Gotham Diary:
Housework of the Literary Persuasion
17 April 2014

The dishwasher is on the blink again, and I ought to be in a state, so I’m wondering how long this strange calm will last. I did have a bad moment when I discovered the problem, but the bad moment was quiet and contained. It did not take long to find the receipt from the repairman’s last visit (I couldn’t believe that it was where it belonged), and now I’m scheduled for a visit on Monday.

By the time the first stage of the dishwasher crisis was taken care of, my phone was ringing an alarm: time to call Jazz at Lincoln Center! The last day to renew our “Visionary Voices” series seats (and they’re very good ones) was last Friday. I called on Monday, but it was after hours. I did nothing on Tuesday. I thought about it several times yesterday, and almost went to the phone at one point, or toward it, but I was distracted on the way, and forgot about it until too late in the day. That’s when I set the alarm. The seats were still available. I used the charge card that I reserve for purchases in this price range.

There had been some loose talk about having lunch with Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil — Fossil is making a four-day weekend out of the holiday — but I’ve had my excitement for the day.


What to make of Lydia Davis? She’s fun to read, in a dark, scraping sort of way. By that I mean that many of her stories are satisfying in the way that taking a brush to a Le Creuset casserole and swooshing out the stuck-on bits is satisfying. There is a feeling of accomplishment rather than of achievement. There will be more pots to scrub and more stories to read — lots and lots of (very short) stories. It is as though Davis figured out how to bottle housework; rather than writing about it, which she does from time to time but often with reference to the other people who are actually doing it, she has instead captured the thing itself and transmuted it into prose. Here, in the entirety of its single sentence, is “The Cornmeal”:

This morning, the bowl of hot cooked cornmeal, set under a transparent plate and left there, has covered the underside of the plate with droplets of condensation: it, too, is taking action in its own little way.

Just to think about this quietly dynamic tale is to do housework. Like most housework, it is largely undiscussable — more tedious than analyzing jokes.

At the same time, the stories are aimed at sophisticated readers. Consumers of vernacular material won’t get very far before tossing the book aside, with an exasperated WTF? On the page facing “The Cornmeal” is “Letter to a Frozen Pea Manufacturer,” a story that I can imagine making certain male readers actually angry. The letter to the manufacturer complains that the color of green used on the frozen-pea package is misleading because it is so much less attractive than the green of the peas inside. This is housework, too: not so much the thinking about the color of green on a package, or the judgment that the complaint is absurd in some way (if not in several), but the appraisal of the care with which the letter has been written. The premise of the story may be funny, but letter itself is not. The letter is reasonable and painstaking. There is nothing in its composition to make the reader laugh; indeed, effort has been made to prevent laughter. As the letter approaches its end, it flattens out in statements of the painfully obvious.

Most food manufacturers depict food on their packaging that is more attractive than the food inside and therefore deceptive. You are doing the opposite:

[Yes, you already told us!]

you are falsely representing your peas as less attractive than they actually are.

Finally, a statement of grievance and a demand for improvement:

We enjoy your peas and so not want your business to suffer. Please reconsider your art.

Instead of a laugh line, Davis delivers an echo of Rilke.

These stories come from her new collection, Can’t and Won’t. (The title story has a different title: “Can’t and Won’t.”) Shortly before it came out, I bought The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, which contains all or most of her earlier short fiction. The story that I find most striking is “Jury Duty,” a stunt of sorts in which the Q part of a Q&A, or interview, is omitted. We’re given only the answers. A woman is being asked about jury duty. In order to make sense of her replies, we have to imagine the questions. This is not difficult — not for anyone who has read interviews that follow the Q&A format. (Interviews that “degenerate” into discussions between two well-matched voices are more interesting precisely because they have discarded the formula.) But the ease with which we fill in the blanks is somewhat discomfiting. Why would we read such an interview, if we know what the questions are and where they are likely to lead? Haven’t we solemnly sworn never to pick up a copy of People? And yet the interviewer’s silence throws the answers into higher relief. The interviewee is a bland and ordinary sort of person, and there is some sense that she is being hung out to dry. But we don’t laugh at her. We don’t even look down on her. Rather, we look into her, into the fine grain of her expressed self. The look is long and slow, but not critical. We are not distracted by the interviewer; on their contrary, our attention is heightened by the interviewer’s absence. I flagged one response the first time I read it:

Yes, I thought of the word patient. But it wasn’t that. Patience is something you need in a strained situation, a situation in which you have to put up with something uncomfortable or difficult. This wasn’t difficult. That’s what I’m trying to say: we had to be there, and so it relieved us of all personal responsibility. I don’t think there is anything else quite like it. Then you have to add on to that the spaciousness of the room. Imagine if it had been a small, crowded room with a low ceiling. Or if people had been noisy, talkative. Or if the people in charge had been confused, or rude.

This is not exactly “revealing,” but it is certainly suggestive. But I sense that it is suggestive only to people who read a lot and who also do housework.

The kind of housework that Lydia Davis specializes in, I believe, is called “teaching.”

And that’s what I’m making of Lydia Davis right now.