Micro-fiction writer Lydia Davis won the 2013 International Man Booker Prize yesterday. Celebrated in her native US, though less well known elsewhere, she has published several collections of (very) short stories, most of the stories no more than three pages long - and some of them as short as a sentence, or even a phrase.
Chair of the Man International Booker judges, Christopher Ricks, praised the way her inventive stories ‘fling their lithe arms wide to embrace many a kind’.
In 2010, critic Estelle Tang reviewed Davis’s The Collected Stories - which spans twelve years, four collections and almost 200 stories –for the Australian Literary Review. She’s allowed us to republish her in-depth appreciation here. Maybe it will whet your appetite!
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
Lydia Davis (Hamish Hamilton)
Reviewed by Estelle Tang
Joyce Carol Oates wrote that the short story’s ‘effect is rarely isolated or singular, but accumulative; a distinguished story collection is one that is greater than the mere sum of its disparate parts’. By this equation, The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis stands to stack up as great indeed. The collection spans twelve years, four collections and almost 200 stories. And Davis’s oeuvre does succeed against Oates’ metric, defying mere additive logic to constitute a rare, oblique investigation into our interiors. Not only do her stories flout the conventions of short fiction – Davis forces us to reconsider the meaning of both ‘short’ and ‘story’ – but they also render the relationship between reader and character one of intimate indeterminacy. One only need think of a microscope with the magnification set too high; it’s a marvellously clear view, but what are we seeing?
‘Break It Down’ opens with a man
staring at a piece of paper in front of him. He’s trying to break it down. He says:
I’m breaking it all down. The ticket was $600 and then after that there was more for the hotel and food and so on, for just ten days. Say $80 a day, no, more like $100 a day. And we made love, say, once a day on the average. That’s $100 a shot.
Here we have the ex-lover trying to settle accounts: sifting through memories, assessing their value, palming the change. The necessaries and the lovemaking are easily accounted for, but not everything yields so easily to such categorisation. The narrator (stripped of details like name and sex, constituted only by his or her thoughts, like most of Davis’ characters) begins to include jokes, touches, peaceful dreams in the reckoning, and it becomes apparent that the equation doesn’t really add up: ‘So, I’m thinking about it, how you can go in with $600, more like $1,000, and how you can come out with an old shirt.’
Davis’s earnest, assiduous accountants excogitate, not discuss. Direct speech is scarce, dialogue between two characters even more so. In the monologic ‘Story’, a woman has been trying to track her lover down after a fight; he has been to the movies with his ex-girlfriend instead of coming to visit her. They play phone tag and then she goes to his house, where she sees a car she doesn’t recognise. He comes out and explains why the other woman is there, but she doesn’t understand:
I try to figure it out.
So they went to the movies and then came back to his place and then I called and then she left and he called back and we argued and then I called back twice but he had gone out to get a beer (he says) and then I drove over and in the meantime he had returned from buying beer and she had also come back and she was in his room so we talked by the garage doors.
These internal to-and-fros are heartbreaking, because while the thinkers have put their trust in method and thought, time and time again they train their attention on the wrong object. In ‘Grammar Questions’, the narrator deliberates over how to conjugate a father’s imminent death: ‘In the phrase “he is dying,” the words he is with the present participle suggest that he is actively doing something. But he is not actively dying. The only thing he is still actively doing is breathing.’ Inquiry of this nature may seem cold and avoidant, but it’s clear that the ability of grammar to mirror life’s tracks – present and future and past tenses – is a reassuringly unassailable strand in the narrator’s fraying reality.
In these human experiments, Davis’s narrators impose a control of sorts: the plainest language you might ever encounter in literary fiction. It is as if, by paying each emotion the same courtesy of plain words and studied focus, the narrators might manage to get at the truth. Davis’s preference for plainness has also been observed in her translating work. In the New York Times, Peter Brooks noted that her 2004 translation of Marcel Proust’s Du cÃ´té de chez Swann (Davis does away with the ambiguous ‘Swann’s Way’ and titles it The Way by Swann’s) ‘strips away some of the fustian and fussiness’ of Scott Moncrieff’s original. One can, then, comfortably predict that Davis will be faithful to Flaubert, that famous seeker of le mot juste, in her forthcoming translation of Madame Bovary. Davis also admires the writing of Samuel Beckett for, among other things, ‘the plain, Anglo-Saxon vocabulary’; she related in a 2008 interview with the Believer magazine that she used to copy out sentences from his work.
