It might be tempting to call the short story writer Lydia Davis a minimalist as her stories, in length, are about as short as you will see. But her style is not minimalist; it’s diverse and always shifting, sometimes favoring short and simple sentences, sometimes unfurling into long intricately structured thoughts. In their breadth her stories are really maximalist, taking in a wide variety of subject matter and writing styles to best articulate a narrative.
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis has just appeared in paperback and it is as good a reason as any to become acquainted with her work. It’s easy to scoff at her experimentalism and the absurd brevity of some of her stories, but she is never obscure and the sum total of these stories proves her essentialness to modern American fiction.
The book is made up of four previously published short story collections—Break It Down (1986), Almost No Memory (1997), Samuel Johnson is Indignant (2001), Varieties of Disturbance (2007) – containing 218 stories in total. The subject matter over the four books moves from unhealthy relationships to divorce to aging and death. There are different modes of story writing that repeat throughout all four books: the obsessive thought, the historical story, the travelogue, and social satire. Davis also works as translator of French fiction and the stories often revolve around staying in France, French writers, grammar, and translation. A remote sorrow runs through much of the work, even if it is also very funny.
This book is a master class in the endless vitality of the core tools used by writers. There is too much to catalog but I will try to give some examples of what goes on in the whole.
Her basic storytelling approaches vary widely in range. For example, from “Spring Spleen”:
I am happy the leaves are growing large so quickly.
Soon they will hide the neighbor and her screaming child.
This is the entire story and this is what I meant by “about as short as you will see.” Yet there is a beginning (the neighbor and her screaming child) and a middle (the leaves are growing large quickly) and an end (the neighbors are now hidden) even if the details can only be guessed at. The terseness alludes to the simmering depth of the narrator’s frustrations.
Though Davis’ stories can be experimental or straightforward, there is almost always a traditional narrative underlying each story. The opening of “St. Martin” shows Davis’ skills with traditional narrative. She establishes the basic details of the story with two short sentences then uses repetition to elaborate in the final long sentence, finishing with an unanswered mystery (what happened to the dog?) that will drive the subsequent narrative.
We were caretakers for most of that year, from early fall until summer. There was a house and grounds to look after, two dogs and two cats. We fed the cats, one white and one calico, who lived outside and ate their meals on the kitchen windowsill, sparring in the sunlight as they waited for their food, but we did not keep the house very clean, or the weeds cut in the yard, and our employers, kind people though they were, probably never quite forgave us for what happened to one of the dogs.
Throughout her books Davis uses many storytelling voices from first to third person, formal and informal, limited and omniscient narrator.
She is constantly playing with the ways these voices can be used to affect a narrative. The title of the first book, Break It Down, aptly describes a commonly used approach, whereby a first person narrator neurotically tracks their thoughts as in “What I Feel”: “If I believed that what I felt was not the center of everything, then it wouldn’t be, but just one of many things, off to the side, and I would be able to see and pay attention to other things that were equally important, and in this way I would have some relief.”
Even though some recognizable “voices” appear in multiple stories, they are always evolving and Davis continually plays with what can be done with them. In the final book, Varieties of Disturbance, Davis reduces the self-questioning format to a series of literal questions in “How Shall I Mourn Them?”
Shall I live alone in a large house, like B.?
Shall I treat my husband coldly, like K.?
Shall I give piano lessons, like M.?
Shall I leave butter out all day to soften, like C.?
Through this repetition the abbreviated names start to take on characteristics and as the actions described start to lead towards death one realizes more strongly that these people and their habits no longer exist. The narrator’s questions no longer point inward but to the others and the hollow space they left behind.
The structure and the voice are intertwined in how a story gets told. In “Old Mother and the Grouch,” the tragi-comic narrator seems to be obsessively compiling a list of daily events about himself and his mother: “If Old Mother talks to a friend out of his earshot, the Grouch thinks she must be saying unkind things about him. He is sometimes right, though by the time he appears glowering in the doorway, she has gone on to other topics.” The vignettes eventually constitute a whole, describing their relationship.
Davis also appropriates the structure and format of nonfiction writings in ingenuous ways. “Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality” is written as an academic study, about two elderly women, one African-American and one Swedish-American, describing their lifestyles and what might have led them to live for a long time. They are both very agreeable and polite women, but a third case study, Hope, who didn’t make the final draft keeps sneaking in in italics. She is a more rebellious type who also lived a long time, seemingly refuting the findings in the main case study.
In “French Lesson 1: Le Meurtre,” Davis turns a French lesson into a short story. Through the development of nouns being taught, she establishes a setting and then the action behind what might be a murder. This is something of a conceptual game, but a skillful one.
Davis uses rhythm and repetition within her stories to replicate the cadence of songwriting. The sequencing of the collections feels track listed; the stories breathe and flow into each other, inhaling and contracting and there is a thrilling sense of play that is both loose and precise. A longer story will be joined by the lighter connective tissue of the short shorts, which can be disarmingly blunt or funny toss-aways, like skits on a De La Soul album. The themes or characters in one story may comment on the next. And, like a songwriter, Lydia Davis knows when to cut things short.