Having reached the last page of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, a look back:

Ah, the end of an era. Or, well, a 732-page book. I have finally finished reading The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. And, given how scatterbrained I am when it comes to short story collections, I do want to pat myself on the back for finishing this in record time: six months. Imagine that.

Now that it’s all done, well, I kind of almost wish I read this book in period of, say, 732 days. One story per day, no matter the length. Or maybe I should have treated this orange fat thing as one book, as a lot of people have done. Maybe. Gah. This is frustrating. At this point, I cannot even remember how I liked her so much at the start.

Whatever. For posterity’s sake, here are my experiences with each of the four books, that look-back I promised you all.

With Break It Down, I was thrilled with Davis, fascinated by her craft. Enamored by her. But I was wary. I am generally not a fan of form-above-content — I loathe thinking of the writer sniggering in some corner.

Given that most of Davis’ work here is flash fiction, I noted, “The danger is, of course, letting the shortness speak for itself—a Look what I can do spectacle that values form above all else . . . A pattern emerges, a motif: It is the language and the visceralness that is the main thing in these stories. There is an urgency to convey a glimpse of a character’s life, distilled as it may be. Davis has her honed eye micro-focus on only the most vital events, the most telling of expressions.”

But even this early on, I noticed a flaw that would soon cause me unending frustration and leech me of impatience: “Some stories make you want to ask, ‘Is this a metaphor for something?’ And some stories read as inside jokes—there’s just something you don’t get, something that perhaps only two other people in the world do. Or, perhaps, it’s the conceit of the writer: Something has amused her, and she has enough power to not elaborate on it . . . Some stories are purely cryptic. Some will be simple strange. Many times one will give up — these are codes you can’t decipher, and you simply lose all desire to understand.”

In this first collection, I found the same flaws that I’d continue to find as I read her, but these were muted at the face of the new experience. Davis awed me here. She very rarely did so again.

But I tried to “save” this collection, tried to appease my impatient self, saying, “There are many more avenues for both reader and writer to redeem themselves,” pointing to how one Hit in a Lydia Davis collection can make up for a handful of Misses.

Later on, [and I verbalized this the first time with the last collection — it took me long enough, snerk] I’d realize that the first Davis collection you read will always the best. You don’t know then yet how disappointingly redundant she becomes.

In Almost No Memory , I said, “I like how Davis writes, I like the attention she puts into her sentences. But I’ve found that she has a tendency to focus on language as nothing more than language — syntax and diction are analyzed to death, then given the utmost importance: [Sort of,] ‘This is a word, this is a word, this is a word.’ And I hate that. Words are awesome, but they have to be treated as more than just little conduits of thought, and no, I don’t like it so much either when a writer focuses on how words are little conduits of thought.”

“There was an appalling shortage of something to hold on to, very little on which to string my empathy — even interest — around. It’s not so much a lack of identifiable characters — though that, too, is a problem — but a medley of scenarios and thoughts that not only had very little to do with me as reader, I felt that Davis didn’t even attempt to draw me in . . . This was, I felt, Davis’ little pocket notebook, and I just happened to be peeking into it. It’s a strange situation, yes. It can be personal, and if the reader is lucky that can work just right — or it could feel so alienating to us because these pieces are ultimately hers alone.”

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.”

Which leads us to the last collection, Varieties of Disturbance, which I read because I just wanted this book pronounced read-and-dead, gahdammet. Again, bah. Not much beyond that, really. Just BAH.

Yeah, I am quite grumpy about this. My experience with her fiction has left a really really really wonky taste in my mouth. I am very very very annoyed by all of this. By Davis, by her stories, by the amount of eye-rolling I was forced to do. Really grumpy, I tell ya.

I guess it is time I attacked her other translations. Sigh.

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7 comments

  1. So empathising with your arghness. At least it’s a good looking book! Especially with all of your beautiful colour coded significations down the side! I think you’ve added something beautiful to it in this way. Maybe that will be its redeeming factor?
    (I am gathering from the tone of your review that this is one to miss?)

  2. I’ve been looking forward to reading this. From what you’ve said, I suspect it might be a slightly similar experience to reading Lorrie Moore, although I think they’re very different writers. But similar in the way that they return to the same tricks and themes so often that a large collection might not be the right way to read them. I got halfway through Lorrie Moore, and although I enjoyed most of the stories, thought it was a bit much to read all at once.

    I see you’re reading Munro, though! No eye-rolling there, in my humble opinion.

  3. […] Most of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. […]

  4. I was wandering through Powell’s books in Portland, Oregon and was attracted by the beautiful cover on the book. I’m not really a fiction guy, but after looking closely at the contents I knew that I had stumbled upon a genius. Lydia Davis short stories are fascinating for both the mind and spirit. She is truly a brilliant writer and I wish her only the best.

  5. […] lends itself to inside jokes and wordplay and too-cutesy semantic riddles [I am looking at you, Lydia Davis]—is their insistence on focusing on the ordinary, the near-mundane: the little battles of our […]

  6. […] End of the Story, by Lydia Davis. – I had a surfeit of Lydia Davis last year, but I continue to have faith in her writing. As long as I don’t read her in a thousand-page, […]

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