Alexander Krasna

The Tiny Universe of Lydia Davis


ISSUE 19 | DROUGHT | AUG 2012

One of the notes in Susan Sontag’s diaries reads rather proudly, twinkling like a nickel on pavement: “Writing,” she says, “is a little door. Some fantasies, like big pieces of furniture, won’t come through.” In the case of Lydia Davis, one might take it a bit further: her writing is not a door, but something littler—a cat flap perhaps, or a coin slot. Many of her short stories are very short indeed, in some cases no more than a few monosyllables fitted snugly in a sentence. Lushness cannot be squeezed through the opening left for us by words; we must therefore learn to do without. So Davis’s prose commands a tidy little economy, rendering small worlds from few words.

But in her thrift there is great force. Her writing is lithe, not starved. One gets the sense that Davis is offering something small but of immense value, as if the house were ablaze and she could run out with only the few things worth saving. Each of her little tales is wrapped around a tiny, parochial truth—made tinier, of course, by the story’s modest length—but a vast lyricism sprawls beneath the prose. What may appear to be a miniature poetics, one that bespeaks a puny, trembling self, nevertheless dares to pose outsize questions. The characters that shuffle through Davis’s work gingerly prod the walls of their universe, only to watch it crumble from their touch. So they regard their lives with something like amused embarrassment; the poor fools had imagined themselves to be nicely fitting parts to this now shabby, moldering whole. We learn along with them that in this life, little can be known, nothing promised; but life, with its cruel immediacy, nudges us forever forward. We can only wriggle within the narrow confines of circumstance. Here is “From Below, as a Neighbor”:

If I were not me and overheard me from below, as a neighbor, talking to him, I would say to myself how glad I was not to be her, not to be sounding the way she is sounding, with a voice like her voice and an opinion like her opinion. But I cannot hear myself from below, as a neighbor, I cannot hear how I ought not to sound, I cannot be glad I am not her, as I would be if I could hear her. Then again, since I am her, I am not sorry to be here, up above, where I cannot hear her as a neighbor, where I cannot say to myself, as I would have to from below, how glad I am not to be her.

Note the supple play of pronouns; the plaited sounds of “her,” “hear,” and “here”; and the chanting, as if by rote: “I am,” “I am not.” In the clenched fist of the story, there is no room for the extravagance of anguish. In the face of chaos, the narrator does not resort to rage or despair, but to an ad-libbed logic.

The “I” of the story is also the “her,” and the brilliance of Davis’s little exercise is in how she collapses the space between these pronouns. The first sentence boldly proclaims the alienation at the story’s heart: “If I were not me.” To flee the regime of the self, simply imagine yourself out; in this case, trade the subjective for the cheeky subjunctive. But by the end, this thought experiment can be seen for what it is: practically pointless, the babbling of a self that dreams of omniscience.

When the narrator’s self can finally be avowed—that is, when the story sheds the “I were” and “I would” and ripens into the indicative mood—it yields a lonely truth: “But I cannot.” To be an “I” is to live within limits, limits not only to my knowledge of my neighbor’s opinion of me, but also to my knowledge of myself. Not only can I not hear myself from below, as a neighbor, but I also cannot hear how I “ought not to sound”—how I do sound. So my voice is muffled to my own ears; I am deaf but still speak.

Davis offers some consolation. “I am her,” she writes, and so the narrator “cannot be sorry to be here.” But this mechanism, the equation of the “I” with the “her,” turns on a softly slurred grammar. “I am her” is a fine colloquialism and sounds completely natural, but “her” is an object pronoun and cannot be firmly latched to “I” by the copula “to be.” A pedant might remind us of the correct English—“I am she”—but that sounds awkward, even wrong. The machinery of grammar seeks to fence the narrator within the clumsy subject pronouns “I” and “she,” revealing that any claim to complete self-knowledge—the power to stand far enough away from oneself to point and say, “her!”—is a misalignment, a derailment of language and thought that may nevertheless be integral to social existence. We must always remember the neighbor who might be listening from below. This does not obliterate the self, nor does this promise insight into the minds of others; it does, however, remind us that everyone has a self to answer to, an “I” to whom one can never hope to be more than a distant “her.” This is what drives the narrator to proclaim, in perhaps unwitting error, that “I am her.” With speech, the self tingles into life, but only through its fumbles can it come to grasp its world.

