I’m not sure exactly how many nested layers there are to Lydia Davis’s short story “Happiest Moment.” Sometimes I count as many as nine frames to the tale, sometimes only four or five. Sometimes the story seems its own discrete entity. A matryoshka doll could look like one thing or lots of things, I guess, and this matryoskha doll points back at herself: When you open the final doll, the minutest level of narrative, you find that you’ve found the source of the story. The biggest doll is there nesting in the belly of the smallest doll.
But I’m getting ahead, maybe. Break it down:
The title is the first frame, the big doll that declares: This is a story.
The second-person pronoun here is general, sure, but also points directly at you, you reader you. We have here another frame, one outside of the story (because you are the reader) but also bounded inside of it (as the character you).
ask her what is a favorite story she has written,
We’re not into the next frame yet, but we’ve got a new character, a her—a story writer! Like Lydia Davis! The author of this particular story!
she will hesitate for a long time
Still no new frame, but rather the space between layers, the hesitation, the drawing together of thought, judgment, analysis, reflection—Davis doesn’t makes the reader feel any of that rhetorically, instead snappily snapping to the point of this whole deal.
and then say
Okay here’s the next frame. I’m not counting though.
it may be this story that she read in a book once:
Good lord, where to start here. Okay, so, we have another frame, but even more significantly, we have this verbal shift: Our her, our she, our hero-author, who has been asked (hypothetically by interlocutor you) about a favorite story she’s written avers that the favorite story she’s written is a story that she read in a book once.
(To save me the trouble of coming back later: Of course our hero-author is writing the story she read in a book once now; “Happiest Moment” is this performance, kinda, sorta, kindasorta).
an English language teacher in China
There’s a frame.
asked his Chinese student
Another frame (and a second ask).
to say what was the happiest moment in his life.
The student, like the hero-author-has to say his answer (not write it).
The student hesitated for a long time.
(Like the hero-author—note the precise repetition of verbs in this tale).
At last he smiled with embarrassment
(God I love this guy).
and said that his wife had once gone to Beijing and eaten duck there,
(We’re getting to our climax folks).
and she often told him about it,
Another frame, another telling.
and he would have to say
Our verb, our answer—
that the happiest moment of his life was her trip and the eating of the duck.
What a sweet, sweet ending.
The Chinese English language student’s wife’s enjoyment of duck in Beijing is his favorite memory, despite it not being a memory at all, but rather the story of a memory, not his own, but his beloved’s. He relays this memory of someone else’s to his English teacher and the memory somehow ends up in a book, which the hero-author of “Happiest Moment” somehow reads, and then attests to be the most favorite story she has written, despite the fact that she makes it clear that this is a story she read and didn’t write—although of course, she wrote it, because it is the story “Happiest Moment.”