Despite her vaunted status among fellow writers and a devoted literary following, Lydia Davis has never attained the wider fame that one might expect from someone of her talent and reputation. Her loyalty to the short story and reluctance to write novels (with 1994’s claustrophobic, neurotic The End of the Story her only long-form effort) has kept her relatively sheltered, and allowed her to develop her style and voice without concern for the expectations of some looming, indistinct audience. Her brilliance is best demonstrated in these short bursts of writing, where her work retains a light, playful tone, able to skip nimbly from topic to topic, mood to mood, resisting the narrowness of purpose that can weigh down a novel.
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis contains over 20 years of Davis’ work from her four collections of short prose: Break It Down, Almost No Memory, Samuel Johnson is Indignant, and Varieties of Disturbance. It offers a unique survey of the writer’s entire career, allowing readers to become acquainted with Davis’ blend of wit and wordplay, as well as her strong insight into character. It also serves to demonstrate the malleability and potential of the short story, as Davis shows little reverence for the expectations of narrative and form.
Each piece is its own entity, shaped to fit the tale Davis wants to tell, never the other way around. Some are lengthy and grand, while others, like the titular story of Samuel Johnson is Indignant, occupy no more than two sentences. The stories also defy categorization and bend genres; though ostensibly fiction, there’s poetry in many of Davis’ crisp offerings, and a thinly-veiled memoir streaked throughout that depicts the life of an endlessly observant, slightly tipsy university professor with relationship issues and a habit of over-thinking things.
Character is at the heart of each story, and Davis’ deft treatment of her subjects, be they the skittish homebody Mrs. Orlando, the adventurous traveler Lord Royston, or the aforementioned professorial self-portrait, makes her work a pleasure to read. Plots, while occasionally present, are merely vehicles through which the reader may gain perspective on the characters that spring seemingly fully rendered from Davis’ imagination, complete with instincts and motivations that appear three dimensional and real.
In “The House Plans”, a nine-page story from Almost No Memory, an unnamed man undertakes a massive renovation project on a country home, short on resources but with ample passion that is slowly sapped away. It’s one of the collection’s longer pieces and one of the earliest to enrapture the reader, as the protagonist’s lofty ambitions and nagging self-doubt make themselves evident. The reader follows his continual revisions and additions to his master plan, knowing that as the goal grows grander it also moves further away. The man’s siege mentality seeps through the page and it becomes perilously easy to empathize with his cynical, suspicious attitude toward his neighbors, who would have him run off the land.
Davis’ ability to convey this complex inner turmoil can make for compelling stories such as this, but can also have a draining effect, particularly in those pieces that are closer to memoir than fiction. In the 20-year span covered in this collection, the professorial character who bears a resemblance to Davis experiences marriage, motherhood, and divorce, reflects on her career and troubled relationships, and ultimately confronts mortality with her parents increasing age and her father’s passing. Though thoughtful and touching, the strength with which some of the character’s emotions are detailed, and the raw, affecting ways they rattle the reader, can be difficult to endure. Thankfully, such harrowing experiences are scattered amidst other stories that offer welcome releases of tension.
Stories like “Marie Curie, So Honorable a Woman”, a mini-biography of the famed chemist that neatly honors her personal and professional identities. Davis lays out her sentences so matter-of-factly that it’s hard to believe the intensely sympathetic reaction she manages to provoke at the end of the piece with her solemn conclusion, “She was of those who work one single furrow.” The playful “Le Meurtre” takes the form of a French lesson in which relevant vocabulary is woven into a story that gradually takes on a sinister tone. “And why,” Davis writes, “in fact, is the chopping block covered with sang that is still sticky, even though le fermier has not killed un poulet in days?”
The shorter pieces, those that take up only a single page, range from transcendent to gimmicky, though all have value in their ability to make one reconsider their ideas of what makes a story a story. “The Mother,” for example, manages to evoke tragedy in ten sparsely lyrical lines. “Betrayal” is but a small vignette detailing the gradual watering down of one’s fantasies with age, a trenchant and affecting confession unencumbered by the trappings of context that would hamper its universality.
The true beauty of this collection is its volume and accessibility. A thick, yet compact tome, The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis may be consulted on a whim, a story read out of order and very quickly, and then returned to its bookshelf or nightstand. A flash of fiction at any moment, one guaranteed to provide a deep thought to prod the intellect or alluring image to inflame the senses. It’s a helpful reference for those familiar with her stunning work and an approachable opportunity for newcomers interested in discovering new worlds in which to explore.