Lately I’ve been reading some stories by Lydia Davis. Here are three copied from one site:
MICE LIVE IN OUR WALLS but do not trouble our kitchen. We are pleased but cannot understand why they do not come into our kitchen where we have traps set, as they come into the kitchens of our neighbors. Although we are pleased, we are also upset, because the mice behave as though there were something wrong with our kitchen. What makes this even more puzzling is that our house is much less tidy than the houses of our neighbors. There is more food lying about in our kitchen, more crumbs on the counters and filthy scraps of onion kicked against the base of the cabinets. In fact, there is so much loose food in the kitchen I can only think the mice themselves are defeated by it. In a tidy kitchen, it is a challenge for them to find enough food night after night to survive until spring. They patiently hunt and nibble hour after hour until they are satisfied. In our kitchen, however, they are faced with something so out of proportion to their experience that they cannot deal with it. They might venture out a few steps, but soon the overwhelming sights and smells drive them back into their holes, uncomfortable and embarrassed at not being able to scavenge as they should.
You see how circumstances are to blame. I am not really an odd person if I put more and more small pieces of shredded kleenex in my ears and tie a scarf around my head: when I lived alone I had all the silence I needed.
Nearly every morning, a certain woman in our community comes running out of her house with her face white and her overcoat flapping wildly. She cries out, “Emergency, emergency,” and one of us runs to her and holds her until her fears are calmed. We know she is making it up; nothing has really happened to her. But we understand, because there is hardly one of us who has not been moved at some time to do just what she has done, and every time, it has taken all our strength, and even the strength of our friends and families too, to quiet us.
Letter to a Funeral Parlor
I am writing to you to object to the word cremains, which was used by your representative when he met with my mother and me two days after my father’s death.
We had no objection to your representative, personally, who was respectful and friendly and dealt with us in a sensitive way. He did not try to sell us an expensive urn, for instance.
What startled and disturbed us was the word cremains. You in the business must have invented this word and you are used to it. We the public do not hear it very often. We don’t lose a close friend or a family member very many times in our life, and years pass in between, if we are lucky. Even less often do we have to discuss what is to be done with a family member or close friend after their death.
We noticed that before the death of my father you and your representative used the words loved one to refer to him. That was comfortable for us, even if the ways in which we loved him were complicated.
Then we were sitting there in our chairs in the living room trying not to weep in front of your representative, who was opposite us on the sofa, and we were very tired first from sitting up with my father, and then from worrying about whether he was comfortable as he was dying, and then from worrying about where he might be now that he was dead, and your representative referred to him as “the cremains.”
At first we did not even know what he meant. Then, when we realized, we were frankly upset. Cremains sounds like something invented as a milk substitute in coffee, like Cremora, or Coffee-mate. Or it sounds like some kind of a chipped beef dish.
As one who works with words for a living, I must say that any invented word, like Porta Potti or pooper-scooper, has a cheerful or even jovial ring to it that I don’t think you really intended when you invented the word cremains. In fact, my father himself, who was a professor of English and is now being called the cremains, would have pointed out to you the alliteration in Porta Potti and the rhyme in pooper-scooper. Then he would have told you that cremains falls into the same category as brunch and is known as a portmanteau word.
There is nothing wrong with inventing words, especially in a business. But a grieving family is not prepared for this one. We are not even used to our loved one being gone. You could very well continue to employ the term ashes. We are used to it from the Bible, and are even comforted by it. We would not misunderstand. We would know that these ashes are not like the ashes in a fireplace.
I like these stories — well, let’s say, I find these stories interesting, and I like the expanded sense of what fiction can be that I feel when I read these. I like that there aren’t the familiar old plots, characters, etc., of the typical realist short story. I have thought that maybe the narrator-characters themselves are the story, in some sense. And yet, I don’t know if I actually like the stories themselves. Maybe that doesn’t even matter. But I think her stories are worth reading, even if they aren’t satisfying reads, per se.
UPDATE: Here’s a 2014 New Yorker profile of Lydia Davis (partially blocked except for NYker subscribers).