The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
by Lydia Davis
Reviewed by Erika Recordon
To savor or to gorge? It's a question that's been weighing heavy on Lydia Davis fans all month. Spanning 20 years and four volumes of short fiction, The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis is here. There are 198 stories, an overwhelming number for any writer.
But Davis is a woman of economy, and many of her pieces run only a page or two in length (some stop at a single sentence). So it's tempting to carry this book with its punchy orange cover everywhere you go. You can read one boiled-down narrative at a time all over town -- in the waiting room at a doctor's office, on the bus to work, in line at the supermarket. Or you can do as I did, and binge. That is, you can take this book in all at once in its full, demented glory, and read and read and read until you feel dizzy with Davis' strange and wonderful worldview.
Davis, whose work has been called everything from microfiction to prose poetry, is not much for labels. "I prefer 'adventurous,'" she told the Boston Globe in 2007. And whatever you care to call her, you ought to call her talented. These stories are really sly little packages, so expertly wrapped that one forgets the grim messages they often contain.
Davis is interested in the delicacy of human relationships -- how a hairline fracture becomes a fault line -- and she sees her investigations through with a dogged sense of inquiry and wry wit. She lets the world into her fiction, mining the banalities of domesticity. There is often a family, a marriage or a pet. The fragmented "What You Learn About the Baby" vacillates between humor and heartbreak, as a new mother struggles to adjust. Here's an excerpt from a two-paragraph story, also on mothers:
Mothers, when they are guests at dinner, eat well, like children, but seem absent. It is often the case that they cannot follow what we are doing or saying. It is often the case, also, that they enter the conversation only when it turns on our youth; or they accommodate where accommodation is not wanted; smile and are misunderstood. And yet mothers are always seen, always talked to, even if only on holidays. They have suffered for our sakes, and most often in a place where we could not see them.
There's a lot going on in Davis' fiction. She merges forms in a way that feels radical and exciting. She's not the first writer to take on the paradoxical story or the short-short (Kafka
is a clear influence, as may be the poets Russell Edson
, Kenneth Koch
and many others). But Davis readers will detect a special kind of energy, one that feels particularly fresh and female. Small as they may be, these stories ought not to be underestimated, for they are the brave, big-hearted works of a literary titan. You can read them any way you like. For heaven's sake, just read them.