The Lydia Davis Symposium, Spring 2014
“A Mown Lawn” from
Samuel Johnson Is Indignant by Lydia Davis, McSweeney’s, 2001.
Lydia Davis’ stories suspend time, even stop it—to read her work fast, to read “for the story,” though it’s there, is not reading the writing.
A Davis story happens in and with its language and rhythms, shifts in tone, connotations—words strutting with attitude, like people. Meanings accrue, feelings and thoughts build. In the opposite of a strip tease, Davis layers narratives whose heart (“that bloody motor,” pace Grace Paley in “Conversation with My Father”) seeps through its lines. At the end of a Davis story, there are no shocking revelations or solutions to mysteries, though her work is mysterious, as people are to themselves and each other, unwittingly. Instead, with the end comes another end, one that rebuffs certainty, and, with it, surprise and more depth. Her stories are profoundly surprising.
Davis is a witting guide to the mysteries called “everyday life.” She sees clues or symptoms in dailiness, especially as they lurk in our common and uncommon language and manners. “Hidden in plain sight” could be the mantra of a Davis story, if a story ever had one.
“She hated a mown lawn,” starts the eponymous story, “A Mown Lawn.” It’s an uncharacteristic sentence for Davis: the word “hate” is rarely in evidence; it’s a definitive statement, as if one of fact, and italicization in her writing is unusual. Startling.
It’s characteristic of Davis to emphasize sound—those dipthongs shout: Ow, aw! Next: “mow” and “wom” are the same letters, she tells us, and wom is the start of woman, “the name of what she was—a woman.” Italics again, emphasizing the linguistic collision as well as the sound. “Maybe” that’s why “she hates a mown lawn”—she hates being a woman, the sound of being a woman, or is a woman a mown lawn? An erotic note arises. “A mown lawn had a sad sound to it, like a long moan.” The erotic note rises higher: “From her, a mown lawn had a long moan.”
Words are assemblies of letters. Change a letter, a word changes, which changes the world of signification, and of what is significant.
From “woman,” Davis shifts to the other, “man.” She derives “man” from “lawn,” by their sharing two letters: “a” and “n.” The reversals race now: Man, Nam, war, raw. Again, uncharacteristically, Davis issues a political statement: Nam was “a bad war,” “a raw war.”
“Lawn” and “law” get paired, because the narrator tells us, “in fact, lawn was a contraction of lawman.” A lawman could and did mow a lawn, too: “law and order” could be seen as starting from “lawn order, so valued by Americans.”
Devices in other writers’ work that might be called “word play” are not that in Davis. She might dare cleverness, risk it at its slippery threshold, but the risk serves a greater purpose. The reader is made aware, as the narrative unfolds, that Davis is shaking words loose from their moorings, even exhuming them, to knock the stuffing or deadness out of them. To expose them.
Let’s say, Davis does “extreme writing.” With her, it’s an extreme endeavor, and her dedication to etymology is no game: it is the foundation of her writing. She loves the complexity of words and how culture and society reside in words. In writing stories, she creates characters caught in the crosshairs of language, that is, caught in social custom and mores, because words use people—construct them—more than people can use words.
“Did more lawn make more Nam? More mown lawn made more long moan, from her. Or a lawn mourn.” Lawns “mourn,” something has died, at home. Or, people in Nam, which was a bad war.
How is it that eliding words, spinning them and making them collide, is disconcerting? How is it that by meshing words in the way Davis does in “A Mown Lawn”—creating different senses from words—feels almost threatening or sinister? As if the cat had been let out of the bag, the secret told.
Consciousness is like the daily language people use: it is available, it’s what comes to mind; it is learned, it is what to say and how to say it. But consciousness’s secrets live in the unconscious, where there is no volition. Residing beneath known words and acknowledged thoughts, the unconscious can at any moment rise up and undo what people think they think. In brief, that’s how “A Mown Lawn” works. By undoing language, Davis also undermines conscious thoughts.
Davis’ extreme style matches her philosophical doggedness: she will say what she thinks is true. Everything she sees, even a mote in the air, can be a suitable subject. It’s both miraculous and terrifying what she notices.
At the end of “A Mown Lawn,” the last sentences are: “Let the lawman have the mown lawn, she said. Or the moron, the lawn moron.” Will the lawman have the moron or is he the moron for wanting the lawn?
I’m visualizing those ugly, squat statues on suburban lawns—lawn gnomes, they’re called. No ex-cathedra gargoyle, no lawn moron, no law and order, none of these can eradicate what festers beneath the manicured front yards all across America, those mown lawns.
Lynne Tillman’s most recent books are the novel American Genius, A Comedy and the short story collection, Someday This Will Be Funny. This April, her second collection of essays, What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, will be published by Richard Nash’s Red Lemonade/Cursor Press.
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More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- There Is a Center But the Center Is Empty: The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis contains four books of prose published between 1986 and 2007. The title of the first book issues a command: Break It Down. It seems to be a perfect summary of Davis’ approach: as short as possible, as exact as possible, as free of whimsy...
- Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet Attempting to combine historical science with a hefty dose of troubled marriage, Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart struggles mightily to convince readers of its credentials in both realms while managing to engage us in neither. Millet liberally drops in anecdotes that may or may not be fictional with...
- Modernist Anecdotes We seem to be reaching a consensus that there is something distinctly new about what Lydia Davis does. After awarding her the 2013 International Booker Prize over a slate of titans like Marilynne Robinson, Russia's Vladimir Sorokin, and India's Intizar Husain, the author and critic Tim Parks said that Davis...
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