my fluent mundo: the ordinary preoccupations of lydia davis

Davis writes often about ordinary preoccupations that plague a middle-class life, but she does so with a layer of weirdness that’s all her own. In the story Thyroid Diary, the narrator questions the degree to which her underactive thyroid is responsible for everything that’s happening to her…”

 

by kristina eldredge

 

I wasn’t a full-fledged fan of Lydia Davis until I saw her read — then the artistry of her writing was revealed to me. I can’t pinpoint exactly what made this happen — whether it was her wry, intelligent delivery or having her work treated with the care it deserves, read slowly instead of rushed through by a set of eyes in search of some narrative ka-pow, some equivalent of a stream in the middle of a picturesque village. It’s not that I always raced through Davis’s smart, interesting work in this way, but occasionally I felt a craving for more than the voice and interiority that were the trademarks of her fiction.

In fact, I used to think of her writing as sort of cheating, in that she writes about thinking, mostly, rather than creating things that resemble traditional stories. It seemed effortless — a record of the mulling of a worry-prone mind. But when I heard her read the first four short-shorts from her new collection, Samuel Johnson is Indignant, I became aware of the pieces physically — they seemed like mobiles, or scuptures, in which the negative space is as important as what was stated, or there. I realized that an amazingly original and tricky intelligence was present in the movement between one sentence and another. With this new work, Davis’s maturity has added levels of grace and wild humor to her sharp-eyed observations. Along with the rest of the audience, I laughed often at her unadorned, self-mocking sentences. They didn’t seem effortless anymore, but crafted with precision and cunning.

Davis writes often about ordinary preoccupations that plague a middle-class life, but she does so with a layer of weirdness that’s all her own. In the story “Thyroid Diary,” the narrator questions the degree to which her underactive thyroid is responsible for everything that’s happening to her — the way people react to her phone manner, her slowness in playing a board game with her husband and son, what feels like a mental fog. We begin to share her paranoia and fear for her sanity — the story is a deadpan, witty evocation of mushrooming fear concerning not just health but identity. Its structural shape is interesting too. The narrator is being treated by a dentist whose wife is studying painting with the narrator’s husband. With this foursome pinning down the story like rocks on each corner of a picnic blanket, David explores the tenuous strands of relationship linking the characters, and the theme of illness and growth.

But that doesn’t sound particularly interesting, or rather, it sounds like it could be any writer’s story. It couldn’t. Davis specializes in stories that unmistakably could be no one but hers. She’s gotten attention for her one-sentence pieces in this book — the title story, for instance, or my favorite:

EXAMPLES OF REMEMBER

Remember thou art dust.
I shall try to bear it in mind.

Elsewhere a story will consist of a long paragraph meditating on a theme — for instance, happy memories. What does a happy memory consist of? Surely not an encounter with a mere acquaintance, Davis muses — it must involve loved ones, and it must be untroubled by conflict, so will have to be a memory of a time that was unbrokenly happy, etc. But as this collection makes clear, the possibility of solidly happy experiences with loved or unloved ones is quite tenuous, and as we read this piece, the idea of happy memories begins to seem more and more dubious. This slow breaking down of a seemingly benign element is one of the ways Davis is funniest.

A family car trip, the grumpy way a couple will quarrel about every little thing, the issue of fantasizing about other partners while married, a formal experiment concerning jury duty — Davis anatomizes all these situations with great honesty and self-deprecation. In a piece called “Selfish,” she observes, “The useful thing about being selfish is that when your children get hurt you don’t mind so much because you yourself are all right.” Though she’s austere in a way unfamiliar to contemporary fiction, using plain, timeless language instead of including trendy references that signal how savvy she is, the sentiments she expresses are hardly precious. They’re human, coming from a life where someone never turned away from anything uncomfortable or tried to sugar-coat it.

When I saw her read at the Brooklyn Public Library last fall, I thought that of the three readers that night (the other two were Francine Prose and Donald Antrim) Davis seemed the most sincerely odd, in a deep, relaxed way, as if she’d never forsaken her inner idiosyncrasy to cut a more striking figure. The result was she seemed more genuinely striking than either of the other two. She was like the oddball in high school who never even tries to fit in and years later, is vindicated by something spectacular — like being Lydia Davis.

 

Originally published:
Issue Nineteen
April 2002

 

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