APRIL 2, 2014
PERHAPS ONE CAN JUDGE the health of a writer’s reputation by the girth of her books. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, published in 2009 and comprising her first four collections, brought this mercurial author to broader popular attention. Prior to that collection’s publication, Davis had been a MacArthur Fellow and a finalist for the National Book Award, and the French government had named her a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters for her fiction and translations. The Collected Stories came in an edition as compact as a travel guide — 733 pages with a thickness of an inch-and-a-half. At The New Yorker, James Wood greeted this dense orange book as “a body of work probably unique in American writing.”
In 2013, Davis was awarded the Man Booker International Prize, exposing her to an even broader audience, and The Collected Stories can now be found in any mainstream bookstore. When I saw reprinted copies of the collection, I thought new stories had been added to it. The book looked like a chubby version of the edition on my shelf. But no, it remained 733 pages. Since winning the prize, the book had become a half-inch fatter: the paper on which it was printed was that much nicer.
She Has a Monopoly over a Certain Style
If you’re presented a page on which you find a single paragraph and a title, you might suspect you’ve been presented a story by Lydia Davis. If the sentences in that paragraph have the austerity of a textbook — no proper nouns, few concrete details, indeed nothing that typically signals creative writing — you might suspect those sentences were written by Lydia Davis. And if the thoughts in those sentences are formal, stately and supple, but also twisting, barbed, comedic, you will know they were produced by Lydia Davis.
She has a monopoly over a certain style. There is no mistaking “How He Is Often Right,” from Almost No Memory (1997), for the work of anyone but her:
Often I think that his idea of what we should do is wrong, and my idea is right. Yet I know that he has often been right before, when I was wrong. And so I let him make his wrong decision, telling myself, though I can’t believe it, that his wrong decision may actually be right. And then later it turns out, as it often has before, that his decision was the right one, after all. Or, rather, his decision was still wrong, but wrong for circumstances different from the circumstances as they actually were, while it was right for circumstances I clearly did not understand.
Lydia Davis did not invent flash fiction, but she is so far and away its most eminent contemporary practitioner; it will be hard for writers to produce original work of this shape, and even harder for a popular audience to accommodate them. Davis has made it seem as if flash fiction should be written in this way and this way only. Perhaps not since Raymond Carver, whose style yet codifies much American fiction, has a writer been so infectious. Reading Lydia Davis makes one write like Lydia Davis. But as it is with Carver, when I’m presented with a page on which I find even a strong example of the form, written by someone else, I wonder why I need it, when I already have the stories of Lydia Davis.
Thinking Through Her
Readers of American fiction are trained by “show don’t tell” protocol to search for stories between the lines. Confronted with stories as spare as those of Lydia Davis, we might think she can be read like Hemingway, falsely believing we’ve encountered superior examples of American minimalism. But the economy of a Davis story is not that of the “iceberg effect,” with the real story submerged beneath the surface. Rather, in many of her flash fictions, the surface suffices. Take, for instance, “Learning Medieval History” from her new collection, Can’t and Won’t, which consists of three lines:
Are the Saracens the Ottomans?
No, the Saracens are the Moors.
The Ottomans are the Turks.
Certainly one can read between these lines and move away from the work. But Davis places a very definite limit on our usual interpretative method. The title gives us all the context we need. At a certain point not very far from the story, our inferences are useless, and cause us to miss what is actually happening. Perhaps we are unaccustomed to reading through, and not between, the lines. But when we allow the lines to become our thoughts, we experience what the story has to offer: a comedy of history, labels and book-learning.
Her fictions are praiseworthy for the cognitive opportunities they present, the trains of thought for which they lay the rails. In a story such as “Learning Medieval History,” however — and even for a Davis collection, Can’t and Won’t is unusually full of flash fiction — this is also what gives them a sense of exhaustibility, even disposability. Although the humor is self-evident, one must question the lasting value of a piece such as “Housekeeping Observation”:
Under all this dirt
the floor is really very clean.
The Woman Writing the Story
A memorable character emerges from the stories of Lydia Davis, and it is Lydia Davis — author, translator, mother, daughter, friend. Flaubert, whose Madame Bovary Davis has translated to much acclaim, famously argued that “An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.” Davis, on the other hand, is everywhere visible but nowhere present. With so many stories told from the perspective of Lydia Davis, and with her only novel, The End of the Story (1995), told entirely from this vantage, there is an illusion of authorial presence, that we somehow know this woman. But as Davis told The Believer in 2008, “A character in one of my stories may resemble me in certain ways, through a selection of biographical facts or psychological characteristics, but she is something different, a creation.” The persona is apparent but ghostly.
