Apr/May 2014

The Grain of the Choice

Lydia Davis's inimitable decision process

Christine Smallwood

When Lydia Davis won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, the attempt to fix a label to her work reduced one of the judges, professor Sir Christopher Ricks, to a bit of flailing. “Lydia Davis’s writings fling their lithe arms wide to embrace many a kind,” he fretted. “Just how to categorize them? Should we simply concur with the official title and dub them stories? Or perhaps miniatures? Anecdotes? Essays? Jokes? Parables? Fables? Texts? Aphorisms, or even apothegms? Prayers, or perhaps wisdom literature? Or might we settle for observations?” Personally, I’m not sure what the problem with just calling her a writer is, unless it’s this: If what she does is writing, we need a new name for what everyone else is doing.

Davis is the author of a novel and five volumes of short stories, some of which are as long as fifty pages and some of which are no more than a phrase. (It’s the latter that have attracted the most interest.) She doesn’t do narrative scenes at any length, and her “characters” are often just pronouns involved in an action or caught up in a memory. She’s like a monochrome painter; she makes the impossible look easy. The title story of her latest collection, Can’t and Won’t, goes as follows:

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 say can’t and won’t.

Two sentences that begin at laziness and end with will: Writing, like life, is a series of choices. Which word here, there; when to stop? Like Proust, whom she has translated, Davis writes the act of writing itself. I don’t just mean that her narrators tend to be teachers or authors, though that’s true; I mean that her stories are filled with moments of crisis about how to carry on, or what word to put down next, and fears that it could all mean nothing in the end. She’s a theorist of the arbitrary. The fact that she makes it look so easy—so arbitrary, even—is part of the fun.

The story “I’m Pretty Comfortable, but I Could Be a Little More Comfortable” is a good test case. It consists of sixty-seven sentences, six of which are long enough to run to a second line, separated by line breaks. From one point of view, the particulars of each little discomfort don’t matter at all. We could replace every one with something else and we’d still have a story about being not as comfortable as one could be. But for Davis, the specifics are everything—the only things.

I’m hungry.

They’re quarreling again.

This soup doesn’t have much taste.

My navel orange is a little dry.

I didn’t get two seats to myself on the train.

What, other than a slightly dry navel orange, could produce discomfort in the particular way that a slightly dry navel orange does? (Twenty-seven of the entries in this story concern problems related to eating and drinking; many, including the too-dry navel orange and a not-dry-enough dry corn muffin, concern wetness and dryness.) In Davis’s world, discomfort—vague, eternal—is not interesting. It is the thing—the soup that lacks taste, the irreplaceable knowledge that “I don’t look forward very much to that sandwich”—that she cares about. The combination and accumulation of things might add up to a general discomfort, but they always retain their essential peculiarities.

Food, not at all incidentally, is very important to Davis’s world, particularly fish and sausages. Her stable of familiar objects also includes pianos, sweaters (often red), trains and train stations, farm animals, and cats and dogs. Her narrators spend a lot of time at home, where obdurate domestic objects lie always ready at hand. They observe, play with, rely on, and live near this stuff. They give and receive it. They complain about and eat it. People die and leave it behind.

And they worry, endlessly worry, comically and tragically worry, over it: Why this sandwich, why any sandwich? The anxious writer of “The Letter to the Foundation” puts it like this: “Sometimes I did exactly what I wanted to do all day—I lay on the sofa and read a book, or I typed up an old diary—and then the most terrifying sort of despair would descend on me: the very freedom I was enjoying seemed to say that what I did in my day was arbitrary, and that therefore my whole life and how I spent it was arbitrary.”

Click to enlarge

Jim Hodges, Arranged, 1996, book, metal paper clips, 5 x 6 1/2 x 10".

For Davis, arbitrariness is a product of ennui, a vacuum that threatens to open in every space that separates words. It’s not the same as randomness. In “Not Interested,” a story about being, yes, “not interested” in stories, the narrator explains that “I don’t want to be bored by someone else’s imagination. Most people’s imagination just isn’t very interesting—you can guess where the author got this idea and that idea. You can predict what will come next before you finish reading one sentence. It all seems so arbitrary.”

To predict, you have to be able to create causal relationships, which is not usually how we understand arbitrariness—but what if logic were the most arbitrary thing of all? “Arbitrary” has to do with caprice or liking, something about taste, something over which there can be no dispute because there can be no rationalization. But even at their slightest and slenderest, Lydia Davis stories have an insistent tone, a demanding quality; they cling to something more than taste. Their shield against whimsy is facticity—an insistence that there was soup, there was a sweater. (Her sausages are not symbols.) Nothing could be more obviously constructed and artificial, and yet her narrators insist, vociferously, on their reality and its meaningfulness; that is how their preferences become principles.

In this light, consider “How I Read as Quickly as Possible Through My Back Issues of the TLS” as a kind of parable. The narrator categorizes her back issues of the Times Literary Supplement according to statements like “Do want to read about the creation of the musical South Pacific” and “Not interested in: the creation of the Statue of Liberty.” The narrator’s preference for South Pacific over the Statue of Liberty is a matter of taste, but it is not arbitrary, because we are meant to accept it as real—as a fact on par with a stack of paper. This is why her narrators find it so unbearable when they cannot say if, or how much, they like something. One cannot, under such circumstances, say anything; it is very difficult to go on at all. Such is the situation in “The Two Davises and the Rug,” in which the narrator, named Davis, agonizes over whether or not to sell a rug to another person named Davis. By the way, rugs: another favored object.

Can’t and Won’t is divided into five parts, each of which includes, differently ordered, the same genres: translations from Flaubert’s letters; one story about geography; one letter of complaint; a smattering of dreams. Of the dreams, some were dreamt by Davis and some were given to her by friends. (A dream, of course, is the least arbitrary thing imaginable.) All of Flaubert’s stories and some of Davis’s own involve death. Death is potent for Davis because it signals the end of some habits and the inauguration of new ones; it makes some things irrelevant and some things sacred. “You wouldn’t think a person could become attached to something like a jar of tartar sauce,” the narrator of “The Seals” says after her sister dies. “But I guess you can—I didn’t want to throw it out, because she had left it.”

In past collections Davis played with the genre of the case study (see “Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality,” from Varieties of Disturbance). Can’t and Won’t is instead filled with cases of mistaken identity. In “Letter to the President of the American Biographical Institute, Inc.,” a narrator named Lydia Davis explains that she has received a nomination for “WOMAN OF THE YEAR—2006” addressed to one Lydia Danj. In “Letter to a Marketing Manager,” the writer corrects the Harvard Book Store for featuring her book in a column called “Spotlight: McLean Alumni.” The writer, in point of fact, has never been a patient at McLean. “It is always nice to have some attention paid to one’s book, but embarrassing to be misidentified in this way,” she concludes. In “Wrong Thank-You in Theater,” a woman who has acknowledged the thanks of another woman is corrected: “She was not thanking me, she was thanking the usher, who is standing a few feet behind me.”

Lydia Davis is a translator even when she’s not working in a foreign language. Writing is always a practice of choosing, but she makes this the subject as well as the method of her work; her meticulous, obsessive “correctness” makes words as fraught as they are funny. The first story in Can’t and Won’t,“A Story of Stolen Salamis,” tells of a break-in into a shed of cured and smoked salamis that are, in the course of a paragraph, twice mistaken for sausages. What would make someone think a salami is a sausage? How does the word scrod become schrod? Could a Lydia Davis story ever be mistaken for a story by someone else? You might as well ask if I could dream someone else’s dream.

Christine Smallwood is a New Books columnist for Harper's Magazine.