The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

Well, I don’t know if I’ve ever scrunched up my face or said “WTF?” aloud as many times while reading a book. Lydia Davis has the reputation of being experimental, innovative, original, ground-breaking, and other Full of Praise adjectives that emphasize creativity, and boy is it ever true. Believe the hype.

This book is definitely a must-have for any aspiring writer or short story aficionado, simply because it is a invaluable resource in terms of demonstrating what a short story supposedly can or can’t do. The stories in this collection take the form of questions and answer sessions (some only include the questions, others only include the answers), travelogues, philosophical essays, sociological studies, one-sentence punchlines, and mind-numbingly repetitive David Foster Wallace-like agonized analyses of language and linguistic systems (think “The Depressed Person” condensed into one hellish paragraph or three pages). Heck, according to wikipedia some of the stories that appear in here have won poetry prizes, which doesn’t surprise me in the least.

One thing I would like to emphasize, though, is don’t do what I did and borrow the book (like from a friend or a library). Buy it. That way you can really take your time reading it, dipping in and out, like it’s a really expensive tub of hummus you want to slowly savor, as opposed to wolfing it down all at once. It’s the kind of book you can have for years and just randomly pull off the shelf whenever you’re in the mood for some world-shaking. In my case, though, because I had a vague self-imposed deadline hanging over my head, I ended up having to gorge on a lot of these stories. Quite frankly it got to be a bit much for me, in the same way that you can get a bellyache from overindulging on Beckett or Kakfa. In retrospect, I really wish I could have taken my time with this book instead of feeling like it was this grim task I had to sit down to: “okay, here we go, brace yourself for feelings of intense confusion, vague dissatisfaction and general WTF-ness.”

It’s not like any of those feelings are necessarily BAD, though. I am OBSESSED with stories and novels that don’t seek to satisfy us in traditional ways (hence my Hawthorn & Child & Infinite Jest fandom). The reason I bring it up is that ultimately, I’m still not sure whether to interpret those reluctant-to-read feelings as a result of having simply read too much Davis too fast, or whether it was a reflection of my overall feelings about the work. Did this book ultimately just end up leaving me a bit cold? Was it a wee too clinical and logical and “gimmicky” for me? I respect these stories, but with the exception of a few I don’t really know if I really loved any. And the ones that I did love (and even “love” is too strong a word; “intensely liked” would be more accurate) were inevitably the ones that were the most traditional–ones with characters, dialogue, and vague ghostly plots. It brought up some uneasy questions for me: am I really THAT kind of reader? Was Davis simply too much for me to handle? I’m always raving about Herzong and Borges and Dick and how much I love their imagination and risk-taking and the way they throw caution and literary tradition to the wind….. but at my heart’s core, am I really a meat and potatoes kind of gal?

Hoo knows. Overall, there were still many pieces in this book that I found disturbing or oddly moving, two qualities that I love in fiction. I definitely plan on eventually purchasing a copy for myself and reading her latest collection. Just maybe not until a few months have passed.

For my own future reference, here are the stories I ended up liking the most, divided by the edition that they appear in (I’ll try to include specific links if I find them online):

From Break it Down (1986): I liked City Employment” (very Kafkaesque), “Five Signs of Disturbance” (is this a horror story about a woman’s descent into insanity?), “French Lesson I: Le Meutre” (a story where the rigid structure makes sense and cumulates in a disturbing conclusion), “Once a Very Stupid Man” (I liked the ending; it borders on being a Philip K. Dick-like reflection on the nature and origin of things & the mutability of reality).

From Almost No Memory (1997) (this was probably my favorite book/section in the collection): I liked/loved “The Professor” (about a woman who goes on a date with a cowboy student; very funny, almost reminiscent of Lorrie Moore), “Pastor Elaine’s Newspaper” (surprisingly moving), “A Second Chance” (one of many stories dealing with aging or invalid parents). I also liked the short stories with fairy-tale, fable-like opening sentences: “When our women had all turned into cedar trees…”; “A man in our town is both a dog and its master.”

From Samuel Johnson is Indignant (2001): This collection wins the prize for containing the most infamously WTF stories: “Certain Knowledge from Herodotus“; “Samuel Johnson is Indignant”; “Information from the North Concerning the Ice.” I don’t even know what to say about these. They’re probably the ones that a lot of people will think of as most emblematic of Davis’ style.

From Varieties of Disturbance (2007): “Grammar Questions” was another moving story about an aging parent’s death and is also another piece where the repetitive style works very well as opposed to just being tedious and boring to read. I also liked “The Caterpillar,” very creepy. “We Miss You” is probably one of the best stories in the entire collection. “Mrs. D and her Maids” is also good. “Head, Heart” is posted on tumblr blogs a lot as a poem so I guess that is overall maybe the best entry point to Ms. Davis’ craycray world.

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