Barking Kitten

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


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

Friday, June 08, 2007

Lydia Davis: Disturbed at Disturbance

Known for her upending of traditional narrative in favor of pieces she calls "stories" and the rest of us have no name for, Lydia Davis has finally arrived at genius status. Just ask the MacArthur Foundation, or consult her many fine reviews.

Some Davis pieces are one sentence; others run forty pages. All are unified by a unique take on the world and the language best chosen to depict it. Her latest, Varieties of Disturbance, is no exception. Take "How Shall I Mourn Them?" a piece comprised of sixty-one questions.

"Shall I have problems with typewriter ribbons, like K.?"
"Shall I admire the picture of the beautiful President of Iceland, like R.?"
"Shall I speak against my husband to the grocer, like C.?"

There is no narrative, beginning, middle, or end. Davis seems to collect random moments for later formulation into contexts that mildly warp reality. In "The Senses," Davis writes:

"Many people treat their five senses with a certain respect and consideration...But most people make their senses work hard for them day after day...The senses get tired. Sometimes, long before the end, they say: I'm quitting--I'm getting out of this now...If it all quits on him, he is really alone...He asks himself: Did I treat them wrong? Didn't I show them a good time?" (26)

Other observations, while more widely applicable, must be extricated from Davis' hallmark sinuous sentences:

"What was happening to them was that every bad time produced a bad feeling that in turn produced several more bad times and several more bad feelings, so crowded that almost nothing else could grow in that dark field." (20)

While the book is indisputably able and innovative, Varieties has a detached quality that chills the pristinely sculpted prose. In "Burning Family Members," a nameless person is interrogated about the death of his or her father in clinical, detached sentences. The elderly man lives in a nursing home. It is decided that he will be starved to death, then cremated. The interrogator is less interested in the person than the details of death and cremation:

"They will put him in a coffin?
No, actually it's a cardboard box.
A cardboard box?
Yes, a small one. Narrow and small. It didn't weigh much, even with him in it." (132)

"Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality" is formulated as a scientific analysis of two aged, healthy women and the factors contributing to their long lives. It is nearly Jane Brody-like in its solemnity: the benefits of long walks, fresh air, and healthy food are all noted, along with church involvement and supportive family members. "Helen and Vi" is unique its character development; Helen and Vi are minutely dissected, their personalities positively lush compared to the disembodied, nameless voices populating the rest of the book. The piece could be read as instructive were it not for the eight brief sections dedicated to one hundred- year-old Hope, whose ways often contradict Helen and Vi's wholesome existences. Hope is grumpy. A picky eater, she wears a green tennis visor at meals to shade her eyes from the chandelier. As a younger woman she took lovers; she has always partaken of alcohol. Older than Vi or Helen, her lifestyle destroys any notion that Helen and Vi's preventive measures are truly effective.


Davis is also a well-known translator from the French, particularly Proust. In "The Walk," she puts her linguistic skills (or perhaps it's revenge?) to sly use: two translators meet at an conference in Oxford. One, a rather surly academic, dislikes the protagonist's recent Proust translation. After a presentation where he manages to insult nearly every translator in the room by criticizing examples of their work, the two find themselves on an improbable evening walk. As the they explore the ancient town, the protagonist thinks of a parallel that might contest the academic's dislike of her work. She offers the reader the examples: two longish passages from Proust, one rather old-fashioned and flowery, the other succinct but still flowing. The second is Davis', though she doesn't tell the reader.


I am on the record as liking Davis' work, which is all the more reason my lukewarm response to Varieties surprised me. The book's chilly tone, shot through with moments of pain ("Head, Heart," Traveling with Mother", a few references to deaths of parents) bothered me. What something different? Some pieces aren't as strong as others, but none are so weak as to make Davis fans shy away. Yet the book displeased me. Why?

In true blogger-in-a-Terre-Haute basement style, I gave it a couple days. And I arrived at an explanation.

All last week, while reading Varieties, I was involved in an event at work that gave somebody great power over me, which she took advantage of. As any objections were likely to lead to negative fallout, I behaved politely. Actually, I was friendly to this person, as I felt circumstances dictated I must be. Now the event has run its course, and I understand that the next time something like this happens--and there will be a next time--I need not be so kind. But reading a book about faceless, nameless people coming at life from weird angles only reminded me of the known people coming at me.

So the fault lies not with Lydia, but with me. If you like Davis, you'll like this book. You might even like it if you are currently experiencing a traumatic event; people are all different. That's what makes us so exciting.

Lydia Davis:Varieties of Disturbance. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux. 2007.


Blogger Grant Faulkner said...

I love your comment that we don't really have a name for Lydia Davis's "stories."

I commented on this a bit in Lit Matters ( Her pieces can often seem so breezy and insouciant--almost trivial--but they always command interpretation.

I haven't read Varieties of Disturbance yet, but I've read much of her other stuff and still like Break It Down the best.

Thanks for your astute comments.

June 25, 2007 2:43 PM  

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