The Lydia Davis Epiphany, Better Late Than Never

I finally figured out how I should read Lydia Davis. It took me long enough, haha. I began making my way through The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis with Break It Down, which I loved, and then followed that with Almost No Memory, which I didn’t so much like. And here came Samuel Johnson is Indignant. I wasn’t so happy with it at the beginning; it was shaping up to be the worse of the lot.

Frankly, this feeling was getting old. And I really wanted this entire Davis thing to work (and not just because this took a chunk from my first ever paycheck at my first ever job). It took several moments of deep concentration, which consisted me scowling at this bright orange book, and then I finally got it. I finally got her.

See, the problem I had with Davis early on is how hit-and-miss she can be – these pieces of flash fiction tended to feel like inside jokes, like riddles, like mindless scribbling on paper napkins one slow afternoon, like literary exercises. Occasionally, there were these moments of pure genius, when Davis makes the best of the brevity, of her wittiness. Also, when she ventures with longer work. And these “hits” always make up for the bleh-ness of the rest of the pieces.

And it took me a while, but I realized that I had to treat this book as one giant collection of stories over 752 pages. That every time I began a collection of hers, I had to treat it as part of her entire body of work – that every single story had to be treated this way. [Gawd, this can be exhausting.]

Yeah, this says a lot about Davis: Her collections, I’ve come to realize, don’t differ much from one another. There’s not even any conscious effort to give them something that sets them apart, at least none that I’ve seen. Same old collection of short short stories, just different-ish pieces in them. And the pieces themselves, most of them all blur together. Yes, there are gems – I will always remember the title story of her first collection, things like that – but stepping back and looking at one piece after another, it’s pretty much all the same.

It’s a terrible thing to realize when you’re holding [an expensive] book by an author you want to love. How about some variety here, Miss Davis? Show me more of that genius that has me gasping, “Dammit, how’d she do that?” Be more consistent with it. Be constantly good. I demand it. That’s not going to work, apparently – with any author, I’m afraid. With Davis, perhaps she will always be hit-and-miss, and maybe this is how it is when you face heaps of short short fiction.

I guess this is why I’ve been feeling like nothing would beat her first collection – it was the first of hers that I read. I found the same flaws there that I’d continue to find as I read her, but they were muted at the face of this new experience. Davis awed me then. She very rarely did again.

A little adjustment of perspective won’t hurt, though.

So. What is there to say about the collection itself, Samuel Johnson is Indignant? What new thing do I say? Ah, well. Not much. Same quality of “hits,” and the experience. Same quality of bleh-ness here and there. Same flaws. But I need to look at the bright side. And it is this: Out of the 56 stories in the collection, I ended up liking 16. Not bad odds [just nod, my math is wonky], especially since some of those 16, I really really like. As usual. You go, Glen Coco.

The same signs of literary infatuation/envy: I want to quote entire stories at length, because that’s the only way I can share the joy, that’s the only way the goodness works, actually – what good will it do for me to enumerate stories like “Priority,” “Old Mother and the Grouch,” “The Old Dictionary,” “Letter to a Funeral Parlor,” “Oral History (with Hiccups),” “Selfish,” “My Husband and I,” and “The Silence of Mrs. Iln”? Nothing, haha.

Also, yes, I want to redistribute Davis’ stories, including only the ones that I likey a lot.

Oh, Davis, you odd, odd writer. I shouldn’t like you, a voice in my head tells me she isn’t worth all this trouble. But, well, she gives me so much when her stories work for me. So, yes, for me, Lydia Davis is worth all this trouble. Until next time, voice in my head. Until next time.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Reading begets reading: [1] I only have one collection – chapter, har – left in her Collected Stories, and I’m saving that for later. I want to see how I’ll react to it. [2] And after that, or before, I’m going to check out her novels, The End of the Story, in particular. It’s already on my BD wishlist, haha. [3] And her translations? Still feeling intimidated about the Proust side of things, but Madame Bovary, as soon as a copy hits my shores, I’m gonna get ya.

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4 comments

  1. It’s interesting that you tend to prefer her longer stories – I’m just the opposite; those tend to be the only ones that DON’T work for me. The uber-short pieces strike me as finely honed marvelous little gems, and the longer ones as kind of unfocused and less interesting. But I’ve only read one collection; I wonder if I would be struck by your same ennui were I to read more. Right now I’m still quite enamored of her!

    1. I think it’s because I get so impatient with her shorter works. Which is odd, I know. Oh, her short shorts that I like are always finely honed and has their own distinctive pleasures. But maybe because she does so much of it, it’s always refreshing and enjoyable for me to read her when she explores her subject more. :]

      And please, keep being enamored, haha. I do love Lydia Davis, although I’m quick to point out flaws in her work. Tough love, I suppose?

  2. [...] And then I had a belated resolution whilst I was reading Samuel Johnson Is Indignant: “Her collections, I’ve come to realize, don’t differ much from one another. There’s not even any conscious effort to give them something that sets them apart, at least none that I’ve seen. Same old collection of short short stories, just different-ish pieces in them. And the pieces themselves, most of them all blur together. Yes, there are moments of genius, but stepping back and looking at one piece after another, it’s pretty much all the same.” [...]

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