Varieties of Disturbance: Stories by Lydia Davis
Reviewed by Kate Zambreno
At a recent unstimulating dinner party, I was perusing my host's bookshelves and pulled out a copy of Lydia Davis's Samuel Johnson is Indignant, and turned to one of the stories in that collection, "Boring Friends," which seemed appropriate for such an occasion:
We know only four boring people. The rest of our friends we find very 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.
What other contemporary American author writes so well about things often thought but left unsaid, and certainly not written down and framed as literature? In her previous collections as well as her most recent, Varieties of Disturbance, Davis' domestic surreality reads as if Jane Bowles had been able to liberate her fragments from her multitude of notebooks, a suburban Gertrude Stein choosing as her material the thoughts of the wives Alice B. Toklas sat with, the "some domestic complication in all probability" alluded to but otherwise ignored in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.
The poetry of the everyday, the mundane, is the fabric of Davis's quietly hysterical worlds; she does not patch together the whole quilt, instead giving us neat little squares with more than occasional threads of brilliance. In these stories she agonizes over interactions between both strangers and intimates, disturbances (to quote the title) both banal and serious, the awkwardness of social rituals, the unspoken hostility between spouses, the uneasy disrepair of a long held friendship, and more -- unraveling the meaning of all in graceful spirals.
Some of the stories in Varieties of Disturbance are laugh-out-loud-while-on-the-train funny (and navigating the uncomfortable dance with unknowns on public transportation is somehow the ideal setting for their staccato rhythm as well as sometimes uneasy content). Take "Passing Wind," where the narrator worries about a fart just emitted in a room with a relative stranger, and how she can mend this seeming rupture without escalating the situation. The frantic circumambulations of the hyperconscious narrator's mind during these overwrought moments multiply to become a symphony of the absurd.
Davis is most profound when examining the seeming smallness of life, as in the marvelous "Grammar Questions," where the narrator wonders in what tense to refer to her dying father. ("If someone asks me, 'Where does he live?' should I answer, 'Well, right now he is not living, he is dying'?") A noted translator of French avant-garde writers such as Maurice Blanchot and Michel Leiris, many of her sketches deal with the act of translation and the exactness of language. I like to imagine that Davis writes some of the lighter pieces as a reprieve from her work of translating classic literary texts (she most recently translated Swann's Way, and is currently translating Madame Bovary.)
Likewise, brevity is Davis's forte; there are some pieces here only a sentence or two long, operating more like the jokes of a stand-up comedian who holds doctorates in philosophy and linguistics. In a fragment entitled "Collaboration with the Fly," for example, she writes:
I put that word on the page,
but he added the apostrophe.
Some of the longer pieces in this new collection feel like clever exercises, such as an obsessive analysis of grade-school get-well letters. A longer story that transcends experiment is the marvelous "Kafka Cooks Dinner," in which Davis manages to pay homage to the absurd humor in Kafka as he minutely goes over the menu for a dinner party for his unrequited love Milena, while also getting at the angst buried underneath the awkwardness of social ritual. It is in that milieu that Davis shines, writing in the first-person about the mercilessly self-absorbed and self-aware flickers of thought.