BY LYDIA DAVIS' FABLED STANDARDS of brevity, The Cows is an epic. Clocking in at thirty pages (admittedly, most interrupted by photographs), the book is a novella, or at least a very long short story, allowing for Davis's by now expected compression. The book's jacket compares The Cows to Wallace Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at A Blackbird," but this seems to me half-accurate. Stevens's poem is essentially a drama of perception. As the title proposes, the blackbirds are viewed, metaphorically filigreed, passed through the prism of the poet's consciousness. The speaker is mandarin, but even as he traverses the poem — with its "glass equipage," its "bawds of euphony" — the birds remain stubbornly opaque. The Cows, while not less ontological than Stevens's poem, is a good deal more domestic, and more openly disposed to the animals themselves. Where the poet's birds are a floating enigma, Davis's mammals are a warm study, full of mood and motive. They're not merely "looked at," but watched, concentrated upon until their mystery both yields and multiplies, until the consciousness of the story's narrator — never named, rarely lifting her attention from the animals across the road — breaks upon something else as well.
Davis has remarked in the past that her concentrated style was "a reaction to Proust's long sentences." And reading The Cows, I found myself wondering again how the author's translation choices — not just the humid whorls of Proust but the jungled dependencies and coordinate clauses of Flaubert, say — reflect themselves in her own work. Is it boredom, that most chronically French of emotions, that finds its way not just through the provincial horrors of both Rouen and Illiers-Combray, but into the clipped foreshortenings of Davis's own stories as well? In part, Davis's stories always seem a half-step away from a debilitating migraine, but The Cows seems particularly playful, gentle. Her consciousness here bristles, stirs, even strains, but it rarely furrows or breaks.
Each new day, when they come out from the far side of the barn, it is like the next act, or the start of an entirely new play.
They amble out from the far side of the barn with their rhythmic, graceful walk, and it is an occasion, like the start of a parade.
Thus the book begins, with a pair of sentences whose assonances and homely repetitions are a marvel. Like the cows themselves, they are both graceful and ungainly. And while they somewhat wryly frame dramatic expectations, such expectations collapse quickly. "They come out from behind the barn as though something is going to happen and then nothing happens." Well?