But there’s lineage, and then there’s the singular simplicity Davis has made her signature. Take ‘Problem’, which casts people as variables: ‘X is with Y, but living on money from Z. Y himself supports W, who lives with her child by V.’ Davis’s sentences are so plain, the syntax so unassuming, that when a Romantic, though apposite, adjective surfaces (‘espaliered’, in ‘My Husband and I’), it catches in the maw like old toast. The unadorned account of ‘Problem’, however, presents troubling and complex facts: Y is supporting W, who is living with her child by V. X and Y don’t have children together. W is stuck in New York on account of her relationship with U, whose child lives in New York. It may be a story boiled down to its most basic elements – who does what, with whom – but the problem has by no means been solved, and may in fact have no possible solution. What seems like a simplifying approach actually serves to foreground the entanglement; there’s more to this story, infinitely more.
The Collected Stories contains four of Davis’s seven short fiction collections: Break It Down (1986), Almost No Memory (1997), Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (2001) and Varieties of Disturbance (2007). (She has also written one novel, The End of the Story.) 733 pages of stories shorn of decoration might seem like a tall order (even though the book is blurbed by heavyweights Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Oates and Rick Moody), especially in Australia, where none of the individual collections have been released in local editions. But Davis is also a convincing redefiner of the short-story form, offering endless surprising configurations across a confident body of work. In a time when readers of American short fiction bemoan the samey competency that can result from creative writing courses, the multifarious and controversial shapes of Davis’s fictions are undeniably exciting.
Notably, some sentences consist of just one line. Here is the entirety of ‘Samuel Johnson Is Indignant:’
that Scotland has so few trees.
Outrageous, certainly, if you believe that a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. Or, if you hold, like Gerald Prince did in the 1970s, that a story should comprise at least three events strung together. ‘Samuel Johnson’, it might be argued, contains only one, or merely the second part of one. But there’s no denying the story’s one-two narrative slug. At the risk of explaining away the miniature’s charm, Davis does much here with little. The stentorian promise of a literary giant’s ire, the bracing colon, the understated denouement: it’s a pleasurable and coherent experience.
Some stories are haiku-like or epistolary; others bring to mind logic exercises or language classes. ‘This Condition’ is a list of aphrodisiacs, pock-marked with commas, and the Hitchens-tickler ‘Index Entry’ (‘Christian, I’m not a’) trades glances with ‘Foucault and Pencil’, which contains no definite or indefinite articles. As might be expected, this array of forms has its heroes and its lesser mates. Some of the shorter, more experimental pieces have the feel of being just ‘scales and arpeggios and five-finger exercises’, as practised by the narrator in ‘Glenn Gould’. For example, ‘First Grade: Handwriting Practice’ consists of the lyrics to ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord’, with a little stage direction (‘turn over’) interpolated before the penultimate line. Diverting, sure, but it reads like an opportunistic epigram.
Nevertheless, as Glenn Gould would no doubt attest, and as Ernest Hemingway famously recommended, the five-finger exercise plays a material role in the performance of a masterpiece. The childhood classroom and pulpy paper called to mind by ‘First Grade’ speak to one of the most startling and funny pieces in the collection, ‘We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders’. The title doesn’t mislead: much like a sociological study conducted by a grammarian, ‘We Miss You’ is a dryly penned analysis of twenty-seven letters written to young Stephen, who has been in a car accident.
Stephen’s classmates have been enjoined by a doubtless well-meaning teacher to put their most comforting and enthusiastic thoughts to paper. These artefacts are subjected to absurdly objective textual analysis: ‘There is a tendency toward non sequiturs’. The unnamed ‘sociologist’ carries out this research with fastidious attention, and invests the most meaningless details with import. To his or her keen eye, each letter reveals its author’s personality through its tics, level of accomplishment and correctness:
Sally is even more specific, and her letter, though one of the briefest, carries the most powerful, and the darkest, emotional burden: “Hope you are feeling better. Your seat is empty. Your stocking is not finished.” This last sentence is followed by a period, but then, ambiguously, by a lower-case b, so that we cannot be sure whether Sally meant to continue the sentence or begin a new one when she goes on to say, again dwelling on darker possibilities: “But I don’t think it will be finished.”
Davis’s extraordinary commitment to formal experimentation is at its most salient in this, one of the collection’s longest and most strangely riveting stories. As the report goes on, its findings demarcated to four levels of subheadings (‘Overall Coherence’, ‘Formulaic Expressions of Sympathy’, ‘Compound-Complex Sentences’), the letters ever more closely scrutinised, the reader’s attention turns to the driving intelligence behind this odd endeavour. What is being studied, and who formulated the question?
In ‘A Few Things Wrong with Me’, the narrator is trying to ascertain what an ex-lover didn’t like about her. It’s an unpleasant task that brings to mind all her faults, large or small. Labouring at these difficult, unsolvable problems, Davis’s characters fumble through processes designed to procure answers. But there are no epiphanies here, no sparks of inspiration. The aim is far more humble than that. The narrator trusts that this kind of parsing, all this working out, ‘all the answers together may add up to the right one if there is such a thing as a right answer to a question like that’.