shining the spotlight on short story collections
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2009
“If someone asks me ‘Where does he live?’ should I answer ‘Well, right now he is not living he is dying’?
If someone asks me, ‘Where does he live?’ can I say ‘He lives in Vernon Hall’? Or should I say ‘He is dying in Vernon Hall’?”
Reviewing the 200 or so stories in Lydia Davis’ Collected Stories is a task that feels almost equal to writing a brief summary of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in under 1000 words. I want to comment on every single story, each one of which provoked a reaction in me, every one of which is memorable, sharp, different. But that, clearly, is impossible!
In fact, the more I think about it, the more I feel that this collection is an encyclopaedia of the human condition, with much dark humour, as is necessary when examining the ridiculousness of the ways we behave to each other. In many of these stories, which range in length from several words to over 20 pages, Davis approaches her subject – be it a situation, an emotion, a state of bring – with almost scientific interest. Their titles reflect this: The Fish, The Mouse, Mothers, What an Old Woman Will Wear, Lost Things. These are meticulous dissections, intricate descriptions of, say, what it means to be right, or of betrayal, or the relationship of a mother and daughter. But somehow she evokes more, she pulls the reader into the stories – and they are stories – and her endings, whether it be after one paragraph or many pages, are breathtaking.
The best way is to illustrate this with examples from the stories in the four books collected here, Break It Down, Almost No Memory, Samuel Johnson is Indignant and Varieties of Disturbance, published between 1986 and 2007. Much has been made of her very very short stories, some of which are barely a sentence long, but this is only part of Davis’ repertoire, and looking across these four collections, they contain a mix of stories of every length. An early story, The Fears of Mrs Orlando, demonstrates the way Davis will go on to write for the next 20 years – and I mean this as a compliment. She clearly found her voice very early on in her career. The story begins:
Mrs Orlando’s world is a dark one. In her home she knows what is dangerous: the gas stove, the steep stairs, the slick bathtub, and several kinds of bad wiring. Outside her house, she knows some of what is dangerous but not all of it, and is frightened by her own ignorance, and avid for information about crime and disaster.
The tone here is unsentimental. Davis understands she doesn’t not need to show us what Mrs Orlando is feeling by bringing us emotions, she is stating facts and these facts are about a situation a reader understands: fear of danger and disaster. A lesser writer might have added in that Mrs Orlando is frightened that the gas stove will explode, that she will slip on the stairs or in the bathtub, but Davis knows that she has said enough. And I think this is characteristic of all her stories, she never says more than is absolutely necessary to stir the reader.
The tone of this story is completely consistent, never veering from an apparently simple stating of facts, and yet the complex feelings we have for this woman increase as we read. The ending is perfect. A mix of open-ended – clearly Mrs Orlando’s fears are not going to be banished – and satisfying.
Davis’ stories sometimes venture into more surreal territory, although still probing a situation with a scientific eye:
He was so quiet, so small and thin, that he was hardly there. The brother-in-law. Whose brother-in-law they did not know. Or where he came from, or if he would leave (The Brother-in-Law).
While having no use for overwrought language or verbal trickery, Davis often experiments with language and structure, different ways to tell stories. Wife One in the Country begins:
Wife one calls to speak to son. Wife two answers with impatience, gives phone to son of wife one. Son has heard impatience in the voice of wife two and tells mother he thought caller was father’s sister: raging aunt, constant caller, troublesome woman.
How much information do we learn from simply this first paragraph! Not an adverb in sight, nothing but the apparent stating of “facts”.
And then there is this kind of Lydia Davis story which seem like a riddle but contains so much that is just spot on: Right and Wrong:
She knows she is right but to say she is right is wrong, in this case. To be correct and say so is wrong, in certain cases.
She may be correct and say so, in certain cases. But if she insists too much, she becomes wrong, so wrong that even her correctness becomes wrong, by association.
It is right to believe in what she thinks is right, but to say what she thinks is right is wrong, in certain cases.
One of my favourite stories in this collection is Mrs. D and Her Maids, which is told as if it were an encyclopaedia entry about Mrs D and her household servants. It is divided into short sections with section headings such as “Names of Some Early Maids, with Identifying Characteristics”, “One of the Earliest Maids is One of the Best”, and “Soon There are Problems, However”. This is a 37-page story of Mrs D’s life, told through her trials hiring and firing maids. This is a section entitled “Mrs D Tries to Be Honest in Recommending Her to Others”:
Our maid’s name is Virginia. She may not turn out to be the gem for temporary work that I hoped I was sending you.
She is not the sort who starts out like a whirlwind.
She has a sort of nervous shyness.
She is extremely slow on laundry but it probably wouldn’t matter so much in your case since you send out more things.
She can’t catch up with the ironing. But if you take a firm hand it ought not to be a problem. Also, you ought to make out a schedule for her.
There are many stories here that I felt must be autobiographical – a poignant story of a couple house-sitting in France who lose one of the landlord’s beloved dogs, for example, or What You Learn About the Baby, which details the situation of a new mother understanding how life has now changed. But it doesn’t matter what the source of the material is. All that matters is what the reader makes of it.
This reader made a great deal of it, I could barely read more than one or two stories at a time before I had to put the book down, no matter what the length of the story. This is one of those collections that you need on your bookshelf – if you are a writer, it will inspire you to experiment, it will illuminate the beauty of minimalism, the power of unsentimental writing. If you are a reader, you will enjoy these stories, many of which are very funny, and you may also, I believe, learn a little bit about your own idiosyncracies and say, as you close the book, Do I do that? and laugh as you realise that, well, we all do. Davis’ stories tell us about ourselves, in a way that is gentle yet firm. I am very glad of it.
Read a story from this collection in Conjunctions
Tania Hershman is the editor of The Short Review. Her first short story collection, The White Road and Other Stories, is published by Salt Modern Fiction. Her latest collection, My Mother was an Upright Piano, is published by Tangent Books.