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The Reading Life: Lydia Davis talks to the animals

June 30, 2011 |  9:00 am

Thecows_lydiadavis This is part of the occasional series The Reading Life by book critic David L. Ulin.

I'll read anything Lydia Davis does. Her fiction -- the story collections "Break it Down," "Almost No Memory," and "Varieties of Disturbance," and the novel "The End of The Story" -- are masterpieces of spare, objective writing, acute and often edgily funny: the very definition of sharp. Her translations assume nothing, taking their cues entirely from the text. 

Davis' chapbook "The Cows" operates along a similar trajectory, although it is also a departure of sorts. Originally published in the journal "Electric Literature," this series of impressions reads almost like a set of entries from a disembodied diary, as Davis watches three cows that live in a pasture across the road from her upstate New York home.

"Each new day," she begins, "when they come out from the far side of the barn, it is like the next act, or the start of an entirely new play." The conceit here -- or the tension, such as it is -- has to do with the interplay between human intention and bovine placidity. "They comes out from behind the barn," Davis observes, "as though something is going to happen, and then nothing happens."

And yet, in that apparent nothing, Davis uncovers something, as she has throughout her career. How does she do it? I can't say, exactly, but perhaps the key is that she takes nothing for granted, watching the cows as if to discover new ways to see.

"They are often like a math problem," she writes, in my favorite passage:

2 cows lying down in the snow, plus 1 cow standing up looking at the hill, equals 3 cows.

Or 1 cow lying down in the snow, plus 2 cows on their feet looking this way across the road, equals 3 cows.

By the end of the chapbook (it's only 37 pages) the three cows have become five, echoing the cycles that occupy the center of this impressionistic work. It's the most simple stuff, but by slowing down to take a look, day in and day out, Davis reminds us of the profundity of everything -- even creatures who "do not know the words 'person,' 'neighbor,' 'watch,' or even 'cow.'"

-- David L. Ulin

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