A Writer’s Writer’s Writer: Lydia Davis and the Naked Mind


At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child. —Lydia Davis, “A Double Negative”
Like many Lydia Davis fans, I sometimes mentally write parodies of her very short stories as I go about my day. Once you’ve been steeped in her work, this can become a mental tic:
The plastic things in the dishwasher never get dry. I do not want to dry them by hand before I put them away, yet if I do not put them away I cannot load the dirty dishes that are in the sink. I could put the plastic things away wet, but I am afraid of mildew.
Davis is mostly an acquired taste, but her way of seeing is contagious. She writes in a form that is, as far as I know, entirely her own. There is such a thing as flash fiction—stories of a page or so—but Davis takes brevity one step further. Many of her stories are no more than three or four lines; most are no more than a medium-sized paragraph. The sentence in the epigraph is not an excerpt from “A Double Negative.” It’s the whole story.

She is, The New Yorker once quipped, “a writer’s writer’s writer”—but her work isn’t really difficult. It’s oddly shaped, true, but it’s also entertaining and frank and often full of emotion. Her subject matter is often maddeningly quiet: A rug is sold; strangers silently judge each other on a train; a woman tries to decide what to do while her baby naps; a bowl of cornmeal releases steam. Yet what she writes is somehow clearly fiction, not prose poems or aphorisms or miniature essays.

She doesn’t so much compress the classic short story form as throw it out entirely. She is mostly uninterested in character development, exposition, setting, and conventional plot. Her stories tend to be linear, logical, cerebral, and funny, revealing oddities of thought and feeling, tiny shifts in character, quirks in language.

I recently reread her five story collections and found them far more personal than I remembered, and also strangely comforting. Strangely, because Davis can seem like cold comfort. Her metaphysical outlook is bleak, her scope microscopic. A surprising number of stories have to do with insects and mice. She revels in the small, the mundane, even the petty.

Taken individually, her stories can be baffling; a single one is usually too slender and strange for the mind to grab hold of. Read cumulatively, and they take you somewhere new.

She can be a usage scold, ferreting out writing problems and holding them up to the light with philosophic curiosity. (“The trouble you reported is now working properly.”) Her third collection is titled Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, and a number of her stories take the form of letters to hotel and store managers complaining about misworded signs. The habit can feel misanthropic, but it reveals a ferocious protectiveness of language and a thirst for precision. Her own sentences are pristine, so she is in a position to cast stones.

“A Double Negative” is typical of her. The title indicates that this is not a story about people or feelings, but syntax. Then comes an unapologetic statement of ambivalence toward motherhood. And yet the woman described seems prepared to go ahead in order to avoid regret. She is making a ruthless calculus, but an honest one. What will motherhood be like for her? What will childhood be like for her children? In the final phrase, attention to language reasserts itself with the nearly punctilious sensitivity to verb tense—but this is also a psychological development, because there is a difference between not having and not having had. At the end we are left looking at all that white space on the page, which elevates this complicated sentence to the level of a story. Which implies that something has happened.

Most of her narrators conspicuously lack vanity. They wear their own worst qualities on their sleeves—their selfishness, impatience, anxiety, or addiction to comfort. They are bad mothers and wives and teachers, and they don’t mind if we notice. (The early stories about bad girlfriends are equally undisguised about neediness.)

But the lack of disguise is attractive, to me anyway. Her brevity has a lot to do with it; we never have time to tire of the tiresome qualities. So does her humor. (“Like a tropical storm, I, too, may one day become ‘better organized.’”)

She is rarely metaphysical. Christianity makes appearances in Davis’s work, but far less frequently than commuter trains, Flaubert, and bugs. “The Churchyard” mentions a dream image of cradling the living body of Jesus “amid a cozy pile of people.” A really motivated reader could argue for this as an image of the universal church, except that Davis’s work in general doesn’t really support this. The story “Index Entry” reads, in its entirely, “Christian, I’m not a.” It’s as though she thought we might be wondering.

At five pages, a very long story by her standards, “Pastor Elaine’s Newsletter” is her most sustained meditation on the Bible. In a newsletter from a church they visited once at Easter, a couple reads the pastor’s lesson on a verse from the book of Romans: “I do not understand what I do; for I don’t do what I would like to do, but instead I do what I hate” (a 2,000-year-old sentence that reads like a Lydia Davis story).

