Review: The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

IMG_20150112_214209~2I yet again splurged a little while ago, and bought The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis that I’d had my eye on. I’d never read anything of hers before, but there was something strange drawing me to this book, and even now I have no idea exactly what it was. I read the blurb while milling around in a bookshop and then made a note to look her up, and the more I read about her, the more I wanted this collection.

When I finally made room in my reading schedule to crack this open (at around 730 pages it felt like a commitment, as I was determined to read it in one go and not take pauses between stories that, given my history, could last months), I found something I wasn’t expecting. I fell utterly in love with it. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read anything by Davis before. Inwardly kicking myself for being so myopic in my literary diet, I jumped from story to story, and by the time I reached the second book in the collection (Almost No Memory) I could no longer doubt that this woman was a genius. Then around halfway through the second book I was considering abandoning my boyfriend to go and seek Davis out, convinced that she was in fact my soulmate.

The book consists of four pre-existing collections of short stories: Break it Down (1986), Almost No Memory (1997), Samuel Johnson is Indignant ((2001), and Varieties of Disturbance (2007). Each book consists of intriguing variations on story content, but also what really constitutes a short story. I was recently told by a friend that a short story must be structured using the classic 7 or 8 point arc (or less, if you’re being really dull), which allows a story to build, then climax, then end with a satisfying denouement. He told me that all successful stories work this way. I disagreed, as I felt this didn’t allow for much flexibility – it didn’t give a writer room to create a piece of work that is abstruse and unconventional, because sometimes that’s the only way to explain something complex and unusual to your readers. It reduces all stories to fairytales, when sometimes that isn’t what you need. Although Lydia Davis does use this structure in some of her stories, I found that in this collection this classic arc is hardly ever employed, and it is the richer for it. Davis evidently leans towards a more liberal understanding of storytelling, and aligns a lot of her stories closer to poetry, some stories being a single sentence long, some being 20 pages. Some of her stories have a conclusion, but most don’t. Many of them have a climax where it’s expected, but more don’t.

Through her sparse and subtle emotionally charged pages, Davis consistently encourages you to look beyond the page, to think outside of the proverbial box. To be honest, once you get to Samuel Johnson is Indignant you’ve pretty much thrown out the box, and when you finally reach Varieties of Disturbance you’ve put the box on a pyre, spoken the funeral rites and lit the match. There are certain stories across the collections that stand out for me, particularly the very opening tale of ‘The Fears of Mrs Orlando’ – a bigoted old woman who wanders through her life on the very verge of all-out hysteria because of her remarkable racism. It is where Davis is at her best – she never once condemns Mrs Orlando, and instead presents her often deranged concerns as base fears. She leaves the rest up to us. Without ever explicitly giving any detailed analysis of Mrs Orlando’s assumptions and actions, she shows us how pitiable she is. No matter how much we detest the way she thinks, it is clear that she carries with her an insurmountable weakness that will colour her every movement, and prevent her from honest happiness. Davis’ understated syntax does everything it needs to; her style isn’t romantic or dramatic, because the events themselves are – particularly the small, inconsequential ones. I envy this more than is really reasonable, as my vague attempts at story writing usually result in a lot of talk and not enough substance, and I often wish I could imitate the same terse and gutting literary rhythms, but I’ve found that no matter how hard I try my brain simply doesn’t work this way.

Davis expertly navigates the minute and intricate moments that pull together our lives. She highlights odd moments that seem meaningless when viewed as a whole, such as catching a mouse in the kitchen or sitting through a long car journey, and finds the moments within these moments that perfectly capture former or future pain. She targets her characters’ reactions, the tiny micro-expressions that give us all away – the twitch of an eyebrow or the nibbling of a lip that broadcast whether we are sad or nervous or irritated or amorous. She clings onto all of the tedious details people remember of each other, particularly acquaintances, and uses them to construct the lives and values of her characters. A lot of the time these stories are comical, and sometimes genuinely made me laugh out loud. A little while ago I read an old interview with Davis in which she mentioned that she hadn’t realised until she attended a reading that her stories were often incredibly funny, which I enjoyed. I like that they are really just observations to Davis, and if people say or do something hilarious it’s often completely unintentional. We all really are this ridiculous.

Despite my only recent acquaintance with her writing, I love Davis’ prose like a dear old friend (of which I have few, given the brutal effect ageing has had on my childhood bonds). On the page she is cunning and sardonic, and through some stories she seems to offer a smile to you from the corner of her mouth while a secret trick lurks behind it, and through others she’s poking at your ribs, waiting for you to cry. It often feels like Davis is handing her stories to you with rough edges and incomplete, like she has scrawled a stanza of swiftly devised heart breaking poetry on a warm stained napkin, and left you to decipher her handwriting and wonder what she could have been thinking when she penned it. I have been irrevocably moved by this collection, and I think I can honestly say that Lydia Davis is now one of my absolute favourites.

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis is published by Penguin, and is available in all good bookshops.


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