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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Dear Sir or Madam - Lydia Davis's letters of complaint

Another group of stories in Lydia Davis's collection Can't and Won't are her letters to various corporations or officials, such as her hysterical letter to a hotel manager, the hotel in this case obviously being the Parker House, in Boston, in which she describes her two-day stay there as being wonderful and the staff as courteous and helpful with the possible exception of the restaurant manager who was perhaps a little cold - and then in the process of explaining this "perhaps" she manages subtly to depict him as an odious, servile, self-important little creep. Her main complaint to the hotel (and the restaurant) concerns the mis-spelling of a menu item, scrod, which the menu spelling "schrod," which leads her into an examination of the word and possible reasons for the mis-spelling (the manager sounded as if he might have had a slight German accent, so perhaps he was familiar w/ the "sch" form?), and then she goes on to discuss other recommendations she present, such as why not add baked beans to the menu (though certainly not as an appetizer!), and why not take a photo for the lobby of the woman who's taken her evening meals there for many years (how man is in dispute), and so on - all of which makes her letter increasingly zany and gives us a sense of Davis's (or the fictional "Davis's") eccentricities and hyper-sensitivity; this Boston weekend seems to have occurred while her brother - her dinner companion 2nd night - was dealing with touchy issues on mother's estate, and that death and loss is the cold zero at the heart of this story, present but unexamined, amid all the trivial suggestions and complaints. Excellent piece. Other similar ones are the long letter to an institution (obviously the Macarthur Foundation, which I think gave her a genius award - the letter reminds me a bit of Kafka's Report to an Academy) in which "Davis" describes how the grant changed her life, or didn't, and also goes into much detail about her dislike of teaching - it's a sad thing because one would expect (the real) Davis to be a trenchant and incisive teacher, but "Davis" obviously loathes the obligation and responsibility: Come to think of it, there's no reason why we should expect writers to be good teachers of writing, as most are introvert, introspective, and sensitive to criticism - the qualities the (often) make for a great writer are not those that translate well necessarily to formal discussion of the craft and nurturing of talent in others. Other complaints: to a candy company re their peppermint candies, to a frozen foods company regarding their unappealing packaging. These letters of complaint could stand alone outside of this collection, a genre unto itself.

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