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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Friday, March 27, 2015

A long(ish) and a very short story by Lydia Davis

One long, one (very) short - two stories in Lydia Davis's Can't and Won't - the long(ish) story being The Cows. Cows are truly the forgotten species - nobody has a cow for a pet, nobody finds them cute or especially beautiful, they're just like living machines that produce milk or, if they're less fortunate, beef. But Davis devotes about 8 pages - maybe the longest story in the collection - to a series of cow observations, seemingly made for the most part from her window, an assemblage of what look to be diary or journal entries over the course of a year. At first, the cows are just objects - she comments on their inky color, the bending of their feet as the move - they're like elements in an abstract painting, a Rothko, even. Some of the observations, as with so much in Davis's work, are slyly provocative: The cows are always standing still, but when I turn away for a minute and then look again, they're in a different place. By the end of the story, she has ventured outside, even lets the cows "nuzzle," and two calfs are born (the third cow cannot calf and gets sent off somewhere. How does she know this? there are no other human beings in this story - so within the terms of the fiction this extraneous knowledge is mysterious, divine). By the end, the cows are part of the cycle of nature - giving birth, moving on - what started as an abstract story - at first it reminded me of Stevens's 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird - is actually a story about the pattern and rhythms of rural life, as perceived from both outside (she's a writer, not a farmer, probably a city girl) and inside (she knows the land and its people) simultaneously. And the very short: Her Geography, it's called, and goes something like this: She knew she was in Chicago, but she didn't realize she was in Illinois. This a Proustian kind of observation, the obsessive, perhaps autistic focus on place names and the mood and conditions that names themselves impose on a scene, on a moment, and fascination with boundaries and borders - I suspect Davis shares this trait, as do I and perhaps many writers: a highlight for me of a visit to DC was coming across the marker denoting the northernmost point of the Capital diamond. If you can understand that, you know what I mean and you know what Davis is getting at in this story; if not, it's not for you.

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