Nobody Else Sounds Like Lydia Davis
In another paradox of Zeno’s, a runner takes off down a track. He has to cross a fixed distance to reach his goal, but first he has to reach its halfway point, and before that, the halfway point’s halfway point, and on and on and on. Reduced to its smallest units, action becomes impossible, the final leap forever deferred by the infinite, and infinitely tiny, steps that lead to the finish line. “Problem” is cut off abruptly, after eight sentences, with a statement—“U lives with W’s child but does not provide for it”—that begins a new problem without resolving the old one. The effect is like that of an argument that Davis describes elsewhere, which “itself became form of travel, each sentence carrying arguers on to next sentence, next sentence on to next, and in the end, arguers were not where they had started, were also tired from traveling and spending so long face-to-face in each other’s company.” Language moves thought, but not necessarily forward.
This predicament can be maddening, and also, often, very funny. Davis’s protagonist is the mind, and like any character, it has moods: tyrannically exacting and analytical, blithely silly, blocked, rigorous and clear, slippery, flirtatious. The main note in “Old Mother and the Grouch,” from Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, the third section of The Collected Stories, is comic petulance. For Old Mother and the Grouch, marriage is one impasse after another. Again and again they butt heads, neither willing to give in on anything: how many blankets they should use in bed, whether to have sex before, during or after a TV movie, if the “mean and petty” two-letter words that Old Mother likes to use in Scrabble really count. In their house, to be married is to be a Gallant eternally chained to a Goofus:
The Grouch needs attention, but Old Mother pays attention mainly to herself. She needs attention too, of course, and the Grouch would be happy to pay attention to her if the circumstances were different. He will not pay her much attention if she pays him almost none at all.
In theory, this sounds seriously bleak. In practice, it’s hilarious, a comedy wrung from a thousand misunderstandings and misinterpretations between two people who put up with each other despite their Punch and Judy show. On the story’s stage, they pinch and punch and slap, but some hint of tenderness is hiding in the wings. After Old Mother shuts herself in the bathroom for a long time, the Grouch asks if she’s angry at him. She’s only been picking raspberry seeds from her teeth. Just like that, the battle is paused—at least until the bell rings for the next round.
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Has Davis changed over the years? Does she need to? Some writers scramble from style to style, looking for the best fit without ever finding one. From the start, Davis has found that she can make limitless combinations with the same ingredients, and they have served her wonderfully well, even as she has moved toward different, darker subjects. Varieties of Disturbance, the last volume included in The Collected Stories, is heavy with death, particularly that of Davis’s (or Davis’s narrator’s) parents. (“First they burned her—that was last month. Actually just two weeks ago. Now they’re starving him. When he’s dead, they’ll burn him too.”) The cycle that began with the difficulties of love, in Break It Down, seemed to have reached a natural stopping place, but Davis’s work is shaped by life’s regular concerns and quirks, not its poles. The cat still needs to be let in—that’s a story. A woman named Jane borrows a cane—that’s a story, too. It was only a matter of time before The Collected Stories, published when Davis was 62, became a misnomer.
Can’t and Won’t, Davis’s latest book, finds her settling into the older-woman persona she described with delightfully perverse anticipation when she was younger. The young Davis looked forward to “the slowing down, a little past the prime, when there would not be as much going on, not as much as there was now, when she wouldn’t expect as much, not as much as she did now, when she either would or would not have achieved a certain position that was not likely to change, and best of all when she would have developed some fixed habits.” She fantasized about being relieved from the pestering demands of sexual desire by age, and about the kinds of clothes she would wear when she didn’t have to care what anybody thought of her. The Davis of Can’t and Won’t fulfills her younger woman’s wish by sending long, detailed letters of complaint to a company that sells frozen foods to tell it that the peas on its package are the wrong color green, or to tell the management that its restaurant has misspelled “scrod,” its specialty, on its menu. “Who is this old man walking along looking a little grim with a wool cap on his head?” Davis writes, in a story called “My Childhood Friend.” “But when I call out to him and he turns around, he doesn’t know me at first, either—this old woman smiling foolishly at him in her winter coat.”