The verse, and the pastor’s letter, provoke the couple, and they read a little further in a King James Bible one of their mothers has left in their house (which might be a metaphor for Davis’s own relationship to religion). They read in the book of Galatians about the fruit of the Spirit, in particular “long-suffering,” a quality they feel the lack of when it comes to their children:
We think how we have been with our children this day or the day before, how we have stood holding the little one, so heavy, and put out our hand to push the arm of the older one to get him out of our way or to make him move faster, or driven in the car with them in the heat, damp, with a knot of rage in us, and yearned to reach inside, or outside, somewhere, and find more long-suffering, and have not known how to do it.
Having driven in a hot car with bickering children myself, when Davis’s complicated sentence turns its final corner at the phrase “yearned to reach,” I expect not a yearning to reach inside the self but a yearning to reach into the back seat and grab someone’s arm, not gently. The interior turn takes me by surprise.

Davis is not a religious writer, but she is often a moral one, and her moral stories strike hard. This one ends with a chilling, this-worldly consciousness of the effects of the parents’ anger:
And we wonder: What stores of anger have we laid down in the older one already? What hardness are we putting in the heart of the little one, where there was no hardness?
The very funny “I’m Pretty Comfortable but I Could Be a Little More Comfortable” is a list of 67 upper-middle-class complaints like: “This pesto is hard to blend” and “The sound system in the exam room is playing folk music” and “The people in front of us are taking a long time choosing their ice cream.” Taken as a whole, they reveal an excruciating level of self-concern that feels unsettlingly familiar.

It’s probably clear by now that Davis is both a cerebral and a domestic writer, and for me this is her main appeal. I might like to live more in the world of language and ideas, like I did in grad school, but I now spend a lot of time on mundane chores I sometimes enjoy and sometimes loathe.

Davis is a philosopher who situates her interrogations in the workaday world. “Cows” is on the one hand a painstaking study of visual perception, but it’s also about standing in the kitchen looking out the window. “We Miss You” is about the subtle ways in which language reveals character, but it’s also about children writing to a sick classmate. “Priority” is about existential paralysis and dishes.

This habit of mind has a feminist dimension: She gently but firmly sets aside the false binary between women who wonder about the nature of time and women who deal with cat pee.

If the struggle of middle age is accepting life as it is, with its limitations and commitments, the creeping frailty of the body, the ingrained habits of mind, not all of them good—and if the sweetness of middle age is a better ability to see one’s flaws and sigh or smile over them rather than grinding one’s teeth—then Davis is a writer for midlife.

Perhaps she writes so very briefly because she deliberately avoids justifying or explaining faults. Many great novelists take pains to help us empathize with difficult characters, to show us what history has shaped them, how their minds work. Dostoevsky wants us to understand why Raskolnikov murders the old woman, to see his choice as in some way logical and sane. Nabokov seduces us with beautiful language so that Humbert Humbert does not seem like a monster. Davis takes an opposite approach. Though she writes about sins far more tepid and small than these, it’s the lack of defense that shocks.

Davis has said in an interview that she is judgmental because her mother and mother’s mother were judgmental, and that the critical voice is always with her. Throughout the stories runs a secondary thread of moral anxiety that an old Catholic might call scrupulosity—a paralysis over the fine shadings of right and wrong—painted with a mix of humor and pathos. The story called “Right and Wrong” begins, “She knows she is right, but to say she is right is wrong, in this case,” then spins out a dozen variations and contingencies without ever mentioning what the woman is right about. The story “How Difficult,” about a woman whose mother has continually called her “selfish, careless, and irresponsible” ends this way:
Now I’m the one who says to myself, “Why can’t you think of others first, why don’t you pay attention to what you’re doing, why don’t you remember what has to be done?” I am annoyed. I sympathize with my mother. How difficult I am! But I can’t say this to her, because at the same time that I want to say it, I am also here on the phone coming between us, listening and prepared to defend myself.
In such a stringently judgmental context, a naked statement like “she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child” feels like an act of rebellion and courage.

Davis is not indifferent to the consequences of real failings (“What stores of anger have we laid down in the older one already?”), but she seems to indicate that we can only tell our real problems from imaginary ones if we first see clearly. We must first clear away the well-intentioned, softening camouflage.

And after all, decluttering is what Lydia Davis does best.

Image: Flickr/Hey Paul Studios