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Fall 2010

Strict Constructionism

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Richard Locke

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009,
$30.00 cloth.

In the second half of the twentieth century, American short stories flourished in a conspicuous variety of forms, from John Cheever’s suburban elegies to Flannery O’Connor’s rural fables, from Donald Barthelme’s surreal pop-art collages to Raymond Carver’s stoic morality tales. Over the past twenty years or so, an acknowledged mistress of “avant-garde” or “experimental” short fiction (though such freeze-drying labels misrepresent it) has been Lydia Davis, whose protean stories—ranging in size from a few words or a line or two to nearly fifty pages—exhibit super-abundant formal ingenuity in the service of emotional, moral, and semantic precision. Davis’s strict constructionism (judicious, not judicial) has yielded an extravagant diversity of work.

In a talk to graduate writing students at Columbia last spring, Davis spoke about her excitement as a young writer at discovering Babel, Beckett, Kafka, Paley—writers who provided models of scrupulous intensity, explosive compression, syntactically enacted compassion. She quoted sentences from Beckett’s Watt that sounded like a grand Old Testament prophecy of some of her own themes and styles, in which reason and sorrow struggle like Jacob and the Angel. She then read the intensely condensed opening of Paley’s “Wants,” which prefigures her own wry soliloquies of sentimental education.

By the time her talk was over, she had traced her lineage of influence and admiration to some fifteen writers from Russell Edson to Proust. What had begun as a shop-talk about one writer’s beginnings had become a pageant, an exemplum of literary activity —a profession. The writer who had started with translations of Leiris and Blanchot and with some idiosyncratic short short stories had turned into the translator of Swann’s Way and the author of a novel and four volumes of stories—148 stories—republished in a collected edition of 730 pages. She’d gone from bonsai to forest management.

Still, when we turn to the Collected Stories we see that for all their variety they are bound, or held in the embrace, of a first and last story that speak of one theme—of the sorrow that is in modern love and marriage and of the attempt to create a verbal action that will both contain and express, honor, lament, and contest that love and marriage. So on page three we read in “Story”:

I sit down and write in my notebook that when he calls me either he will then come to me, or he will not and I will be angry, and so I will have either him or my own anger, and this might be all right, since anger is always a great comfort, as I found with my husband. And then I go on to write, in the third person and the past tense, that clearly she always needed to have a love even if it was a complicated love.

Some of this material reappears in Davis’s novel The End of the Story, but what’s striking is that from the start of her career she could offer so expert an example of literary form as a compensatory (even doomed or sentimental) response to disorderly dependency.

And at the end of her Collected Stories, 730 pages later, we find “A Different Man,” which reads in its entirety:

At night he was a different man. If she knew him as he was in the morning, at night she hardly recognized him: a pale man, a gray man, a man in a brown sweater, a man with dark eyes who kept his distance from her, who took offence, who was not reasonable. In the morning, he was a rosy king, gleaming, smooth-cheeked and smooth-chinned, fragrant with perfumed talc, coming out into the sunlight with a wide embrace in his royal red plaid robe…

So she concludes with a valediction of time passing, of a dwindling into cramped old age, but then in an act of ironically sentimental romantic retrospection, she delivers a final flurry—with the ever-present participles “gleaming” and “coming out into the sunlight” animating and glamorizing a last sentence that ends not with a period but with an ellipsis springing hope eternal.

In between these bookends, in dozens of stories, we’re given scenes from a marriage, a divorce, remarriage, baby and child rearing, the decline and death of elderly parents—three generations of beleaguered affiliation. (As in Paley’s stories, we’re at the antipodes of confessional self-absorption: these characters fully extend themselves towards infants, children, and elderly parents.) Whether in the first or third person, Davis’s stories often take the form of miniature essays, journal entries, witty marquetry, investigations of English usage or ethical problems, but they always arise from an unspoken but clearly implicit, immediate, local dramatic context. They work as soliloquies—in tones that range from the modest and precise, the reasonable and good-willed, to the jokey and edgy, the obsessive and reluctantly enraged. The speaker is often caught and cosseted in the coils and toils of syntactical elaboration. But these stories are very different from the theatrically ranting Swiftian monologues of Thomas Bernhard or the polyphony of Donald Barthelme. At heart, Davis’s stories are emotionally closer to Chekhov’s, though they can look and sound like cousins of the nouveau roman.

At times some of them approach the New Yorker satire of Woody Allen (as in “Kafka Cooks Dinner”) , but they’re never self-congratulatorily mocking or merely whimsical or in it just for the laughs. Many spring from the contrast between the grand historical past and our tiddlywinks times—for example, “Certain Knowledge from Herodotus: These are the facts about the fish in the Nile:” (end of story) or “Samuel Johnson is Indignant: that Scotland has so few trees” (end of story). But some of the short short stories erupt from an implied context of a quarrelsome marriage, like this angry response to an angry rebuke—“Tropical Storm,” which reads in its entirety: “Like a tropical storm, I, too, may one day become ‘better organized.’” Here, through the magic power of metaphor, a snarl has become a meteorological catastrophe ironically packaged in office management lingo but clearly capable of Ovidian devastation.