If this persona is indeed a selection of biography and psychology, Davis seems increasingly to be making those selections. One of the joys of her earlier collections is the sense that one can expect anything: Break It Down (1986) varies from the outrageous “Mildred and the Oboe” to the chilling “French Lesson I: Le Meurtre” (still my favorite Davis story), while Varieties of Disturbance (2001) roams from the charming “We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders” to the Beckett-like “Southward Bound, Reads Worstward Ho.” In Can’t and Won’t, there is a narrowing of the imaginative range. Nothing is as startling as “The Rape of the Tanuk Women” (Almost No Memory) or as far-flung as “In a Northern Country” (Samuel Johnson Is Indignant). Instead, Can’t and Won’t is the most wholly interior of Davis’s collections, the most grounded in the Davis persona. Indeed, a great many of these stories are tagged with the word dream, to signify that they were derived from the dreams of Davis and her friends.
Perhaps we are witnessing the development of Davis’s late style, characterized by doubt in the imagination that has, in past collections, been so omnivorous. The one-paragraph “Writing” seems unusually frank:
Life is too serious for me to go on writing. Life used to be easier, and often pleasant, and then writing was pleasant, though it also seemed serious. Now life is not easy, it has gotten very serious, and by comparison, writing seems a little silly.
Can’t and Won’t has its fair share of silliness, in which Davis takes obvious delight. “Her Geography: Illinois” reads:
She knows she is in Chicago.
But she does not yet realize that she is in Illinois.
But in general, Can’t and Won’t hesitates to reach much beyond the biography and psychology of Lydia Davis. I hope she isn’t serious at the conclusion of “Writing” — “What I should do, instead of writing about people who can’t manage, is just quit writing and learn to manage” — but Can’t and Won’t does feel like the work of a partially retired imagination.
Looking for Myself in Her Work
There is a story in Can’t and Won’t titled “How I Read as Quickly as Possible through My Back Issues of the TLS.” In this story, Davis simply lists the topics she is interested in (“the psychology of lying,” “the history of daguerreotypes,” “the Southport Lawnmower Museum”) and what she is not interested in (“London theater productions,” “the Archbishop of Canterbury,” “most of these poems”). We get a picture of the author with a stack of magazines, her mind rapidly categorizing articles according to a hermetic set of standards.
I write reviews for the TLS, and reading this story, I went looking for myself. I hoped she would express interest in one of my articles. I sought a strange kind of approval from Lydia Davis — that is, from the persona of Davis whom I’ve come to believe I know — a sign that her roving, piercing eye had alighted with interest on something I’d written. Disappointingly, I found no mention of my work in particular, but I did sag a little at the following line: “Not interested in: most of this fiction.” I could see myself in there, though I preferred to imagine I was the exception to this rule.
Finding Her Work in Myself
At their finest, the stories of Lydia Davis become new ways of cognizing experience. One of the stronger pieces in Can’t and Won’t is titled “I’m Pretty Comfortable, but I Could Be a Little More Comfortable.” The story is a list of exceedingly minute disruptions: “A man is coughing during the concert,” “I didn’t get two seats to myself on the train,” “I bought sour cream by mistake.”
On a recent bus ride, a woman beside me was talking on her cellphone. She wasn’t as loud as she might have been, but neither was she completely silent, which would have been ideal. Having read the Davis story, I thought to myself, as if it were my own thought, “I’m pretty comfortable, but I could be a little more comfortable.”
Lydia Davis is the master of the marginal conflict. It would be difficult to sympathize even with a close friend who came to you and said, “I have a problem in my marriage, which is that I simply do not like George Frideric Handel as much as my husband does,” but in “Handel,” Davis somehow makes this riveting. Conflicts in Can’t and Won’t seldom rise above quibbles, and much of the pleasure of the collection comes from taking very seriously what ought not to be taken seriously at all.
In “The Problem of the Vacuum Cleaner,” we are given a wickedly arch narrative voice. This is the story in its entirety:
A priest is about to come visit us — or maybe it is two priests.
But the maid has left the vacuum cleaner in the hall, directly in front of the front door.
I have asked her twice to take it away, but she will not.
I certainly will not.
