Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Loving Lydia

I just finished Lydia Davis's Samuel Johnson is Indignant, a 2001 collection of short pieces. Some are stories, others paragraphs, or in a few cases, especially provocative sentences:

"We were sitting together, my digestion and I. I am reading a book and it is working away at the lunch a little while ago."

"Companion," 21

This wondrous bit describes all that is remarkable in Davis's work: awareness of language, unusual sentence structure, an even more uncommon take on life's ordinary aspects: jury duty, marital bickering, the potential minefields in wait on the annual family car trip.

"Jury duty", slyly set up as a Q and A, is a meditation on group behavior, the ways we willingly surrender our individuality for very little information. Because the bailiffs are "gentle" and "calm" in their demeanor, the potential juors relax into a nearly silent wait:

"It wasn't emotional. Going to church would be emotional. Going to an AA meeting or even a concert would be emotional. This was the most unemotional thing you could imagine. Maybe that's why it was such a relief." (56)

Davis also works as a translator from the French, and until her recent MacArthur Genius Grant, I believe translation was her primary income source. Her bilingualism affords her an acute consciousness of language generally granted only to interperters, translators, and poets. Much of her work toys with the roots and sounds of words: "A mown lawn" is an entire tiny story based on the variant words possible therein; "Special Chair" manages to tackle academic hierarchy and the all the possible interpretations of an object one sits upon in a page and a half, while "Marie Curie, So Honorable Woman," renders the famous scientist's biography into twenty heartbreaking pages.

Davis is droll chronicler of the mind regarding itself. In " Thyroid Diary," the narrator, undergoing initial treatment for Hashimoto's Syndrome, gives extensive thought to the slowness of her own thinking, whether her mind is affecting her body, or vice versa. Will her slow thinking impair her translation work, or improve it? Even more baffling, as she is the mind regarding her own thought processes, how will she know whether the work has improved?

Where so many experimetal writers leave me cold, Davis's unique style and spare, meticulous sentences enthrall me. She is sui generus: a reader would never mistake her work for another writer's. Only Lydia Davis would realize that the care she affords an old, rare dictionary is more lavish than that she gives her son. Only Lydia Davis could write about a New Year's resolution aiming for nothingness, noting the difficulty of absence after a lifetime of trying feel worthwhile.

An excellent interview conducted by Francine Prose may be found here.

Lydia Davis: Samuel Johnson is Indignant. McSweeney's: New York 2001

Authors, Book Reviews

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