Can’t and Won’t

Lydia Davis

I think what I love about Lydia Davis is how she finds significance and narrative in the banalities of the every day. I know most people consider recounting dreams to be one of the most socially unacceptable things you can do, perhaps just below subway grooming, but rarely do I dislike a dream story. Whether or not you try to find the subconscious logic in it, the underlying humor of dream narratives are endlessly entertaining. Hence it follows that my favorite parts in this collection are the dream stories, some of which are hers and some those of family and friends.

The Piano
We are about to buy a new piano. Our old upright has a crack all the way through the sounding board, and other problems. We would like the piano shop to take it and resell it, but they tell us it is too badly damaged and cannot be resold to anyone else. They say it will have to be pushed over a cliff. This is how they will do it: Two truck drivers take it to a remote spot. One driver walks away down the lane with his back turned while the other shoves it off the cliff.

The stories from Flaubert, which were composed from letters Flaubert wrote during the time he was working on Madame Bovary, were the least interesting to me, but then I have little connection with his work. Some of the longer stories felt too overboard in their irrational detail of the banal of the every day, though at the same time, “The Cows,” with its in-depth exploration of every possible permutation of three cows in a field — for sixteen pages — charmed me. “The Seals” is the closest to a traditional story, where a woman recounts her experience of grief after her sister and father died in the same year and reminisces on the animal-themed gifts her sister always gave her.

The New Yorker had an excellent profile of Davis two months ago where she admitted to finding stories inside literally any ordinary experience:

Several years ago, she started writing a long note to her literary executor, but had to stop when it began to take on a life of its own. “I was trying just to write instructions, you know, ‘My notebooks should go here,’ ‘You should look through my notebooks and make sure to take out any references to blah blah blah,’ ” she said. “But it began to get too elaborate, too detailed, too opinionated, and too irrational. It wasn’t a straightforward document any more. I didn’t really want it to be a story, because I needed it to be an actual letter to my executor.”