‘Grammar Questions’ by Lydia Davis

Davis, Lydia 2002

Grammar Questions by Lydia Davis, 2002

The magic trick:

Processing the death of one’s father through a linguistic consideration

There is a pretty sizable sub-genre of literature involving the death of one’s father. This story stands out among the crowd for its unique slant. As only a writer can do, the story analyzes the impending death from a purely syntactic vantage point. It’s all about verb tenses and active vs. passive voice questions.

But while you probably are thinking that sounds painfully insular and gimmicky, you’re wrong. The story is surprisingly emotional. Those questions of verb tenses are powerfully final when it comes to life and death. Meanwhile, there is a very heavy contrast going on throughout the story. The narrator will drop two sentences about word choice, seemingly focused on minutiae to avoid facing the truth of the situation, and follow up with two sentences that are stone-cold honest about death. It’s a fascinating give and take, and one heck of a gutpunch of a story. And that’s quite a trick on Davis’s part.

The selection:

“He is dying” sounds more active than “he will be dead soon.” That is probably because of the word “be” – we can “be” something whether we choose to or not. Whether he likes it or not, he “will be” dead soon. He will have to be dead soon, because he is not eating.

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