Essays One is a vivid demonstration of the voracity and playful rigor of Davis’ writing and thought.
Cheekiness is bold irreverence but also amusement. It connotes a cleverness, a joke that can be picked up on by its intended audience and its target. It is making a joke at the boss’ expense when they are standing right there, and getting away with it through sheer force of delight. This digression is simply to show that reasonable people might have varying tolerances for cheekiness—it requires a certain harmony of minds, like any form of humor. This digression is also the kind of thing Lydia Davis does throughout Essays One. In her first collected publication of essays, the topics range from close readings of visual artists and other writers to dissections of her own work to, yes, etymology.
As a demonstration of Davis’ cheekiness, here is her story “Ph. D.” in its entirety: “All these years, I thought I had a Ph.D. But I do not have a Ph.D.” This story displays a sense of humor too dry for some, to be sure. But its tragedy—the narrator believing herself to have accomplished something and suddenly realizing she has not—is both uproarious and profound. Whom among us has not woken up one day faced with the fact that all has been for naught? What response is there but laughter? The creation of this story is revealed in an essay on found material in Essays One. It turns out Davis has a friend whose recurring nightmare of not having the PhD that they do, in life, have, was the impetus for this story. Davis’ writing process takes these banal bits of life and reduces them down until they have the potency of a “short story” even if they do not, at first, appear to partake fully in that form. She shows irreverence for even her own work by not so much refusing the muse as showing that the muse can arrive in the form of an email from a stranger with the subject line “Darcy Brown Will Be in Town.”
Her cheekiness is on display in her literary criticism, as well. Here is her description of Gustave Flaubert: “Picture a large man, handsome though fleshy and prematurely balding, with clear green eyes and a voice that could be loud and gruff.” She is not precious, either, when discussing the stories of Lucia Berlin and Thomas Pynchon. Davis’ writing suggests that any honest appreciation of an artist must be equal parts irreverence and admiration. One of the greatest pieces in the collection is on writers who rely on the fragment as a form. She discusses Roland Barthes and Flaubert, among others, as writers of fragments either by choice or circumstance. Approaching the seemingly minor work of fragments, she recognizes the humor in Barthes’ confession that he can only write beginnings, while attending to the sublime potential of the incomplete thought. Her own writing of short, seemingly fragmented pieces lurks in the background, of course. At the end of the essay, she extolls the potential of doubt and dissatisfaction with established forms for its potential to incite innovation. The most surprising reveal of this essay—maybe the best in a formidable collection—is that it was published in 1986, the end of what we might term Davis’ “traditional” period.
Essays One is a vivid demonstration of the voracity and playful rigor of Davis’ writing and thought, which has been surprisingly consistent in its exactness and delight across the last four decades. Throughout the collection, she dispenses writing advice while encouraging the reader to take only the advice they find useful. She sings the praises of awkward, “unprofessional” prose while applying to this commendation her own precise style. But, mostly, she communicates with generosity, humility and, yes, cheekiness her adoration of reading and writing as the province of the curious, the insatiable and the disaffected. Reading writers whose main concern is writing itself does not always endear one to the art. This is not the case with Lydia Davis. The primary pleasure of this collection comes in watching her mind work across the years to understand her own writing and thinking as it relates to others and, in the process, finding yourself in that same orbit.