BY LYDIA DAVIS’S FABLED STANDARDS of brevity, The Cows is an epic. Clocking in at 30 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?
The surface pleasures of The Cows arrive in the form of the narrator’s teasing intelligence, her unerring precision and splendid ear. “They like to lick things — a person’s hand or sleeve, or the head or shoulders or back of another cow. And they like to be licked: while she is being licked, she stands very still with her head slightly lowered and a look of deep concentration.” Indeed, such deep concentration might seem to be the point of The Cows, as if — like David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King — its primary errand was to urge us to pay attention. I can’t help thinking there’s something more, or at least different, at work here, though. The book’s narrator is studiously contained. There’s a stated plurality (“They are not disappointed in us, or do not remember being disappointed. If, one day, when we have nothing to offer them, they lose interest and turn away, they will have forgotten their disappointment by the next day”). The narrator is married, or at the very least coupled, but that’s all we ever determine of her. The cows, however, are a math problem, a puzzle, a sequence of metaphors (likened, in aggregate or in their parts, to a series of train cars, a pump handle, a boot jack). Again and again, their activity, or lack thereof, is presented as an enigma.
He says to us: they don’t really do anything.
Then he says: But of course there is not a lot for them to do.
Finally, though, the narrator cracks. “It is hard to believe a life could be so simple, but it is just this simple,” she says. “It is the life of a ruminant, a protected, domestic ruminant. If she were to give birth to a calf, though, her life would be more complicated.”
One can read this, of course, in any number of ways. Not least, in whatever it suggests about the presence, or absence, of “calves” in the speaker’s own life, and about the speaker’s attitudes (does one hear contempt? gentle mockery? both?) toward this fact. But the book splinters, from there, into maternity, mortality. Just as wondrously as they appeared, the cows find their own graceful way of dissolving. It’s, uh, silly here to speak of “spoilers.” But the book does seem to me to find a particularly bright and liminal resolution. Beyond concentration, Lydia Davis finds plenty to say about the nothing that is not there, and the something that is.