Things they don’t want to hear
- The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
Hamish Hamilton, 733 pp, £20.00, August 2010, ISBN 978 0 241 14504 3
The truck’s wheels slipped on the hardpack and I went for a tree, missed it, bounced off the snow bank and spun around to settle against the opposite side of the road. I got out to look at the truck and the front left tyre was flat. Because of the road’s camber I couldn’t jack the truck high enough. A passing truck slowed and the driver, leaning out of his steamy window, said (I had forgotten my gloves and my fingers were freezing), ‘You need a brick!’ and kept on driving. Thanks. Where am I going to find a brick out here? I brushed the snow off a large stone a few yards down the embankment but couldn’t dislodge it. Then I remembered I had The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis in my backpack. I put it under the jack, it held – paper is much denser than you think, it’s the reason moving your books is such a pain, they’re heavy – and I changed the tyre. I was back in my truck, with the heat blasting out, turning my fingers in front of the vent.
Lydia Davis’s mysterious, uncomfortably intimate short stories are often read as the working out on paper of her own very ordinary difficulties in managing life. When I suffered my flat tyre and her book saved the morning, I thought she would be pleased, because of the ordinariness of the problem she had solved, which nevertheless is exactly the kind of problem that, as one after another accumulates in a day or over a week, can come to make you feel that life is too overwhelming in its minutiae, too mundanely cumbersome to bear. I think one of the reasons her work is so powerful – though before this collection she was mostly known as ‘a writer’s writer’, someone you were introduced to in an undergraduate lit class if you were lucky, but more likely in an MFA programme – is this gift of making our unconscious or semi-conscious struggles visible, in stories that are rarely longer than a page or two.
Davis is a ‘writer’s writer’ no more: this collection of the majority of her published stories to date – her first collection, The 13th Woman and Other Stories, was published in 1976, and there have been seven other collections and a novel since – seems to have been received with more critical praise than any other piece of fiction published in the US in 2009 (see James Wood’s review in the New Yorker, for one example among many). Many of Davis’s readers have tended to argue that her power is in the microscope she applies to her own life. In ‘Mrs D and Her Maids’, for example, Mrs D writes to a prospective maid that ‘I must spend all my mornings at my work of writing,’ and that the maid ‘should be co-operative, willing to accept and put into practice new ideas, especially in handling the baby, and calm, patient and firm in dealing with him. Meals should be prompt. I should be glad to hear from you, and the sooner the better.’ It’s hard not to think that Mrs D is Lydia Davis – especially when you read the story in the context of others, which describe many similarly smart, distraught mothers and the troubles they are having with their children. But I don’t think Davis’s great importance comes from the way she may or may not be talking about Lydia Davis. Writers tend to be either narcissists or voyeurs (though of course one can be both), and Davis is much more interested in other people than she is in herself. Even when she is handling narrators whose situation must be similar to her own, or to what hers has been at one time or another, the reticence of her writing, its reluctance to offer the reader any psychological insight into its narrators and characters beyond what they themselves will grudgingly reveal, its tendency to stick to the facts and avoid asking questions (much less answering them), means that her stories are never inward-looking.
Here is one of my favourite stories, a single 20-word sentence, ‘“Information from the North Concerning the Ice”: Each seal uses many blowholes, and every blowhole is used by many seals.’ On the face of it it’s a mere stylistic exercise, like Queneau at his least interesting, or still worse a belated literary Pop: take a sentence that might be from a (rather odd) textbook, the antithesis of literature, and – look! – I can still call it a story. But then we read it a couple more times, we observe that it is surrounded in the collection by stories dealing with romantic relationships, and we try to interpret it. It is, we realise, a depressing parable about love and sex: men are seals and women are blowholes (blowholes!); the seals go where they please, the blowholes are passively used by the seals. Naturally this is a revelation ‘from the North’: it’s a proverb of hell not a proverb of heaven. And then the spareness of the story gets one to thinking about the voice of the narrator. What has this woman suffered that gives her this ugly view of sex and love? She thinks the whole thing can be summarised in a phrase. And we see that it’s information ‘concerning the ice’, the iciness of recent heartbreak perhaps, the cold, hard truth about the irresponsible sleek user of holes: this is the perspective of one who feels used. And this is ‘information’ to her.