Reading Davin Malasarn in the Waves

 I took The Wild Grass out, and set seiza in the waves.

– C. N. Nevets, on reading a volume of Davin Malasarn short stories while in the water.

Back in 2011, my wife and I took a vacation with family. We went up to northern Michigan, where we stayed at a family cottage and spent considerable time down at the lake. Vacations with her family are especially great for readers. It’s not uncommon for most or all of the family to spend extended time sitting somewhere comfortable and beautiful, just reading quietly. That vacation, I took that experience to a slightly different place and I wrote the blog post you’re about to read to reflect on that experience.

I need to remind myself of this vacation more often. I think there’s a lot here for me to continue to learn as a reader and as a person. There’s something here about mindfulness and active medication. There’s something here, too, about being grounded and about stability amidst change. There’s something here about richness and completeness of experience. There’s value for me in reflecting on these things. I hope there’s value for you, too. I would love for you to comment with some of our own experiences like this, where you transformed something like reading into a more complex and yet more focused moment.

[original blog post with some minor edits]
While on my trip, I did a lot of reading, and after reading one Davin Malasarn story in Stories for Sendai, since we were still in the land of cell signals, I tweeted that I enjoyed how Davin’s writing leaves the reader uncertain what’s obvious and what’s subtle.
I immediately knew I owed folks a blog post about what I meant.  Let me first offer the essence: Davin Malasarn uses bold language and large characters to reach into the most tiny nuances of human life, and to do so in a gentle, quiet way so that you at first think, “Wow, that was subtle,” and then when you reflect a moment longer, you find yourself thinking, “Or should it have been obvious all along?
The Matterhorn,
photo by GammaCygni

I’m not a Buddhist, and I’m not giving you crystal images to tell you ’bout a brighter day, but I do think this passage from, “There is a Mountain,” by Donovan, sort of sums up the Malasarn reading experience:

First there is a mountain
Then there is no mountain
Then there is
This is true in his shorts stories and in his [sadly unpublished] novella Bread, which I have had the privilege of reading.  The first thing that always strikes me is just how strong everything is. Stark language, with a very striking intentionality about pace of structure.  Characters who are complex, but easily apprehended when they first step onto stage.  Everything he wants you to know, he makes sure you know; he writes in a way that everything is accessible.
And yet, at the same time, as I read, I am struck by the subtle and clever — even sneaky — ways in which he uses those strong elements.  While they might be accessible, Davin uses that accessibility to bring the reader into a deeper view of life that the reader even realizes until the very end.  Then, the reader is suddenly breathless, looking back and saying, “Wait, how did that happen?”  We’re talking about my own soul?  My own life?  The nature of the people I love?  The strangers I pass?  How did we get there?
But that’s not where it stops, because then, when you look at those bold elements you began with, you’re left thinking, “Oh, wait, it’s right there.”  Or, “Hold on, he said everything right at the beginning of the story.”  And often he did.  But you didn’t catch it, because you didn’t understand it yet.  Then, after he’s worked his sneaky word magic on your brain, you begin to understand it, and suddenly what was a hidden, subtle shadow in the beginning now seems easy to grasp.
It is the sign of a master writer and a master teacher.
Sitting Seiza,
photo by Tharso

Let me describe the experience in another way, one less explicit but perhaps more instructive. Davin has talked often of the importance of reading circumstances.  It struck me, as I took my half-read copy of The Wild Grass down to the lakeside, that I was in the perfect opportunity to read Malasarn the only way that made sense to me:

There were constant, gentle waves in the lake.  Nothing overpowering, but enough to keep the water in motion.  I took The Wild Grass out, and set seiza in the waves.  I read like that.  Embraced by the water in which I feel more at home than I feel on land.  Rocked about, struggling for balance against the same water.  Keeping the precious book elevated enough that it would stay dry.  Searching for the perfect reading angle in the high sun.  Working hard, even as I was perfectly comfortable, at ease and yet constantly engaged.  I could not think of a place I would rather be, and yet it took constant effort to maintain myself.

Here’s my closing thought as I’ve reflected on the original post: what made that that action so rich and so complete was that it all went together. That was the right way for me turn reading Davin Malasarn short stories into an experience. There are different circumstances and active meditations that might pair better with other writers or other material.

Do you have any you’d recommend?


7 Comments Add yours

  1. Jake Henegan says:

    I've never read anything of Davin's, and I was really looking forward to reading his story in Stories for Sendai. Now I can't wait until my copy (eventually) arrives!

  2. What a great post. I so agree. Sounds like a unique experience.

  3. Yat-Yee says:

    You've dissected Davin's work so well. My own responses resonates with your description. I'll add one more seemingly incompatible pair: his work is simultaneously distant and intimate. He seems to be telling a story from a distance yet the result of such objectivity is that the reader is brought close to the characters after all.Excellent observation, Nevets.

  4. C. N. Nevets says:

    @Jake – I'm sure you'll enjoy it! You'll enjoy the whole anthology. So much variety. I feel really privileged to be part of it!@Deborah – Thank you! It was an incredible experience, very memorable. It has locked those stories deep inside me.@Yat-Yee – I have a lot of respect for your perspective on reading, so I'm glad our views resonate. And I love this pairing you've highlighted. I think it was an idea that was floating on the peripheral that I hadn't yet grasped so thanks for helping me understand it!

  5. Yat-Yee says:

    Nevets: thanks. 🙂

  6. Perfect, Nevets! That's exactly what Davin's work is like – it's certainly something that is ironic, in a very, very amazing way. His writing reminds me of Jhumpa Lahiri's writing, but on different sometimes even better levels. It always leaves me just a bit breathless and my heart beating hard. Scott described it as: "Davin's writing seems bright and crystalline and my chest always feels a certain way, almost like I'm holding my breath, when I read it. Davin is carefully laying out a mosaic, maybe, with the pieces all end-to-end in a well-lit space, every once in a while looking up at me and saying "You get how all the pieces fit together, right?"And he's exactly right and that fits just into what you're saying, I think. 🙂

  7. C. N. Nevets says:

    @Yat-yee — You're welcome!@Michelle – I agree with both you and Scott on this!

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