Review: “The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis”

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Lydia Davis
Picador, 2010, 978-0312655396

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

Believe it or not, the art of the soliloquy predates National Public Radio’s fetish for it. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis proves not only this, but also that such flash fiction need not be glib wit in order to offer humor, and need not be cloying to elicit sorrow. Considering the brevity of her work from first page to last, it might be easy to dismiss the style of Ms. Davis as resembling that of any other of those smugly charming contributors. Nothing could be further from the case. Ms. Davis has a knack for using negative space in her writing to disturb the reader with absence where one might ordinarily find emphasis: explicit emotion. Her characters populate a wry world. Within this collection whose breadth is striking, one finds depth that might ordinarily be missed, just as looking into a crystal clear lake can make the bottom seem far closer than it really is. While witty, like the pieces of David Sedaris and company, and to the end that laughter results, Ms. Davis’ work measures depths too far out into the lake for most humorists to hit bottom, even with an anchor. Simply put: “Collected Stories” is not only funny but moving as well, and it is that way due to exclusion.

Lydia Davis Review on Fogged Clarity

Lydia Davis

Ultimately the feelings found at the periphery of these sketches draw the eye and make it impossible to look away. In the stories, one finds passion through pressure, pressure that cracks the surface of these stories enough to see into their centers. In “Samuel John is Indignant,” Ms. Davis writes a vivid description of a wounded man’s surroundings as he suffers to end a piece. Where another writer might have sought closure through cloying sentimentality, Ms. Davis uses this description to imply emotion. In this way, she leads her readers to water rather than pouring it down throat after throat.

The greatest accomplishment of Davis’s fiction is its apt diction and tight style. Syntax offers powerful tools for crafting emotional responses and Ms. Davis is elegant enough to do this in her collected stories so often that, a few stories in, it can be taken for granted. The profluence of a run-on sentence in “Happy Memories” illustrates just how powerful sentence structure can be for evoking emotional response:

“I can see that the things I do with another person, and with a feeling of warmth toward that person, and with a person who will want to have me in his or her happy memory may make a good happy memory, while the things I do alone and especially with a feeling of ambition, or pride, or power, even if they are good in themselves, will not make a good happy memory.”

The breathlessness and repetition of such style gives the narrator a frantic sense of urgency without having to tell the reader how or what to feel.

Easy writing to read is often the hardest writing to achieve. Ms Davis does as much. Writing this eloquently only appears to be easy due to the easy way it can be consumed. Ms. Davis is deceptive in the best possible ways: her patience makes complexity seem simple; her diction makes comprehension accessible; and, through it all, her work flows with the ease of a graceful monologue. Every read offers another production of such drama. In “Blind Date” the extent of monologue-driven narrative rivals that in Conrad. To read Lydia Davis is to hear voices. These are not, however, lines from ancient mariners, nor are they sublime ramblings as one might find in whimsical literary fiction. No; the only magic in Davis’ realism, is how real the pieces feel.

*“The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis” is available for purchase here.

Dylan James Brock got his undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and an MFA from Hunter College in New York City. He has worked as a reader at the Paris Review, a barista at Starbucks, a research assistant for author Kathryn Harrison, a dog walker, an adjunct teaching writing in Michigan and New York City, a sales associate at Best Buy, a founder of the record label Jumberlack Media, a ride attendant at a water park, and a freelance web developer.