Less is more
Lydia Davis's minimalist prose leads to big things.
Nobody writes a story like Lydia Davis. No one quite writes a sentence like her, either. Come to think of it, the two are often one and the same.
In her new book Varieties of Disturbance (FSG, $13), the story “Tropical Storm” is composed entirely of the following: “Like a tropical storm, I, too, may one day become ‘better organized.’” “Idea for a Short Documentary Film” reads: “Representatives of different food products manufacturers try to open their own packaging.”
Not every story of Davis’s is so short, but each one carries with it a poet’s concern for the sentence, and a comedian’s sense of the punch line. Beautiful and brief, Davis loads enough into each story to make them resonate long after you’ve finished reading them.
“A lot more of the work will take place in the reader than in the texts,” Davis says. “With ‘Tropical Storm,’ what I’m hoping for is to startle the reader into a shift of thinking. It’s really a little trigger. Some associations should unfold in the reader’s mind to make it more substantial. They’re a lot more interactive than the longer ones.”
The longer ones are no less playful than the shorter. “We Will Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth Graders” features a series of letters to a kid named Stephen—in the hospital with an infection—from his friends at school. The narrator takes on a mock psychologist’s tone, analyzing each letter for “overall coherence” and style. A boy named John C. is efficiently categorized by his penmanship and choice in movies: “His script is gracefully formed but unusually consistent in sinking down slightly below the line. This may indicate a desire for more stability on his part, a fear of imagination, or, on the contrary, an unusually firmly grounded personality.”
It’s clear that Davis is up to something completely different from most working writers. Her previous collection, 2002’s Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, earned her a reputation as a writer’s writer, a sort of backhanded compliment that implies the only people truly appreciative of her work are those practicing the art. Likewise, the Los Angeles Times labeled her a “quiet giant in the world of American fiction.” And yet we find her work to be as accessible as it is uniquely creative, particularly because it’s so funny.
“Some of them do border on just being a joke,” Davis says. “Some I didn’t include in the book, but I’ll read at a reading, because they’re funny. They all vary enough as a group. Some are more serious, some are just a lighthearted moment.”
Davis admits that when she writes her shorter pieces, there’s often little intent behind them. Her stories evoke moods, poke at holes between language and meaning, and trigger long interpretations of just one or two sentences. Add to the mix the appearance that some of the stories are taken directly from her life, and just a few pages of Varieties can provoke a complex stew of emotions in the reader. In “Grammar Questions,” Davis dances around the impending death of her father by discussing the difficulties in choosing the words she will use to describe him once he’s passed.
“All I do is take an objective position. I stand back from it and shape it and select it,” she says. “I do like stories that don’t directly confront the subject, when you’re supposedly focusing on something else, but allowing the more important matter to emerge.”
Such an approach lends itself to a variety of reactions. One early reviewer thought “Grammar Questions” was about the Iraq War. And the more interpretations (one would hope), the more word of mouth will spread about one of our “quiet giants.”
“I’m always surprised by what other people see,” she says. “There’s very little consensus. One reader will find a story dry and impersonal, and another will feel very emotional.”
Davis reads Tuesday 8 at University of Chicago.