‘The Mother’ by Lydia Davis

The girl wrote a story. “But how much better it would be if you wrote a novel,” said her mother. The girl built a dollhouse. “But how much better if it were a real house,” her mother said. The girl made a small pillow for her father. “But wouldn’t a quilt be more practical,” said her mother. The girl dug a small hole in the garden. “But how much better if you dug a large hole,” said her mother. The girl dug a hole and went to sleep in it. “But how much better if you slept forever,” said her mother.

I find that once I’ve read more than, say, five Lydia Davis stories in a row the effect is akin to eating an entire box of chocolates; this, for me, is testament to the complexity and intricacy of Davis’ craft. I’ve always pictured the tone of Davis’ stories as occupying a zone between a sort of humorist register – a sort of middlebrow unpacking of everyday foibles, best exemplified in the ‘letter’ stories – and an acidic shock of the kind that might accompany the downing of a shot of spirits. I come back to ‘The Mother’ again and again because of the vein of passive cruelty that culminates in that breathtaking final line, but the more I read and teach it, the more I’m aware of its strangeness. Why is she making a pillow for her father? What does the daughter’s muteness – or the muteness of everyone else in the story but the mother, for that matter – indicate? Is this a story about the perceived ‘uselessness’ of the art life? About the endpoint of practicality, as opposed to whim, as a life pursuit? And of course, being Davis, despite its brevity a whole world is conjured and dispelled in seconds.

Collected in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, FSG/Hamish Hamilton, 2009

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