Lydia Davis and I meet again. I have been reading The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, and just recently finished with Almost No Memory. I reviewed her first short story collection, Break It Down, and I’ll mostly echo what I wrote there. Yeah. Meaning, Nothing much this time around. Especially when it comes to form, Davis’ 1997 collection is not that different than 1986 one — short, concise, a little cryptic, a little pun-totally-intended. Occasionally, though, in Memory, Davis hits the spot — stories that make you gasp. Stories that make you go, Oh god, I think she’s talking about me. But. Very, very, very occasionally. Inconsistency, yes. [9 gasp-worthy stories over 51 in all ain’t a good statistic.] A little laziness, too — that This will do feel to some of the stories, especially the wordplay-concentrated ones.
Maybe it’s a matter of taste? Then again, I know that I can freely say, “Man, this was a disappointing collection,” because I was much more fulfilled with her first one. Memory is uneven, I suppose. Uneven and a little too self-involved. And even though that uneven-ness was its greatest failing for me, I find the self-involvement fascinating. Speculating on how personal things could be for writers always gives me the fuzzies. Again: Maybe it’s a matter of taste.
Case in point: One of the stories I like best was “Wife One in Country.” One of her trademark short short stories, almost a list, an enumeration. A simple take-you-through-the-scene. And I liked it because the conciseness worked for what Davis wanted to put forth.
Wife one calls to speak to son. Wife two answers with impatience, gives phone to son of wife one. Son has heard impatience in voice of wife two and tells mother he thought caller was father’s sister: raging aunt, constant caller, troublesome woman. Wife one wonders: is she perhaps another raging woman, constant caller? No, raging woman but not constant caller. Though, for wife two, also troublesome woman.
And it ends, about two hundred words later with:
Pain increases in wife one, wife one swallows food, swallows pain, swallows food again, swallows pain again, swallows food again.
It’s a forgivable selfishness: I could feel Davis pouring chunks of her life into her fiction. And there’s a plain-spoken quality to those stories, an announcement: This is what I am feeling right now, and yes, I feel like shit. In these stories, I found the prose more fluid. More honest, I guess. I know I’m projecting. I know I’m honing into that inevitable nugget of autobiography in fiction, and blowing it up. But I like it. I like those parts best.
And I liked her image-heavy stories too. Less focus on the wordplay. In “The Outing,” the form re images is pretty straightforward: An enumeration [here’s the whole story] — An outburst of anger near the road, a refusal to speak on the path, a silence in the pine woods, a silence across the old railroad bridge, an attempt to be friendly in the water, a refusal to end the argument on the flat stones, a cry of anger on the steep bank of dirt, a weeping among the bushes. “Trying to Learn” is another short one, like a thought flashing in one’s head, this one about the seemingly different people inhabiting that one person we love. “Go Away” is a near-manic reflection on hurtful words, “What I Feel” is tender-Davis: it’s about sadness, even despair.
And I really loved “This Condition” too, a beautiful and surprisingly sensual little story [funny, I don’t really expect sexuality in Davis’ stories]. Another enumeration, really, but the straightforwardness works once more: What is it that makes you go Mmm? Well. Davis offers two pages of aphrodisiacs, two pages which I will post here, because I like it too much, and I can’t put it here, because that would be pushing it, haha.
See, 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, and 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 seen as more than just little conduits of thought, and no, I don’t like it so much 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.
Also — there’s self-involvement (that conscious selfishness), but when it teeters into self-absorption, as it does in most of the stories, I am tempted to skim and move on. This was, I felt, Davis’ little pocket notebook, and I just happened to be looking in. It’s a strange situation, I give it that: It can be personal, and if the reader is lucky that can work just right — or it could feel so strange to us because the pieces are ultimately hers, and hers alone. Sadly, Almost No Memory felt like cahiers-made-public. Published exercises, the kind scribbled on the back of a receipt, a paper napkin, the Post-Its beside the telephone. Sometimes it works [as in the case of “Affinity,” which I consider as her more syntax-y shorts, but in this case, me likey — I will quote it here in its entirety] —
We feel an affinity with a certain thinker because we agree with him; or because he shows us what we were already thinking; or because he shows us what we were on the point of thinking; or what we would sooner or later have thought; or what we would have thought much later if we hadn’t read it now; or what we would have been likely to think but never would have thought if we hadn’t read it now; or what we would have liked to think but never would have thought if we hadn’t read it now.
And sometimes, well, it doesn’t. Overall, it’s not my favorite collection. But oddly enough, I like Davis — no matter how problematic I find her sometimes. There are still two more collections in her Collected Stories — plus I’ve got her new translation of Madame Bovary to look forward to [and, #dearpublisher, please send some our country’s bookstores’ way, so I don’t have to twist in agony as the rest of the world reads it].