The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. Lydia Davis.

Davis, Lydia. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. 2009. F; 1/16.

There is a reason this author is famous and well-regarded: at the top of her game she’s wonderful. But in continually trying out experimental approaches with strange genres and content a lot of the the experiments don’t work. She’s about my age (nearly 70) and has written a tremendous amount of fiction and done some highly-regarded translating including work by Marcel Proust. I got through less than half of this immense collection (750 pages, about 200 stories). Many of the stories are extremely short, just a sentence or two. I didn’t persevere because too many of the stories just weren’t interesting.

Of those I read, I found about one in four really absorbing and a very few of them quite moving. The Fears of Mrs. Orlando was a disturbing portrait of a woman terrified of everything. One of the awful things about it was being both horrified and on the verge of finding the character laughably ridiculous at the same time. The Housemaid and Five Signs of Disturbance describe a couple of other awfully real mentally troubled middle-aged women. These sad characters could as easily have been men.

That kind of fiction might make you suspect that Davis is barely keeping thought and mood disorders at bay herself, except she has a wacky sense of humour, on display for example in Mildred and the Oboe in which a reasonable woman has to listen to the screams and groans of her neighbour masturbating with a woodwind instrument, in a rooming house she describes as “a circus of vaginas leaping and prancing”. Lydia Davis is also obviously a good cook, witness the narrative recipes in Meat, My Husband. Clearly not somebody on the verge of mental illness.

There is a lovely oblique run at schizophrenic America in The Professor, where an erudite academic woman speculates about why she might be attracted to a cowboy, meets a man who might qualify metaphorically, and has an ambiguous affair with him. But now she’s married, presumably to somebody like herself, and both of them find cowboys alien.

Some of the lyrical writing is poetic enough to be quite moving. This Condition describes sex as dozens of different metaphors. Other things Davis presents as straight exposition surprised me with their relevance. In What I Feel she says she wishes she could appreciate that feelings are not the center of everything:

What a relief that would be. I wouldn’t have to think about what I felt all the time, and try to control it, with all its complications and all its consequences. I wouldn’t have to try to feel better all the time.

Sadly, trying to feel better all the time describes the experience of reading this anthology. There is a lot of ironically pseudo-logical stuff like To Reiterate, and other material that doesn’t carry conviction and feels to me self-absorbed and forced. Finally I decided there was enough of that to overcome my suspension of disbelief and I didn’t want to bother plowing through any more of it to get to the next real gem. Any rating would be all over the lot for both style and content.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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