The Power of the Ordinary: On Lydia Davis and Twitter

July 29, 2015 | 1 book mentioned 6 5 min read

Lydia Davis writes very short stories. Short enough that a collection like Can’t and Won’t, recently out in paperback, can be comfortably picked up and put down in between refreshing whatever feeds or blogs are part of your daily reading rituals without interrupting your focus. They can all begin to feel like extensions of each other. I noticed this after I read one of her particularly brief stories and felt my eyes drift instinctively down the page to check how many retweets and favorites it’d received. I thought I was still on Twitter.

I was embarrassed by this. I was worried that I hadn’t done a good enough job of keeping these mediums separate in my mind, or that I wasn’t properly appreciating the differences between them and was instead allowing everything I read or watched to become an intellectual mess. I imagined talking to someone about a great new essay collection I’d found, only to realize halfway through the conversation that I’d actually read all of this stuff on Tumblr instead (I’ve already done this, too).

I’m not sure Davis is as concerned with these delineations. Her collection places dry observation next to dream journals and Gustave Flaubert translations. There is a long piece that simply describes the movements and behaviors of a few cows she watches every day. Her meals and train rides are depicted in minute detail. Among all this, she shares stories of grief and hardship. It is a finely curated tangle of silly and serious, and it encourages a freely associative approach in reading.

Davis’s stories often range between a sentence and a page in length. Some take on aspects of poetry, others incorporate clippings from newspapers or other texts, and many of them involve close observations or commentary on all of the ordinary things that populate her life. Many are cleverly designed to prompt the reader into more closely considering statements that are plain at first glance, whether for humor or poignancy or something else. Here’s the full text of “The Language of the Telephone Company,” for example:

“The trouble you reported recently
is now working properly.”

And here’s all of “Housekeeping Observation:”

Under all this dirt
the floor is really very clean.

Not all of her stories are this wry or slim, though. Many use the same observational tools in service of the depiction of loss and distress, like “The Dog Hair,” a paragraph about a family’s relationship with its recently-departed pet. It notes the ways the dog’s absence is felt, particularly in the hairs the family discovers around the house. It ends on a melancholy note: “We have a wild hope — if only we collect enough of them, we will be able to put the dog back together again.”

The stories intermix, and Davis’s curation becomes as important as the stories themselves. In placing the routine next to the tragic, the sarcastic next to the reportage, in pulling quotations out of context for continued consideration, and in all of the other tactics she uses, Davis recreates a phenomenon that occurs daily on social media. She is attempting to make a document of the ways in which we experience life, with the banal and the catastrophic all lined up next to each other. Much like the way we do, unassumingly, every time we hit “share” or “tweet” or “post.”

Casting an anthropological eye toward Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook can be a pretty revealing enterprise. Pictures of breakfast and lunch live next to birthday parties and graduations; thoughts on TV shows, movies, or books sit alongside breaking news as it rolls in; casual conversations interrupt pictures of outfits and new music being shared, and all of it is presented through a personal lens. It is weird and kind of a mess, but its linearity represents something true about how we experience all of these things in real life.

I think this is what Davis aims for, as well, and this is what made it so easy to believe I was still browsing Twitter while reading her collection. Davis and the rest of us share some similar impulse to try and make sense of, and appreciate, the strangeness of a totally ordinary life.

This becomes especially representative and especially meaningful in Davis’s candid discussions of grief, like in “The Seals,” one of the longest stories in the book. This story explores elements of the narrator’s history with her family, particularly with her sister, who died a number of years ago. While there is no clear narrative thread, the story recounts their complicated relationship and describes the heartache the narrator feels in her sister’s absence. The story takes the form of someone revisiting different memories and regrets while on a train ride, and Davis makes further use of her observational toolkit to show the ways sorrow can manifest.

As the narrator discusses her past and her relationship to her family, her memories are filled with the tiny details that make remembrance so vivid (“the shiny dune grass growing in the sand beyond the cars, the gray shingle of the roof in the sun”), and she makes note of the items that still remind her of what she has lost (“Now I can look at that same bed where she slept and wish she would come back at least for a little while.”). Even in addressing a profound sadness, Davis recognizes the power of the ordinary. I think we do, too.

About a year ago, a friend of mine from elementary school died suddenly and unexpectedly. For at least a week after, his Facebook page and the pages of all of our mutual friends became impromptu memorials as people shared photos and memories and grief. And then, at some point afterward, the mundane posts began to trickle in again as people returned to sharing their job updates, traffic frustrations, political jokes, and workout plans. Maybe this is crass. I think, somehow, it might also be necessary. At some point, whether we are prepared or not, the daily concerns that seemed so distant during the depths of a tragedy begin to crowd our routines again. It can take a great deal of time, but eventually, these tiny, cumulative considerations allow us, or maybe force us, to conceive of a life after the despair.

Davis reminds us that the pain is never quite gone. “The Seals” makes repeated mention of how many years it’s been since the narrator’s sister died and how fresh the grief still feels despite that length of time. But the next story has her studying medieval history, without any connection to the pain just discussed, and its brevity — three lines — means that we’ll probably read a few more stories after it in quick succession. We might land, a few pages later, on one called “Molly, Female Cat: History/Findings,” which is a 3-page list of facts about a stray cat, including details like “broken tooth: upper right canine,” “sometimes cries after nap,” and “urinates inappropriately at home in 2-3 places per day.”

This is how we experience life, anyway. One day into the next. This cat will keep pissing inappropriately in our house whether we know how to cope or not. So Davis’s work, and maybe social media at its best, becomes a sort of celebration of the ordinary, the boring, the totally expected, the regular. They both identify and even welcome the power granted by our taking stock in those things we might otherwise overlook. And they implicitly acknowledge the ability of our boring lives to help us recover after tragedy; they know that persistence can be resilience.

This might be too generous a portrayal of what social media actually accomplishes. Maybe it really is just a waterfall of nonsense and a travesty as far as privacy and security are concerned, but in the Facebook age we all at least understand the motivation behind curating one’s life for others to see. I think Davis understands it, too.

is a writer and musician from New Jersey. He tweets at @ambinate.