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Subtracting to Add: Flat Language to Underscore Emotion in Lydia Davis

Posted on Fri, Jul 29 2016 9:00 am by By Erin Kate Ryan


Of all the stories in Lydia Davis’s 2014 collection, Can’t and Won’t, the one that consistently resonates the most with me is “The Dog Hair.” It is nestled across from another brief story, “Circular Story,” and I think it benefits from the close association. (The story titles are large and in a conspicuous font, which consistently led me to read both titles before turning to the first story. Visual relationship to text matters.) The story is brief enough to quote nearly in its entirety: “The dog is gone. We miss him....We still find his white hairs here and there around the house and on our clothes...We have a wild hope—if only we could collect enough of them, we will be able to put the dog back together again.”

“The Dog Hair” is punishing in its understatement. Although the dog is just “gone,” and thus could be on vacation, on tour, or a heartless runaway, the last clause, “put the dog back together again,” strongly implies that the dog has, in some sense, come apart, or disintegrated into all that remains of him. 

The choice of “wild hope” in that last sentence also underplays the heartbreaking sentiment in the piece. “Wild hope” is creative, childish, imaginative, but not mawkish or bathetic. Nonetheless, that last sentence hits me like a punch in the sternum every time I read the piece. The yearning illogic of the story—the idea that these pieces of the dog, these remains, can rebuild a lost companion—is what makes it so resonant, I think. The pure absurdity of the idea demonstrates the amount of pain the narrators are in. It’s a beautiful and instructive way to use lack of emotional language to convey a loss that’s almost bigger than words. (The use of the dog hair as broken synecdoche for the dog himself is also a masterful employ of object to deepen resonance.) Davis traffics in conspicuous understatement, it’s true, but this piece is more than just exemplary. It’s a lesson in the balance and weight of words.

Explore the ways in which the use of objects can open and deepen the emotional stories in your fiction in Erin Kate Ryan’s class “Imbuing Fiction with Depth Through Objects,” which starts August 6!

Erin Kate Ryan has published fiction in many literary reviews. Her fellowships and grants include a 2016 Minnesota Artist's Initiative grant, as well as a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference scholarship. She holds an MFA in Fiction, and a JD.