The Reading Life: Lovely Lydia Davis Quotes And This Year’s Prank


My father sent me an email from Seattle the other day to tell me he doesn’t like Seattle very much, despite all the wonderful things you can find there. He has a running list, I think, of cities he dislikes. Most people who travel for business must keep something similar on reserve. It amuses me to hear vehement distaste for places I have never seen. The words “Pittsburgh” and “Orlando” are hilarious when said with disgust.

I like Seattle though. I resisted my first impulse, which was to send my dad a sassy quote from a Charles D’Ambrosio piece. Instead I told him not to worry about it, because he lives in one of the most beautiful places in the world. This led to more positive list making: we exchanged lists of places that make both of us very happy no matter what. I was going to write about these lists and how much they remind me of a Lydia Davis short story in their form. The meaning is simple and told with strange calm, with graceful grammar. I was going to write about joy in the fiction of Lydia Davis, and how peculiar it is.

But, in my search through my Gmail archives for examples of cities my dad has claimed to despise, I found something much better, I think. I found an old email exchange between us that was somehow more like a Lydia Davis short story than what I had initially imagined. Which Lydia Davis story am I thinking of? I might be confusing her with someone else, which would be embarrassing. Maybe this is more of a George Saunders tale. In any case, here is the story.

My dad is a partner at a law firm, and he manages a huge amount of people. Every April Fool’s Day, he plays a prank on the people he manages, and this gives him a lot of pleasure. One year he forged an email from a higher-up saying that, while the higher-up knows that many people in the company tolerate and even instigate April Fool’s jokes, that year was going to be different. Anyone wanting to play an April Fool’s joke had to run it by their supervisor. My dad forwarded this fake email to his group, and then he forwarded me their responses.

The background to this joke is somewhat complicated. The year before the forged email about running jokes by the boss, my dad had pulled off what he calls his pièce de résistance. I am going to copy and paste from his email to me. All unorthodox punctuation and capitalization has been left in for the effect of receiving an email from my dad.

As you may recall, the background was this: some weeks before April 1, I, as the pro bono partner for the office, and several in my group, had made a proposal that we represent a client that was planning to intervene in litigation arising from the City’s Gay marriage initiative — we had been approached by a lesbian group who wanted us to address the issue from the perspective of the right to adoption and gay families etc., which I, and all of the SF office, thought very worthwhile.  So we had sent out this proposal to the Firm for comment and drawn in response some surprisingly mean spirited, vitriolic and passionate anti-Gay sentiment from some conservative Christian parts of the Firm. This reaction was so unpleasant and so strident, it had left us stunned and silent as a group, and we never mentioned it to one another, but I could tell it was on everyone’s mind. So the other thing you should know is that ever since the wild Miami Vice days of rampant cocaine use in Florida, we have had a strict policy that before hiring, every new employee must undergo a mandatory drug test — and, as you can imagine, this is viewed by we San Franciscans variously as a quaint Southern eccentricity to be tolerated (like sweetened iced tea) or an abominable invasion of our Constitutional rights and undoubtedly illegal — but, as you can imagine, we keep this to ourselves…

So, back to the story: I sent an email from some fictitious partner in a white bread part of the country (Orlando, I think) with a really generic vaguely born-again Christian name enclosing a memo supposedly from a subcommittee of the Firm’s Board of Directors to the Managing Partner, with some apologetic language in the transmittal email to me, hoping I would understand and could explain it to my group and that they would not be upset. And my email to the group was similarly asking for their forbearance and understanding and to take this in a positive way if possible.  So, then the memo enclosed was announcing a confidential Firm program of instituting random unannounced drug tests, recognizing that the Firm’s drug testing policy addressed only the condition at the time of hiring, and explaining that the subcommittee was recommending that the program would be rolled out on a pilot basis, with the San Francisco office as a guinea pig office, the first to experience it. So far the memo was fairly straight. But then it started to go on by stating that the subcommittee was sensitive to the need to explain this to the SF office, so that they did not feel they were being unfairly singled out on account of  — and here it went increasingly off the rails — the reputation of SF as a hotbed of tolerance for flamboyant lifestyles and — here it went crazier and crazier until it expressed every insulting stereotype about SF you could imagine….

What was marvelous was the response. The associates thought it hilarious and were not taken in for a second. The partners were initially silent, but one by one came to my office with pained and distressed reactions — one threatened to sue the firm, another threatened to resign if the policy were not rescinded immediately, most came to me to express their profound discomfort with it all …

Lovely stuff.

So the idea that the firm would be careful the following year was not so far off, and the forgery of an email was in keeping with my dad’s established style. The whole thing seemed ripe with potential. But my dad was emailing me to say that he was disappointed. “Well, the pathetic thing about this one,” he said, “was that, apart from a couple of emails, it did not force them to do anything. Ah, me.”

Rereading this email, I am struck by how wrong my dad’s disappointment is. Writing an email is certainly doing something, not just anything. It is, after all, the extent of my dad’s role in these pranks: he is writing emails in fictitious voices. I say this as someone who has an epistolary problem. Outside of the many emails I write for work, I am also constantly writing to friends in lieu of, I suppose, keeping a diary or talking on the phone.

Doesn’t everyone do this? There are portions of Lydia Davis stories that read like my emails, and they probably read like many other people’s emails, too. Like this excerpt from “Cape Cod Diary”: “I was wrong about my neighbors upstairs. He is not the friendly man who once greeted me. He is barely polite.” I won’t embarrass myself by searching through old threads for moments where I have said similarly huffy things about characters in my life, but those moments are there. You will have to trust me.

Some Lydia Davis stories are primarily, obsessively about correspondence, like the two-sentence bit titled “Mother’s Reaction to My Travel Plans” (“Gainesville! It’s too bad your cousin is dead!”), or the story “Varieties of Disturbance,” which is all about miscommunication and hurt feelings. One sentence goes like this: “My mother was worried because she hurt my brother’s feelings when he told her over the phone that he wanted to take some of his vacation time to come help them since my mother had just gotten out of the hospital.” If you take the time to track it, the story is about a phone call about a phone call about a phone call. It’s fitting, perhaps, that the next story in the collection begins with this sentence: “No one is calling me.”

Discussion of what we are talking about when we talk about, um, stuff has become something of an expectation in fiction like this. “Expectation” is the generous word for it. “Annoyance” is another word, maybe. But it really is something, not just anything, to look at your own correspondence, especially when it’s correspondence about other bits of correspondence. There’s something structured and strange about an epistolary maze. Your archives, if you’re doing it right, are a catalog of disturbances, amusements, thoughts that would go otherwise unrecognized. This stuff we’re talking about: it’s lovely. Peculiar, but lovely.

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