One of the priests, I know, is the Rector of Patagonia.
The story, with its companion piece “The Dreadful Mucumas,” is a delicious satire of class position, and so the aristocratic crisis seems all the more trivial. But the magnitude of the conflict is the same across most of these stories, and the cumulative effect of the collection is that one realizes how constantly, how pompously, how uselessly one is in conflict with the world. By depicting the minor feuds that fill our lives between the major conflicts – those conflicts other authors would take for their subjects – Davis vividly depicts the life of the mind, always interrogating, always objecting, always quarreling with reality. Suddenly, so much of our daily experience — even on a day when nothing happens — seems dramatically in conflict.
Such marginality can sometimes leave the reader with a sense of plain irrelevancy, however, as in a series of disgruntled letters reminiscent of Davis’ famous “Letter to a Funeral Parlor” from Samuel Johnson Is Indignant. In that story, the narrator objects to the parlor’s use of the word cremains to signify the cremated remains of her father: “There is nothing wrong with inventing words… But a grieving family is not prepared for this one. We are not even used to our loved one being gone.” Davis castigates the word — “any invented word, like Porta Potti or pooper-scooper, has a cheerful or even jovial ring to it that I don’t think you really intended when you invented the word cremains” — but simultaneously manages to paint a family portrait. Quibbling with the word, the narrator conveys a palpable fear that in cheapening her speech, she loses the ability to adequately cherish the dead.
In Can’t and Won’t, we’re given “Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer,” “Letter to a Marketing Manager,” “Letter to a Peppermint Candy Company,” “Letter to a Hotel Manager” and “Letter to the President of the American Biographical Institute, Inc.” Again, these are quibbles — the peas pictured on the package do not match the peas themselves; the peppermints in the tin are too few for the price; the word scrod has been misspelt on the hotel restaurant menu — and each of the letters is enjoyable as an example of righteous indignation absurdly disproportionate to the matter at hand.
Unlike “Letter to a Funeral Parlor,” however, these don’t appear to be anything more than quibbles. Reading through the letters, one only has the pleasure of observing expert takedowns, and in the case of “Letter to the President of the American Biographical Institute, Inc.,” which is Davis’s response to a scam informing “Lydia Danj” that she has been nominated for “Woman of the Year—2006,” there is something a little easy in the gesture. Her dissection of cremains is a surprisingly emotional experience; this letter simply picks at the incompetence of spam mail.
Since her first collection, Break It Down, eating fish has formed a point of ethical crisis for Lydia Davis. In “The Fish,” from that collection, a woman stands over a fish she has cooked, “thinking about certain irrevocable mistakes she has made today”:
How can she eat this fish, cooling on a slab of marble? And yet the fish, too, motionless as it is, and dismantled from its bones, and fleeced of its silver skin, has never been so completely alone as it is now: violated in a final manner and regarded with a weary eye by this woman who has made the latest mistake of her day and done this to it.
Such identification, powerfully rendered in this simple story, is the basis of any ethics, and throughout her books, fish have provided a kind of ethical sounding board for Davis, throwing her behavior into relief. She sees herself more vividly, for instance, reflected in the glass of “The Fish Tank,” from Almost No Memory:
As I watch [the fish] through the glass, thinking how fresh they would be to eat, still alive now, and calculating whether I might buy one to cook for dinner, I also see, as though behind or through them, a larger, shadowy form darkening their tank, what there is of me on the glass, their predator.
This multifaceted sentence depicts a range of simultaneous human activity. She salivates at what she imagines the fish will be like cooked; she does the math to see if she can afford them; and meanwhile, a menacing form looms over the tank, and she suddenly recognizes herself — an animal.
Davis is not a moralist: no dogma can be derived from her fiction, and she is always quick to implicate herself in a dilemma. Instead, she demonstrates a commendable ethics of ambiguity. Her fiction finds elegant balance between a variety of valid concerns — her intellectual notions of justice always accommodate the irrationality of emotion and instinct — leaving her reader with an impression of remarkable ethical integrity.
In “Eating Fish Alone” from Can’t and Won’t, Davis develops the motif to its most detailed point yet. This somewhat longer story chronicles several instances of eating fish in restaurants:
I love fish, but many fish should not be eaten anymore, and it has become difficult to know which fish I can eat. I carry with me in my wallet a little folding list put out by the Audubon Society which advises which fish to avoid, which fish to eat with caution, and which fish to eat freely. When I eat with other people I do not take this list out of my wallet, because it is not much fun to have dinner with someone who takes a list like this out of her wallet before she orders. I simply manage without it, though usually I can remember only that I should not eat farmed salmon or wild salmon, except for wild Alaskan salmon, which is never on the menu.