In Davis’s own fictive world, each of us emerges like this, from a kind of laborious haggling. In the end, the self and the other are mere gestures that lend shape to an endless vacillation. The “I” is sometimes “her,” but even that fails to capture the precariousness of the matter—a person is always both “I” and “her,” or perhaps neither. In the face of this frightful uncertainty, the self might want to avoid making any claim at all, as in “The Outing”:

An outburst of anger near the road, a refusal to speak on the path, a silence in the pine woods, a silence across the old railroad bridge, an attempt to be friendly in the water, a refusal to end the argument on the flat stones, a cry of anger on the steep bank of dirt, a weeping among the bushes.

There are no people here, only the fraught spaces that hang between them. Davis almost wrangles an objective account of the argument in the story, but an argument is merely the chafing of brittle subjectivities. So in this laboratory of human feeling, we observe only small specimens of emotion: of anger, of refusal, of silence, of more silence, and finally, of weeping. There are no characters and, perhaps as a result, there are no full sentences. The story is a chain of welded phrases, lacking the force that hammers language into grammatical shape. The subject—both grammatical and epistemological—has been abolished, and so “The Outing,” too, falls short of strictly correct grammar. The incomplete sentence, by its very incompleteness, dramatizes the bustle of conflict and undermines identity—in this detached style, we peer from a helplessly clinical distance at the depersonalized “weeping among the bushes.” We can only dutifully record our findings—evidence of tears, likely from anguish—before we move on to the next story, repeating the brutal literary experiment in the hope that there is something to be learned.

Ultimately, what we learn is that words knit experience to a tight pattern, one whose unraveling betrays something off about our world. In “From Below, as a Neighbor,” for instance, the narrator’s existential aches make her flit between her preconceived, female self and the imagined mind of her neighbor. The “him” to whom she speaks at the story’s start, however, is never subjected to this. He is not the one talking, he is never the one using bad grammar, and so he need not worry about the neighbor’s opinion. The male pronoun at the head of the story is fixed, commanding—he is a mast against which the womanly sail seems only to furl and flap.

In Davis’s work, there is something about the feminine that inspires this unease. Many of her women subsist on a winking wordplay, squatting warily on the semantic fringe. They grapple with a masculine order that seeks to circumscribe them, as it seems that language itself stands at a slight angle to lived female experience. So Davis’s pet idiosyncrasies—her experiments with form, her stories’ miserly length, her grammatical sins—these all enact resistance to a hegemonic order, perhaps to a male logos that encircles the female but cannot claim it. Take “Suddenly Afraid,” for example—I have repeated the title below, for reasons that will become clear:

Suddenly Afraid
because she couldn’t write the name of what she was: a wa wam owm owamn womn

This recalls one of the funnier passages in Virginia Woolf: close to the end of A Room of One’s Own, she remarks with a knowing sarcasm, “Women are hard on women. Women dislike women. Women—but are you not sick to death of the word?” And perhaps Davis is just a little bit sick, not necessarily of a word in particular, but of all words and their binding force. Hélène Cixous, a prophet and practitioner of l’écriture féminine, teaches us that language is the code of the dominant order. If that order happens to be male, then language is nothing less than the citadel of the patriarchs. A female writer’s only recourse, perhaps, is to dismantle and reclaim language, to pluck one brick at a time from its looming edifice and hobble them all into a little fort of her own. It is obvious what the “she” of “Suddenly Afraid” is trying to write, but the presence of “woman” is never more than mere implication. Whatever it represents in male language cannot do justice to what the “she” of the story really is. In the jumbling of “woman,” the letters m-a-n never appear in that order.

But this insult, for all of its ruinous force, might be unintended. The “she” of the story is still “Suddenly Afraid”—afraid to have been severed from her name, “the name of what she was.” Fear creeps in as premonition of some disaster, and this fear is perhaps the fear of punishment. So we see that when the self, female or otherwise, stands up to speak, its voice shakes. Lydia Davis’s language games express the hazards of just being, of speaking, writing and weeping in this world that is so crowded with other people. Pronouns, as in “Suddenly Afraid” and “From Below, as a Neighbor,” are always too little for us, or perhaps too big. They are the huge spaces that we are meant to fill with people, places and things: the “he,” “she,” and “it” that try to curb the reality that stands so rudely before us. We try to invent a world in which we can hear ourselves from below, as a neighbor, but we find that we cannot do this, we cannot do much of anything—and we are suddenly afraid.

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