‘Wife One In Country’ by Lydia Davis

Here, we are back to the tiniest of stories and another of the geniuses of the shortest prose, Lydia Davis, who takes everything we thought might have been “rules” of writing and breaks them, necessarily, purposefully, brilliantly. Once again, it’s hard to describe this piece, I’d rather you go and read it, to see what Davis does with language, how she chooses to name and unname, whose voices she brings us, and how. This is a perfect example of writerly choice – in showing us what she shows us, she opens up the world of this story, taking it beyond the very specific to the universal of human relationships, of families past and families present, of love and ex-love, of loneliness. Another piece I use often in writing workshops to give writers permission to let go of everything they think they “should” – isn’t the writing world full of “shoulds”? – do, to see what they might do, can do.

First published in Almost No Memory (FSG, 1997), also available in The Collected Stories, and available online here

‘Meat, My Husband’ by Lydia Davis

Once again, it’s not so much plot as a steady accretion of apparently insignificant details: the narrator is a competent but indifferent cook, married to a man with rather set views on food. Collapse is inevitable and it duly arrives. But it is delivered in the classic Lydia Davis manner: you might almost miss it entirely until a second reading, and then there it is, sharp, subversive and very funny. Davis specialises in quiet savagery and never wastes a word.

(Almost No Memory, 1997; now in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Penguin) 

‘Letter to a Funeral Parlour’ by Lydia Davis

Lydia Davis is empress of deadpan flash fiction, and I say that with admiration as someone who generally despises the concept of the monarchy. She constructs her stories with a kind of stately assurance, using simple language to convey a point, a truthful observation about a failure of a company, or flawed mechanism of modern day life. In this story the grief of losing a father is placed within a framework of a letter of complaint to the funeral parlour. The funeral parlour in question coming under critique for the use of a portmanteau word, ‘cremains’, to describe the father’s ashes. ‘Cremains’, the narrator holds, sounds like a milk substitute for coffee and has, like other portmanteau words, a dash of comedy to it, which she feels is inappropriate. Such attentiveness to a single word, placing the weight of emotion up against other snigger-worthy brand-name terms like ‘portapotty’ and ‘pooper-scooper’ then rendered by authoritative presentation in a letter serves to draw out the absurdist humour inherent in breezy, dehumanising industry lingo and in our social and commercial constructions around death. All this achieved without a hint of effort in under two minutes.

(Published in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. Hear it read online here)

‘The Cows’, by Lydia Davis

In which Davis (or her narrator, though it matters not a jot) presents a series of statements and questions about three cows that live in a field near her house. At times it seems like an exercise in Wittgensteinian philosophy, at times like a children’s book for adults, at times like the painful birth throes of nature writing. All three possibilities, devolve, of course to the simple, stringent testing of words against the world that is Davis’s stock-in-trade. Not a story by any of your usual parameters, but utterly beguiling.

(first printed as a chapbook, but I read it in Electric Literature Vol 2; also collected in Can’t and Won’t)