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Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto

A Close Look at Lydia Davis’s “The Mice”

Read the story in her The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.

Or read it online.

Leaf from Album of Seasonal Themes: Mouse by Shibata Zeshin

One of the major, most brilliant, and quirkiest writers of flash fiction is Lydia Davis. A few of the many distinguished awards she’s won for her writing include the MacArthur Fellowship (2003), the Man Booker International Prize (2013), and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story (2020). She has also been named a Chevalier and an Officier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government. She’s clearly imaginative and talented, and it’s often a challenge to read her work.

So often in her stories Davis manages to take small, insignificant events and turn them into stories that aren’t soon forgotten. “The Mice” is no exception. Who would even bother writing a story about mice in the walls of a kitchen? Lydia Davis would, and she succeeds in creating a memorable story, one that goes beyond its surface details, as she does in many other short-short stories she’s written.

One of many things that intrigued me as I read the story was how I kept wanting to make the narrator a woman. It’s as if Davis led me to play into my own personal stereotypes or biases of who typically speaks of kitchens. There is nothing in the story that reveals the narrator’s gender but I kept creating a “she” from the text. Perhaps that’s one reason Davis carefully used “We.” It went beyond being a way to describe a family. I had to confront myself in this “we” as well.

The narrator, who speaks as a “We” rather than an “I,” has a home that has mice and traps are set to catch the mice. But while the mice do roam the walls, they mostly stay out of the narrator’s kitchen. “We” has mixed feelings about the situation. On the one hand is happy the mice avoid the kitchen. But on the other hand, is upset that the mice like and prefer the neighbors’ kitchens. Even though, the narrator tells us, the kitchen is even more untidy. The narrator hopes to “keep up with the Joneses” but the mice won’t or can’t cooperate.

The narrator says the mice behave as if there’s something wrong with this particular kitchen. Davis’ description of it does sound like a mouse’s paradise—food lying about, untidy crumb-topped counters, “filthy scraps of onion kicked against the base of the cabinets,” so this reader wants to keep reading in hopes of learning more about these persnickety and discriminating mice.

As the narrator tells about the kitchen, the description progresses in intensity. First the kitchen is described as “untidy”. An adequate enough word, and who hasn’t had one of those now and then? Then she describes the crumbs on the counter tops, and who hasn’t had that condition once in a while? But then she turns up the heat when she points out the “filthy scraps of onion kicked against the baseboards” and its doubtful that most of us can claim that dubious honor. With those small details, Davis defamiliarizes the more common and comfortable ideas about kitchens.

Why did Davis use the word “kicked” and talk of the onion scraps as “filthy” rather than just innocent onion scraps that might have been accidentally dropped on the floor? Those brief details suggest a violent domestic atmosphere—a family in great pain. Davis is expanding the “We” of the story as well. It’s as if “We” is living in such unacceptable conditions that “We” has become equal to the rodents and has become rodent-like too. It’s easy to imagine human beings avoiding this kitchen.

“We” reasons that it’s the overabundance in the kitchen that’s causing the mice to avoid it. It’s de trop… untidy, it’s “out of proportion to their experience.” The setting and situation is much more than the mice need for survival and it’s even an embarrassment to them. The mice, “We” reasons, are overwhelmed by the sights and smells in this kitchen. The mice have their limits and this particular kitchen goes beyond what they’re willing to or are able to tolerate.

The story is quirky, odd, and disturbing. Davis doesn’t provide more details than needed to create an interesting and thought-provoking story. So often Davis presents one story with surface details, while a fuller story hovers in the background. The “We” of the story manages to become a story of the mice and the human beings as well–all of them embarrassed, overwhelmed, and defeated, both confined to their own rodent hole of a home. It’s easy to imagine the family avoiding that dirty kitchen as well. By story’s end, the “We” as used by Davis has become more inclusive and the family shares identities with the mice as both shun this dirty kitchen.


About the writer:
Pamelyn Casto,
 twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly FlashFictionFlash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L.

About Lydia Davis: Lydia Davis is an American writer and translator from French. Her notable newest works include a translation of Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust and a translation of Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.

Image: Leaf from Album of Seasonal Themes: Mouse by Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891). [Patterned background cropped away.] Ink, color, and gold on silk. Each leaf 7.75 x 7.25 inches. 1847. Public domain.

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