The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis compiles all 198 of Davis’s short stories in one handsome volume. That’s all four of Davis’s exceptional short story collections: Break It Down, Varieties of Disturbance, Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, and Almost No Memory. FS&G debuted the hardback edition a year ago, and this month Picador offers up a lovely (and more affordable) trade paperback version; it sports deckle edge pages and French flaps, and runs over 700 pages.
I front-load my review with this data to make it obvious that, if you have any interest in Lydia Davis, this is a book to pick up. It’s a wonderful collection, a tidy brick of words that begs for immersion, the kind of book you float around in, flipping pages at random to find and enjoy yet another strange little gem. Go get it.
If you’re not sure why you should be interested in Davis, read on.
Most of Davis’s stories are very short; many are just a paragraph or two, and some a mere sentence in length. They are not stories in the traditional sense: don’t look for sweeping character development or grand plot arcs. These stories thrive rather on tone, a keen sense of inspection, perception, and mood, and an intensity of observation on matters large and small. They are tales, fables, riffs, annotations, skits, jokes, japes, anecdotes, journals, thought experiments, epigrams, half-poems, and would-be aphorisms.
“In a House Besieged,” from her first collection Break It Down (1986) reveals much about the Davis program. Here it is in full–
In a house besieged lived a man and a woman. From where they cowered in the kitchen the man and woman heard small explosions. “The wind,” said the woman. “Hunters,” said the man. “The rain,” said the woman. “The army,” said the man. The woman wanted to go home, but she was already home, there in the middle of the country in a house besieged.
“In a House Besieged” illustrates a number of the themes and motifs that run throughout Davis’s oeuvre: unnamed protagonists identified only as “the man” and “the woman” (later stories might call them “the husband” and “the wife”) who are at once allegorical placeholders and at the same time singular individuals; a domestic setting (with family members as protagonists); an unknowable and perhaps unidentifiable threat; a pervasive sense of alienation balanced by an ironic sense of humor. The story’s brevity also shows that, from the outset of her publishing career, Davis was already working toward something wholly different from the Carveresque stories that dominated MFA fiction in the 80s.
The domestic settings of Break It Down–spaces often haunted by mothers and fathers–rear up again and again throughout the collection. 1997’s Almost No Memory kicks off with “Meat, My Husband,” a story about a wife who is trying to get her husband to eat healthier–a difficult prospect considering his affection for beef. The tale should be utterly banal, but instead it is humorous and even oddly moving; the wife, who narrates the piece, concludes by realizing that her husband would really just prefer to cook for himself. The insight transcends the particular domestic scenario: it seems applicable to the reader’s own life (or to this reader’s, anyway). “How He Is Often Right,” also from the same collection, is a short paragraph where the narrator concludes that the titular “he” is often wrong, “but wrong for circumstances different from the circumstances as they actually were, while [his decision] was right for circumstances I clearly did not understand.” The story captures the way that we impart great meaning to the smallest arguments, dwelling on them, connecting them to our sense of identity. We see the same analysis at work in “The Outing” (also from Almost No Memory). In full–
An outburst of anger near the road, a refusal to speak on the path, a silence in the pine woods, a silence across the old railroad bridge, an attempt to be friendly in the water, a refusal to end the argument on the flat stones, a cry of anger on the steep bank of dirt, a weeping among the bushes.
Davis’s sentence might be telescopic, but it also, paradoxically, puts the relationship in the story under a microscope. The reader can fill in the gaps with his or her own background: we’ve all experienced this anger, this silence, this refusal. We’ve been there. The story is real. It’s true.
The truth of Davis’s stories is what unites them; it’s the reader’s recognition of their truth that makes them so pleasurable. Take “Boring Friends” from 2001’s Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (again, in full)–
We know only four boring people. The rest of our friends we find interesting. However, most of the friends we find interesting find us boring: the most interesting find us the most boring. The few who are somewhere in the middle, with whom there is reciprocal interest, we distrust: at any moment, we feel, they may become too interesting for us, or we too interesting for them.
Davis’s treatment on friendship consistently penetrates facades, exposes our competitive cores, and, at the same time, celebrates the joys we might take in others. This precarious line also evinces in Davis’s stories about taking care of young children. The short scene “Child Care” focuses on a grumpy father who’d rather watch TV than take his turn with the baby. Solution: “Together they watch The Odd Couple.” And perhaps it is because I have two young children, but I can’t recall a more accurate depiction of the simultaneous wonder and boredom of taking care of a new baby than “What You Learn About the Baby” (a lengthy treatise at six pages).
Not all of Davis’s stories focus on family and friends. There’s much here about academia: troubles with translation, grappling with tenure, the perils of teaching, and so on. There are at least three entries on grammar here. If not all readers can connect with these stories (although I certainly did), they need not worry–part of the joy of the book is its diversity. If a story doesn’t catch right away, flick to the next one, or one a hundred pages down the line. Perhaps you will alight on one of the collection’s imaginative historical biographies, like “Kafka Cooks Dinner” or “Marie Curie, So Honorable Woman,” positively epic at 18 pages. Davis’s histories fascinate; they seem utterly real and true and absurd and improbable, all at the same time.
Indeed, discursive movement is the core of Davis’s, but her digressions all point to a thematic analysis of truth, of an individual’s attempt to understand the world in terms other than the individual herself. They dwell on problems of self-consciousness, often employing literary distortion as an analytical tool. Davis’s literary distortions always point to a concrete reality, a livable, experiential reality; the fact that we should experience the real as surreal or absurd only makes her work more truthful.
It would be easy to park Davis with the postmodernist counter-tradition, but I think her work looks to something else, something post-postmodernist (I write this, I know, at the risk of falling into an abyssal loop). Davis’s work presages contemporary “flash fiction”; her stories’ brevity reflect the simultaneous contraction of our attention spans and the expansion of our diverse interests. Her story “Samuel Johnson Is Indignant:” reads like a Facebook update. Here it is in full — “that Scotland has so few trees.” Davis transmutes an amusing annotation into a story that somehow brings the great critic back to life. The title of the story is also the title of the book; what follows then is a kind of meta-joke on reader expectations, subverting our expectations of Dr. Johnson’s (supposed) meta-commentary on the book-proper. But I fear I’m headed into a lit-crit navel-gazing snoozefest (in what has already been a long review). Far better to wrap things up, I think, by simply noting again how joyful it is to move through the book, to open at random and read. Very highly recommended.