The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

by ohshillings


In Lydia Davis’ ‘The Center of the Story’, a female writer struggles to find a focal point to her work. She reasons that

‘if she takes out things that are not interesting, or do not belong in the story for other reasons, this will give it more of a center, since as soon as there is less in a story, more of it must be in the center.’

Davis’ hefty Collected Stories gives the lie to this rationale, containing as it does so many remarkable examples of one-line, one-sentence, one-paragraph micro-stories that are distinctly lacking in centres. ‘Certain Knowledge from Herodotus’, for example, reads in full as

 ‘These are the facts about the fish in the Nile:’

 That concluding colon is no typo. Rather, it emphasises how typically skewed, off-kilter these stories are, strategically ‘incomplete’ stories that appear to sidestep conventional narrative meaning, pushing it offstage. These are stories set starkly in the middle of so much blank space, and that blankness can be intimidating, off-putting. Short, they may be, but easily digestible, they are not.

The paperback edition of Collected Stories will be a long overdue introduction to Davis’ work for many UK readers, most of whom will have heretofore only really encountered her translations of Flaubert, Blanchot or Proust. Davis has described her very short pieces as ‘a reaction’ to the long, verbose sentences of the latter, which made her ‘want to see how short a piece of fiction could be that would still have a point to it, and not just be a throwaway joke’. While some, like ‘Idea for a Short Documentary Film’ (‘Representatives of different food products manufacturers try to open their own packaging’), do indeed read as literary one-liners, they are in the company of an incredible stylistic diversity. This is a heady collection of aphorisms, monologues, thought experiments, unashamedly facetious word games, domestic fables, celebrity sketches in the tradition of Barthelme and Coover (‘How W. H. Auden Spends the Night in a Friend’s House’, ‘Kafka Cooks Dinner’) and psychological and ethical quandaries explored with an satirically obsessive logical correctness (‘We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders’ smacks of David Foster Wallace, in a good way).

However, for all their formal experimentation, Davis’ stories return again and again to the same themes and issues. There are lots of stories about food; lots of stories about houses in the country; lots of stories about growing old. There are a tremendous number of stories about animals, both domestic and exotic, which prod at the mysteries of our companion species; how, Davis asks in a story like ‘The Old Dictionary’, does a relationship with a dog compare to or influence a relationship with one’s own child? Most evidently, there are stories about family relationships – recurring themes of marriage breakdown, emotional alienation and childrearing that, for all their stylistic oddities, can feel uncomfortably autobiographical. Refuting that notion that postmodern experimentation is always empty and disconnected from real feeling, these stories often seem as if Davis is forcing herself to replay painful, personal moments from many different vantage points and voices in an attempt to articulate them better. In her first collection,Break It Down (1986), Davis writes a series of pieces on family members as abstract, self-contained objects, including the brilliant ‘The Brother-in-Law’ (‘Whose brother-in-law they did not know. Or where he came from, or if he would leave’). Funny as these pieces are, they also betray a serious concern with the exact roles of mothers, husbands and great-grandmothers within the modern family.

This volume comprises the four collections that Davis has previously had published in the US, and so gathers together material from 1986 to 2007. Undoubtedly the most accomplished of these collections is 2001’s Samuel Johnson is Indignant, which includes some of Davis’ most hilarious (‘Companion’), bizarre (‘My Husband and I’) and poignant (‘Betrayal’, ‘The Old Dictionary’) writing. Davis is seemingly allergic to direct dialogue, always preferring to narrate in a removed, essayistic manner, creating stories that often read as summaries of stories rather than stories themselves. Ben Marcus has diagnosed Davis with a ‘nearly autistic failure to acknowledge the emotional heart of the matter’, which, while capturing the clinical quality to her writing, nonetheless overlooks the beautiful and circuitously moving heights that Davis’ prose regularly achieves. For the most part, her detached technique successfully expands the possibilities of the short story form, but in some instances, detachment leads to an unintentional flatness, and stories like the long ‘Lord Royston’s Tour’ are more admirable in conception than in execution. Still, this collection is an invaluable overview of Davis’ career, and proof of the extreme malleability of the short story form, in the hands of one of its masters.

Originally published at The Cadaverine.