A genuine concern for the health of fish populations is balanced against an equally genuine enjoyment of the flavor of fish and the fun of human company. A moralist would insist she sacrifice her pleasure to her concern; a hedonist would dismiss concern as sentimental. But in the story’s ethical ambiguity, there is something much more radical. Davis’s quiet sensibility almost seems like a gesture of protest in a society accustomed to shrillness.
“He Could Be My Husband”
Lydia Davis is a decorated translator of French literature, and the microscopic focus required for translation is apparent in her fiction. Above all, she is unusually attuned to contingencies –– just how much hinges on the slightest variation of language. This awareness gives her work a comic paranoia around finding le mot juste. In her only novel, The End of the Story, our narrator is a translator who is also working on the novel we are reading. At one point, she wants to organize the material she’s accumulated for the novel:
I am trying to separate out a few pages to add to the novel and I want to put them together in one box, but I’m not sure how to label the box. I would like to write on it MATERIAL READY TO BE USED, but if I do that it may bring me bad luck, because the material may not really be “ready.” I thought of adding parentheses and writing MATERIAL (READY) TO BE USED, but the word “ready” was still too strong despite the parentheses. I thought of throwing in a question mark so that it read MATERIAL (READY?) TO BE USED but the question mark immediately introduced more doubt than I could stand. The best possibility may be MATERIAL—TO BE USED, which does not go so far as to say that it is ready but only that in some form it will be used, though it does not have to be used, even if it is good enough to use.
Notice the superstitious aura that surrounds the paragraph: the narrator fears that her hubris will be apparent by writing certain words, and that she’ll be punished with bad luck. She tries to mitigate the outward show of confidence with punctuation, but too much punctuation hounds her into the inertia of doubt. In the end, she settles upon the most neutral phrasing, which does not, on the label, demonstrate either hubris or doubt, but which will cause her to endlessly replay the debate in the confines of her mind. This is a writer who truly believes that words make things happen, though humor always undercuts this belief, as if what could happen can’t really be all that extreme.
A fine awareness of contingency follows through to Can’t and Won’t. In the title story, for instance, Davis calls into question the arbitrariness, though also the importance, of literary style:
I was recently denied a writing prize because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions: for instance, I would not write out in full the words cannot and will not, but instead contracted them to can’t and won’t.
If she hadn’t used contractions, would she have won the prize? If any writer changes this or that word, will she win a prize? If we changed all the words in the story “Can’t and Won’t” to a multitude of other words, it might form a novel or play or lyric poem, perhaps a very good one, and then what would happen? Everything and nothing depends on these choices.
Contingency spills from the page into our lives. In “If at the Wedding (at the Zoo),” we’re given a series of paragraphs, such as:
If we hadn’t come early and seated ourselves on a bench in the sunlight under the pavilion roof to await the start of the ceremony, we wouldn’t have seen the runaway pony trot past trailing its rope.
Having shown us the precariousness of translating experience into language, Davis then indicates the contingent nature of that experience. In vertigo, we perceive a chain of “If/then” statements stretching all the way back to the Big Bang.
A pair of stories titled “Contingency vs. Necessity” crystallizes the theme. The second story, “On Vacation,” reads:
He could be my husband.
But he is not my husband.
He is her husband.
And so he takes her picture (not mine) as she stands in her flowered beach outfit in front of the old fortress.
Everything that happens can be fit into this story.
Can’t and Won’t is structured in five parts, signaled by Roman numerals, but I can detect no system to the divisions. In fact, the disorder of the stories is essential to our pleasure. Unlike the collections of other authors, in which one falls into an interpretive rhythm, Davis requires agility. The experience of reading Can’t and Won’t is rather like that of coming across the commonplace book of a very private and strange intelligence. One can almost imagine its spine hand-stitched like the booklets of Emily Dickinson.
As the notes to the collection indicate, the stories were published one by one throughout a range of journals and magazines. I have the happy image of a grand intelligence, regularly sending stories drifting out to pollinate the world. She seems to vitalize and fortify the minds her stories meet. I wonder if thoughts are fluid, and flow from one person to another — and then I realize this is something I read in a story by Lydia Davis.