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The Bookworm,  the Mousy Translator and the Uptight Professor

The Bookworm, the Mousy Translator and the Uptight Professor

Zigzagging with Lydia Davis' short-short (short) stories.

Lydia Davis may be the most interesting writer in America these days, but she isn’t an easy one to write about. Her compulsive self-correction—her refusal to let any half-truth stand unqualified—can shame a fellow writer into silence: she sets an impossible standard of precision, one that makes the customary fuzziness of book reviews seem inappropriate. Her latest collection, Samuel Johnson is Indignant, is especially hard to do justice to because it’s so varied—in order to avoid false generalizations, I would almost have to review each piece separately. The main thing the pieces have in common is their mutual dissimilarity: they span a full quarter-century, with copyright dates ranging from 1976 to 2001, and range in length from one sentence to 20 pages. Among the highlights are a life of Marie Curie, a one-sided interview about jury duty, a long series of anecdotes adding up to a purposely exhausting portrait of a marriage, and a letter to a funeral parlor objecting to the word “cremains.”

Many of the shorter pieces are meditations on the word or phrase that serves as their title: “Boring Friends,” “Selfish,” “Happy Memories,” “Interesting,” “Special Chair,” “Right and Wrong,” “Company,” and, most explicitly and playfully, “A Mown Lawn,” which also appeared in Best American Poetry 2001 because, although her book says “stories” on the cover, no one really knows what to call Davis’s writing: “She hated a mown lawn. Maybe that was because mow was reverse of wom, the beginning of what she was—a woman. A mown lawn had a sad sound to it, like a long moan ...”

Most of these pieces, and indeed many if not most of the author’s other brief pieces from the past 20 years, are not really short-short stories so much as short-short essays.* Not so the eight pieces reprinted from her first, long-out-of-print collection, The Thirteenth Woman—pieces that stand out precisely because they are stories. Davis seems incapable of writing a bad page, or at least of publishing one, but if your sense of the author derives from her two other available collections, Break it Down and Almost No Memory, and from her nearly nonfictional novel, The End of the Story, you may feel, as I did at first, that you aren’t quite getting a full book’s worth of Davis here.

[*That no such niche exists in modern publishing—that even Lydia Davis must present her essays as stories in order to get them printed and read—suggests the limitations of the "creative nonfiction" genre. If anyone these days is writing creative nonfiction, it is Davis, and yet the term has come to designate personal memoirs, travelogues, and such - works that more often than not are creative only in the same debased sense that bad poetry is "poetry."]

My initial sense of shortchanging (wholly unreasonable, by the way—few authors give you as much for your money) was exacerbated by the inclusion of about a dozen really short pieces, each allotted a page to itself. Here, for instance, is the title story in its entirety:

SAMUEL JOHNSON IS INDIGNANT: that Scotland has so few trees.

These miniatures,** and the white space around them, seem designed to scandalize reviewers (I saw one review that talked of little else), but they also help Davis to modulate the tempo of the book. One problem with story collections is the reader’s tendency to grind to a halt at the end of every story; Davis’s tinies function as bridges between the longer pieces, like the brief, brisk transitions between slower movements in certain Beethoven sonatas.

[**They are reminiscent of the one-liners that aerate John Ashbery's As We Know. Here's Ashbery:   THE CATHEDRAL IS   Slated for demolition. At the molecular level, there is no way to distinguish poetry from prose.]

As for the early stories, they are perfect on their own terms, and together with the later pieces offer an intriguing before-and-after view of Davis’s development. One of the many frustrating things about being a writer is that your idea of excellence changes: no sooner do you make it to one mountaintop, half-dead from exhaustion, exposure, and oxygen hunger, than you look around and decide that you’ve climbed the wrong mountain, that you should’ve climbed that one over there. (Even worse, you realize that you are farther from the right peak than if you’d lazily remained at sea level, since now, before you can climb the new mountain, you must painstakingly descend the old.)

Davis may not have renounced her earlier approach to fiction in the sense of swearing off certain strategies altogether, but she does seem to have reinvented herself as an author since writing the stories in The Thirteenth Woman—and, again, in their case the word fits as it no longer does with most of her more recent pieces. Indeed, the most notable shift in her writing over the years has been from fictions that are clearly and even blatantly fictional—often evoking fabulous genres like fairy tale, myth, and parable—to pieces that insist on being read as more or less straight autobiography. Here are the opening lines of two consecutive pieces:

FINANCES If they try to add and subtract to see whether the relationship is equal, it won’t work. On his side, he is giving $50,000, she says. No, $70,000, he says. It doesn’t matter, she says. It matters to me, he says. What she is giving is a half-grown child. Is that an asset or a liability?

