Lydia Davis is the most important and best-kept secret in recent American fiction. Over the past 3 decades, 4 books of short stories and a novel, she’s blazed trails for US writing’s most exciting tendencies, one of a handful of quiet renegades – alongside the likes of Donald Barthelme, David Markson, and successors like Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace – in the slough of boredom that is contemporary realist fiction.
She’s finessed her own writing to an absolute razor-edge of economy: her signature unit is the micro-fiction, stretching from five words (the title story of 2001’s Samuel Johnson is Indignant) to two pages, but each one containing a lingering world in its gestures.
Her ‘writer’s writer’ status in the American field can be partly traced to her influences in European modernist fiction – Kafka’s paradoxes and parables, Beckett’s circuitous monologues, Robbe-Grillet’s depthless geometries – though her repeated stories of domestic discord and personal inertia mirror the concerns of fictioneers like Raymond Carver.
Her admission in interviews that her technique of intense compression was an inverse reaction to Proust’s paragraph-long sentences (as a veteran translator of French, Davis translated Swann’s Way for the last Penguin edition) gives us a sense of the thrust of her writing: a redefinition of the story’s boundaries, refusing to deny the pleasures and fascinations of narrative, while equally denying the need to bloat stories out to fit the outmoded psychological template that still governs the contemporary novel.
Davis’ prose style varies rather less over the course of the more than 700 pages than you might expect, but it is so beguiling, and so open to subtle modulations, that it hardly seems to matter: you can scarcely help yourself reading story after story told in these strange, often nameless voices. Dry, careful, ingenuous, quizzical, oblique, sometimes fantastical – as in the striking, sad and hilarious ‘The Cats in the Prison Recreation Hall’ – and often wryly funny, it does much of the work in conveying the semi-tragic, semi-comic sense that pervades Davis’ investigations of conjured lives.
The suppleness of her voice and absurdist humour shares something with Donald Barthelme, whose stories such pieces as ‘Lord Royston’s Tour’ and ‘Marie Curie, So Honourable Woman’ have an affinity with: both reconstruct the story as a fireworks display of ideas, a collage of the fizzing, malleable material of life, a totality that emerges through its own inscrutable logic, and with a better purchase on the world’s fugitive being than most realist writers could achieve in an entire novel.
Not to claim these are all perfect stories – her occasional disappearances into incantatory prose meditations, in stories like ‘Break It Down’ and ‘Southward Bound, Reads Worstward Ho’, can become tiresome in the wrong mood – but this career’s work is still remarkably consistent, an essential and unsentimental investigation of this life of ours, the stories we need to carry on: “this anger of hers, lasting so long, was certainly more interesting to her, because in the end she found it harder to explain than the fact that she had loved him so long.”