Davis is also supremely confident in mobilizing long historical fictions such as “Lord Royston’s Tour” (a nineteenth-century journey through Scandinavia, Russia, and Central Asia), or the wonderfully stilted, “badly translated” biography “Marie Curie, So Honorable Woman” (filled with deadpan Ashbery-like malapropisms). Davis can write like a cautious anthropologist describing hostile neighbors maneuvering in a Paris courtyard or watching farmers and hunters in the French countryside. She can interweave a domestic narrative about an unhappily married mother of a demanding baby with a complex meditation on high and low culture arising out of her surprised relief to learn that Glenn Gould also watched the Mary Tyler Moore TV show. The interaction of past and present, fiction and nonfiction, of lonely small-town childcare routines and recollections of the art and eccentricities of a reclusive musical genius, is superbly managed—every one of the narrator’s thoughts springs from her particular, slowly gathering dilemma and vivifies it.

Some of the most impressive, affecting, and formally ingenious stories are pseudo-sociological/anthropological reports on small-town women’s lives. “Mrs. D and Her Maids” is a social history of a mid-twentieth-century housewife’s domestic arrangements and activities narrated by an omniscient family chronicler who conveys much of it through letters from or about the sixteen maids (or, later, “cleaning women”) that Mrs. D employed over many years. Even more impressive is the forty-seven-page pseudo-documentary “Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality,” written in the style of an infinitely detailed social-work report on two provincial elderly women, one of African-American and one of Swedish descent, both “still thriving in their eighties and nineties,” which slowly builds into a work of unsentimental pathos and dignity.

The finest of these documentary stories is “We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders,” which in twenty-six pages assembles the entire world of an American small-town childhood in 1951 out of an editorial and cultural-anthropological analysis of twenty-seven letters written as an elementary school assignment. The likely autobiographical origins of this story are much less significant than its literary triumph as a representation of mid-century American mentalité created as if by some hybrid of Lévi-Strauss, Robert Staughton Lynd (of Middletown), and Humbert Humbert celebrating Lolita’s school class list (“A poem, a poem, forsooth”). But Davis’s narrator is deliberate, impersonal: her calm professional prose proceeds with an unfailing, courteous attention that perfectly mirrors the self-approbation of this small community responding to a fellow-student’s mysterious illness (a case of osteomyelitis) with tender stilted formulas that manage to keep everything nicely in its place. “We Miss You” is a wonderful descendant (and benign variant) of Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet (Davis’s favorite among his works), but its irony is never caustic and it never stoops to superiority to its subject. It’s a work of disinterested, unsentimental compassion and true virtuosity: postmodernism with a human face.

Many postmodernist works are riven by Oedipal longing and rage against the dead hand of the past—they often lurch into grandiosity, or giggling intricacy, or flee into the chill reaches of the abstract. But two classic postmodernist stories, Barthelme’s “Views of My Father Weeping” and Paley’s “A Conversation with My Father,” raise intergenerational conflict—both aesthetic and psychological—to the pitch of genius. Barthelme’s story is a symphony of parody, bombast, shuddering denunciation, and rebellion, Paley’s a duet of dancing contention, accommodation, resistance, witty deferral, and lament. Lydia Davis’s stories of (presumably) her elderly parents’ decline and death and of her own attempts to care for them and then mourn them should take their place beside Barthelme’s and Paley’s.

There are seventeen of them, starting with the not-so-light comedy of “Old Mother and the Grouch,” which begins “‘Meet the sourpuss,’ says the Grouch to their friends. ‘Oh, shut up,’ says Old Mother.” But we soon veer into “Letter to a Funeral Parlor,” in which the writer’s objections to the use of the word “cremains” become an act of mourning for her father (the English professor and critic Robert Gorham Davis). “The Furnace” is built around his memories of his childhood house and his failing mental powers. “Almost Over: Separate Bedrooms” describes the last days of her parents’ marriage: “They have moved into separate bedrooms now. That night she dreams she is holding him in her arms. He dreams he is having dinner with Ben Jonson.” “A Man from Her Past” is about her ninety-four-year-old mother after her husband has gone into a nursing home: she flirts (in sad compensation) with an old friend—“though her body is old, her capacity for betrayal is still young and fresh.”

There’s a too nearly sentimental miniature dialogue called “Head, Heart” (“Heart weeps. Head tries to help heart”), but the last of these stories, “Traveling with Mother,” ends with the narrator traveling on a long-distance bus with her mother’s ashes in a rolling suitcase: “It has been so long since she and I traveled together. There are so many places we could go.” The wistful girlish tone conveys and characteristically ironizes the sentimentality.

In a symposium on Thomas Pynchon five years ago, while acknowledging the “weightier, complex pessimism and bravura” of his later works, Lydia Davis praised one of his early stories in terms that surely apply to many of her own: “There is a lyrical humanity in this story, an almost unapologetic gentleness, inviting and inclusive…” It would be a gross simplification to suggest that “lyrical humanism” is the core of Davis’s works—for they offer the most energetic, various, and eloquent refutation of such simplifications—but it’s worth emphasizing that this prolific virtuoso nearly always employs her virtuosity as Marianne Moore did in Randall Jarrell’s description: “Her forms, tricks and all, are like the aria of the Queen of the Night: the intricate and artificial elaboration not only does not conflict with the emotion but is its vehicle.”

Richard Locke is professor of writing and director of nonfiction at the Columbia University School of the Arts. He is working on a book about the literary uses of children from Dickens to the present.

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