THE TRANSFORMATION It was not possible, and yet it happened; and not suddenly, but very slowly, not a miracle, but a very natural thing, though it was impossible. A girl in our town turned into a stone. But it is true that she had not been the usual sort of girl even before that: she had been a tree.

The titles themselves—attesting as they do to different esthetics, or at least to different ideas of what fiction should concern itself with—will be enough to tip off longtime readers that “The Transformation” is an early piece, “Finances” a later, autobiographical one.

But what makes me so sure that pieces like “Finances” are in fact autobiographical? And in what sense are they nonetheless fiction? Genre confusion may be natural in the case of the briefer pieces—as I say, no one really knows what to call a very short freestanding prose work. (My solution, “piece”—versatile because it’s vague—is hardly an improvement on ungainly makeshifts like “prose poem” and “short-short story.”) But it isn’t only the short works that are ambiguous: it is almost as willful to call The End of the Story a novel (the very title belies the label) as to call “Finances” a story. Although her booklength recollection of a May-July love affair reflects on its own artifice—frequently confessing to eliding or forgetting or conflating incidents and otherwise confabulating—the effect is not to undermine our confidence in the veracity of Davis’s account. On the contrary, we finish the book with the conviction that she has been at least as faithful to real events (and not in some symbolic way, but faithful—truthful—in the most literal and even legal sense) as all those personal memoirs shelved as nonfiction.

Where do we get this conviction? It isn’t from outside sources—interviews, etc.—though what little I’ve seen of such sources confirms my sense that Davis is indeed writing autobiography. That sense is partly due to her cross references: for example, the argument with her husband about healthy versus tasty foods that first appeared in “Meat, My Husband” in Almost No Memory and is rehashed in the new book in “Old Mother and the Grouch”; or the cryptic letter from an ex-lover that Davis devoted a story to in Break it Down and then discussed again at some length (even describing the circumstances in which she wrote the story) in The End of the Story.

But the main thing that convinces us that so much of her fiction really happened is the dailiness, the suppression of her knack for fantasy, the insistence on finding meaning, interest, and beauty in real life. Since about 1980, she has trained her very sharp consciousness mainly on real events, real quandaries, and real memories, rather than imagining superficially more interesting ones.

That may be why the new collection leads off with “Boring Friends,” in which the author confesses that “most of the friends we find interesting find us boring: the most interesting find us the most boring”: she is intrigued by the question of what is and isn’t interesting. Few authors would admit—much less start a book by admitting—that some people find them boring, but Davis bends over backwards not to mythologize herself, heroically resisting the urge (almost as universal among fiction writers as among poets) to present herself and her life as more thrilling than they are. Again and again she portrays herself as a bookworm, a mousy translator, an uptight professor.

Of course, there is irony in all this humility, the same irony Davis explores in “Interesting,” which consists of seven vignettes about people or situations that should be interesting but aren’t (or, in one case, shouldn’t be but is): “Here is a woman I know coming up to me. She is very excited, but she is not an interesting woman. What excites her will not be interesting, it will simply not be interesting.” (In Almost No Memory, “What Was Interesting” begins with an admission that the author’s friend thinks the piece at hand “needs to be more interesting.”) Davis’s writing, like so much serious fiction of the past hundred years, implies a boredom with many of the things traditionally considered exciting by readers and writers—with fiction itself, almost, insofar as fiction assumes that what doesn’t happen is more exciting than what does. When a writer no longer believes that, when she takes to heart the dictum that truth is stranger than fiction, she stops writing fiction (in the usual sense, anyhow) and starts telling the truth.

This unwillingness to fib or fudge has stylistic consequences. Just look at Davis’s use of “but.” Each paragraph of “Interesting” has the same “x but y” structure, and so does each paragraph of “Right and Wrong” (“She knows she is right, but to say she is right is wrong, in this case. To be correct and say so is wrong, in certain cases”). I counted six pieces in Almost No Memory where the first word of the second sentence is “But” and another where it’s “Yet.” Sometimes the pivotal “but” comes midway through the first sentence. If there is, as Wittgenstein suggested, such a thing as a “but”-feeling, no one gives readers that feeling more promptly or reliably than Davis.*** Half of her sentences serve to correct or retract preceding sentences, because no sentence ever points true north; Davis zigzags towards the truth by tacking now to the northeast and now to the northwest. One of the many kinds of fun awaiting you in her new book is the almost kinesthetic pleasure of zigzagging with her.

[***Davis is also demonstrably fond of "and" and "or," "however" and "although," and the sensations they provoke. Not since Samuel Beckett hung up his overalls has there been such an inspired logician working in the switchyard at Conjunction Junction.]