The Complexity of ‘The Cows’ (our experimental summer continues)

~Post by Jenn S.

This is the latest in a series of reviews of experimental fiction written by BookPeople Brian C. and Jenn S.

Brian and Jenn have made it their mission this summer to open up their reading lives to the weird, the odd, the curious, the avant garde, and the totally out-there in the world of fiction.  The previous review in this series, of Georges Perec’s The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise is available HERE.


Lydia Davis, with cat.

At the end of the end of Htmlgiant’s “What Is Experimental Literature?” series—the one that inspired our Experimental Summer—Michael Martone says, “What an author is, does, what an author authors is certainly in flux, is more fluid now than anytime since Johnson, literacy, and the invention of cheap mass printing.” I think he’s right, but I won’t be talking about Martone today, despite the fact that he is one of the more awesome “experimental” writers ever.(1) Instead, I want to talk about Lydia Davis’s latest, a chapbook called The Cows.

So far, Brian and I have spent the summer reading authors and books that are relatively new to us. As we begin to wind things down, I think it’s time to talk about one of my favorites. Lydia Davis writes mostly short shorts, stories lasting just a few pages. We could call her a miniaturist. Her stories deal with fairly typical, everyday experiences. Her style is open and straightforward. When Martone says that what a writer writes is more dynamic now than ever, he calls to mind the possibility for wild new subjects—like, I don’t know, aliens, or robots, or dare I say zombies? None of which are exactly new these days, granted, but his statement indicates that any subject imaginable is up for grabs. Lydia Davis chose cows.

Cows aren’t new. Or flashy. They don’t require a bizarre stretch of the imagination. They’re just cows.

I think the reason Davis tops my experimental author list is the absolute ordinariness of her subjects. She doesn’t need to write about anything particularly weird; the weirdness manifests itself in her treatment of typical things. In The Cows, the reader learns that cows are more complicated and strange and surprising than we ever expected. The story documents three cows who wander over into the field in front of her kitchen window every day. They aren’t even her cows, they’re her neighbors’. She makes it clear that she watches these cows through the window, from a distance, but the story brings them right up close. When I read the chapbook, I imagine Davis kneeling out in the field, eye to eye with a cow, trying to puzzle out its essence. The cow alternately chews and snorts back at her, oblique and inscrutable.

One way, then, to experiment is to focus on just one thing, one ordinary thing, so closely that it begins to show how weird it is. Or how weird it is that we haven’t looked more closely at it before. Or how weird we seem once we’ve spent some quality time with a large farm animal. These cows don’t talk or have names. They move around; they arrange themselves in changing configurations in the field; they face different directions. They graze, and sometimes they butt heads. And day after day, the narrator of this story watches them. Since the chapbook is full of photos of the cows, it makes the story seem like nonfiction, like Lydia Davis the person narrates a story written by Lydia Davis the author about the cows that stare at Lydia Davis all day long. But the layering of perspective in this series of observations about cows is more complex than that, and a story reveals itself behind the straightforward document. “I know that if they are in the field, and if I go up to the fence on this side, they will, all three, sooner or later come up to the fence on the other side, to meet me.

“They do not know the words ‘person,’ ‘neighbor,’ ‘watch,’ or even ‘cow.’”

If cows really aren’t your thing, pick up any of Davis’s other fiction and you’ll find the same principles at work. Or, go for broke and get her Collected Stories—they’re short enough that you can read one before bed every night and then carry its magical little force around in your head all the next day.

Stay tuned for Brian’s final post next week, where he’ll take a look at one of his all-time favorite experimenters. And after that, we’ll wrap things up by questioning the term experimental altogether. Hooray!


1 Who also happens to refute the term “experimental,” as do many of the writers we’ve talked about this summer. More on that in our rousing conclusion in September. For now, we’ll keep it in scare quotes and you in suspense!

2 thoughts on “The Complexity of ‘The Cows’ (our experimental summer continues)

  1. Hello! I just found your website through a trackback at htmlgiant, and wanted to tell you how very pleased I am to learn that my “What is Experimental Literature?” series has inspired your summer reading. In a sea of what sometimes seems like negative waters, a little positive outcome really helps to make my work seem meaningful. I really appreciate you posting about this, and I look forward to reading your previous and future posts. You’ve made my day!

    Warm wishes,

    1. Chris, I’m so glad you found us! We’ve been really glad to post Brian and Jenn’s reviews this summer, and I know they’ve enjoyed writing them. I’ll make sure your positive thoughts are passed on to them. Keep up the inspirational work!

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