Apr/May 2007

Analyze This

In her stories, Lydia Davis scrutinizes everyday communication

Ben Marcus

In Lydia Davis's introduction to her 2003 translation of Swann's Way, she observes that Proust "categorically rejected sentences that were artificially amplified, or that were overly abstract, or that groped, arriving at a thought by a succession of approximations, just as he despised empty flourishes." For those of us who had only read C. K. Scott-Moncrieff's jewel-encrusted translation, this might have seemed true of any writer but Proust. Beautiful though his prose was, economy of utterance, a resistance to modifiers, and an approach to language that mirrors thought did not seem apt descriptions.

Yet Davis's precise rendering put Scott-Moncrieff's seminal translation on a diet, reversing our sense that Proust favored ornamented language. He was reanimated as another kind of writer entirely, one much more aligned with the aesthetic practiced by the translator herself. Davis is a not-so-apparent heir; she is less a novelist of the self, telling the truth about time (as Proust suggested writers should try to do), than an essayist in story writer's drag, drilling perfect wormholes into the bedrock of philosophy while upsetting our sense of just what shapes fiction might take.

Indeed, as a fiction writer, Davis does not diagnose. Obsessed with the documentary approach, forcing ideas—rather than characters—to absurd, if poignant, endings, exploiting the dull, bureaucratic language of found texts, and stiff-arming nostalgia and sentiment, she is not easily located in the various traditions of American fiction. For one thing, she has passed over many of the genre's entrenched techniques. In a novel and four major collections of stories, Davis has pursued essayistic and philosophical narratives so sculpted, so enamored of logic, and so unnervingly patient that one suspects another estimation she offers of Proust might serve as her own credo: "The shape of the sentence was the shape of the thought, and every word was necessary to the thought."

If economy and precision are regulating principles for Davis, the words do not adequately indicate just what it's like to read her work. Her narrators solve puzzles, volley equations, and worry over issues of semantics, while choosing to ignore the human implications of their pursuits. In "Grammar Questions," a story from the new collection, Varieties of Disturbance, the narrator wonders: "If someone asks me, ‘Where does he live?' should I answer, ‘Well, right now he is not living, he is dying'?" Usage matters more than the dying person: a stark reversal of values that injects that looming death into the atmosphere. Through this calculating intelligence, Davis avoids the narrative dressing that typically assists the reader's feelings. Furthermore, there's a nearly autistic failure to acknowledge the emotional heart of the matter, and a curious lack of interest in narrative scenes between characters. The diction is cold and delivered in an anthropological monotone, which throbs like a bass note, suggesting that human beings are no more significant than a glass of water (indeed, Davis would make far more hay with the choice between glass of water and cup of water). The remarkably bullheaded story "Jane and the Cane" doesn't give an inch toward the acknowledgement of emotion:

Mother could not find her cane. She had a cane, but
she could not find her special cane. Her special cane
had a handle that was the head of a dog. Then she
remembered: Jane had her cane. Jane had come to visit.
Jane had needed a cane to get back home. That was two
years ago. Mother called Jane. She told Jane she needed
her cane. Jane came with a cane.

Yet as the story unfolds, a troubling backstory, eerily unspoken, arises behind the sentences. Despite her strict approach, Davis can achieve an impressive degree of realism when it comes to revealing the essence of thinking and feeling. For a writer who is, on the surface, so strenuously cerebral, she produces writing that is often exceedingly intimate, and it's this discrepancy that proves rewarding in her work.

It's popular in reviews to quote entire Davis stories, because some of them are single sentences, which are not stories as we generally know them. The risk is evident to the eye before these texts are even read. We see a lone sentence on the page, and a pleasurable anxiety surges up, coupled with curiosity and excitement. How on earth will she do it? What could a single sentence possibly say that will be equivalent to an entire story, and how might this ever feel complete, the way a story can when it ends? Before we've read a single word, we succumb to a high degree of tension and worry, and reading the actual sentence is almost an afterthought. "Collaboration with Fly" consists of a lone observation:

I put that word on the page, but he added the apostrophe.

The inferred image suggests that an insect will alter the meaning of a word simply by landing on a piece of paper. Like a haiku, it's not about a person, and yet this epigrammatic tale lacks the hectoring quality found in some ultrashort poems and prose pieces (which treat enigma as a kind of scold, suggesting that your inability to experience an epiphany might be your own fault). And clearly, there's a modesty about these brief stories. While an entire book of them might strain our ability to summon surprise and fascination, their strategic placement in each of Davis's major collections offers fair notice to readers that attention will be rewarded in odd ways, that single lines will be crucial, and that pleasure can arise from mundane details.

Davis's playfulness is not without a philosophical dimension, readying us for more substantial undertakings such as her novel, The End of the Story (1995), which offers a love story up as a case study. The narrator's relationship with a man she hardly loved is viewed less as a passionate affair than as a story: In other words, the relationship is artificial, has characters and scenes, and, most fatally, has been made up. The affair can be interpreted and revised; it might not be believable, and it might fail. This approach turns love into a logic problem, and if subjecting matters of the heart to logic is one way to trample the nuances of feeling, in Davis's hands the narrator's poker-faced methods excavate something new from a very old story.

Still, the novel did not fully signal the formal innovation and genre blending she soon began to practice. The three collections that followed it—Almost No Memory (1997), Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (2001), and now Varieties of Disturbance—suggest that Davis has been warming up to something even more adventurous and ambitious. These developments are most strikingly on display in "We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders," a title that—lest you think it's a joke—perfectly serves this text. Unlike some writers, who might adopt such a formal conceit as a gateway into a narrative, Davis never wavers from the critical task she sets herself in the piece, and the result is confoundingly literal. A series of get-well cards is parsed and analyzed for the meaning in each line, studied under a magnifying glass in the manner of a kind of linguistic archaeology: "The letters are written on lined exercise paper of two different sizes.""The teacher has inked in corrections on some of the letters." "Only a few children express curiosity about Stephen's experience in the hospital."

As the methodical assessment unfolds, burrowing into the usage strategies of each student and the implications of their stylistic choices, Davis achieves something uncanny: a disturbing portrait of a bewildered young community confronting the possible loss of one of its own.

The question raised by this and several similar stories in the collection is, What makes writing of this sort fiction? Context is everything: Davis calls it a story, it's published as fiction, so we might trust that events have been constructed, embellished, or stylized. She might have discovered a box of these get-well cards at a yard sale and produced her sincere analysis from real artifacts, or she might have invented the cards entirely. Yet in content, manner, and execution, "We Miss You" looks exactly like a found text, albeit a maniacally odd one, written for strictly sociological purposes.

By scrutinizing the sentences spoken or written by her subjects, Davis performs a forensic examination on their personalities, proving that even their most casual or accidental phrases, the little bits of banal and inaccurate language we all use daily, can serve as dramatic evidence of our fears and desires. Her effort suggests that the creation of character could just as well be a matter of science as of art. And it's the empirical method of science, rather than an intuitive style of storytelling, that drives her best stories. But this method has not previously been applied to the texts of get-well cards or to the maid-hiring practices of a woman over the course of her life ("Mrs. D. and Her Maids")—and it's this pairing of technique and content that yields vital, genuinely original writing, fiction as fascinating and absorbing as the most engrossing traditional narrative. Thus the issue of genre—whether this is fiction or something else—quietly stops mattering, and it becomes clear that Davis is an extraordinary technician of language, capable of revealing elusive human tendencies through the most unusual means.

Ben Marcus is the author of The Age of Wire and String (Knopf, 1995) and Notable American Women (Vintage, 2002).