skinny. And though we are often an old man, there are times when we aren’t at all. We are young, and a man, and a woman, and old and thin and fat. We are this and that, and slanted and stretched, and we are more than one thing; in fact, we are many things all at once. And we are always changing, I think. Davis, tell me what you know. 

We are this and that, slanted and stretched, and we are more than one thing

Tell me if there’s a certain connection between this piece and the one on the very next page. “The Fish” is less arcane in its meaning, though somehow I find these two works might be very much the same. In this piece, the woman’s identity is less important. All we know is that she is alone in the kitchen, where she has just prepared herself a fish for supper. Is she not the fish? The very thing she has cooked, and “dismantled from its bones, and fleeced of its silver skin.” The thing that sits in front of her, staring back, “never so completely alone as it is now.” Is she not like our previous narrator, who too felt distant from the world around her? Who felt so estranged by another’s inability to see her truly, to perceive her beneath the woman on the outside. And now, our narrator should feel so alone when others have looked too closely, when they’ve stripped her down too much. I might pull out my own hair now, if we are really damned like this; if we are to be isolated forever; if we don’t even have ourselves as a last, final comfort. How strange, that we might be a fish, lying on a “slab of marble,” flat and open, bare to the world so suddenly. Stranger still, that we might not even know ourselves, that we might be ever-changing, and sometimes one thing, and sometimes not. I suppose there is some comfort in that thought, some comfort in the notion that we might be more dynamic. That we might be, at least in part, something worthy and good and meaningful. That occasionally, in a fleeting moment, we are exactly who we wish to be.

I can’t help but think, though, that we might be laid bare someday — that we are laid bare every day — and still, we will be alone. I can never know the things that you know, Davis. Just the same as you to me. 


Samantha Bertolino is the Long River Review assistant fundraiser and a poetry panel reader. She can be reached at samantha.bertolino@uconn.edu. 


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