Remember Zeno’s paradox, the one about the millet? Drop a single grain of millet and it won’t make a noise, but put a thousand in a sack and you’ll hear them when they hit the ground. One near-nothing has become a big something: absurd, and not absurd at all.
There’s not necessarily a wrong way to read the stories of Lydia Davis, but there is a right way: begin at the beginning of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (2009), the sack that holds the four major collections Davis published between 1986 and 2007, and read until you reach the end, 733 pages and 198 stories later. Encountered alone, the stories are curiosities; together, they make a remarkable music. Some are the length of a paragraph, or a sentence. Some are the length of a sentence, but don’t have all the grammatical properties to qualify as such. (“Index Entry” is one of Davis’s many stories that rely on their titles to complete the circuit: “Christian, I’m not a.”) Many are stretched taut over a deceptively simple frame of declarative statements and deftly tuned with wit. The story “Safe Love” begins: “She was in love with her son’s pediatrician. Alone out in the country—could anyone blame her.” That the question is being stated, not asked, gives you all the information needed to answer it. Other stories go slack, unsure of how to end until the wick of the narrative gets too damp and fizzles out. Still, the failure to turn out a satisfying story can itself become the subject of a satisfying story, as in “The Center of the Story,” where a woman, her style much like Davis’s, struggles to write about a hurricane: “The story is flat and even, just as the earth seems flat and even when a hurricane is advancing over it, and if she were to show it to a friend, the friend would probably say that, unlike a hurricane, this story has no center.”
Davis is drawn to “people who can’t manage,” a parade of oddballs and loons she brings into focus through close, even anthropological observation. Timid Mr. Burdoff goes to Cologne to study German and seduces a tall Norwegian behind a statue of Leopold Mozart; Mrs. D has trouble with her maids; Kafka works himself into a froth over whether to serve potatoes or beet salad at dinner. But these are bit players, set apart from a core cast of characters who recur throughout Davis’s work: an ex-husband and his new wife, a son, a baby, a current husband, an aging mother and a dying father, all clustered around a first-person narrator, the subject of Davis’s sharpest scrutiny. This narrator, Davis’s “I,” is the center of her stories; she pins them to her point of view. When she was in her 20s and living in France, Davis began writing short because she wasn’t able to finish longer, more conventional fiction. She clearly didn’t set out to do anything remotely as grandiose as write an autobiography of her own consciousness, but that, as The Collected Stories reveals, is what she has produced, in bits and pieces, for the last forty years: a portrait of the mind as it goes about examining itself and its own habits over the course of a lifetime. We usually say we know a writer by her voice, but “mind,” in Davis’s case, is the better word. Nobody else sounds like her, because nobody else thinks like her.