Tuesday, July 3, 2012

On "The Collected Stores of Lydia Davis" by Lydia Davis ***

I hadn't heard of Lydia Davis until reading a significant amount of flash fiction online. I now understand why so many online purveyors of flash fiction care so much for Davis's work, for most of the "stories" in this collection would qualify as some form of flash, all seven-hundred-plus pages.

I place "stories" in quotes because, at least for me, many of these one- and two-page pieces aren't stories at all. In fact, Davis often writes single sentence stories, stories in six words, and so on. Again, are these stories? They seem to me more like, at their best, interesting thoughts. Maybe I've grown more conservative and traditional in what I expect from my fiction reading or from something labeled a story, for I found myself often annoyed by pieces such as "Index Entry." Where was the rising and falling action, the climax and resolution? Maybe, if instead of labeling these as stories and instead calling this a collection of thoughts, I'd have been less displeased by such pieces.

And yet, the shortness of the pieces has advantages. It was fun to be able to pick up the book at almost any moment and get a quick, complete thought or read. I found that aspect helped me to become almost compulsive in my reading of the book. Just one more, I'd say, even thought I might have other things to do.

And some of the "thoughts" were definitely interesting (I think of "Head, Heart," for example, which almost manages to be a story). Today, such thoughts would be Tweets, and a good Tweeter is someone I will occasionally follow, turning up on their page, as I sometimes take a look at Amelia Gray's just for the sure pleasure of her absurd and humorous ideas.

Still, for me, the best Davis pieces were generally those that extended some ways, into the more usual length of a story. It seems to me that if you want people to care about characters or situations, you have to provide enough context to allow that to occur. I know that that does not always involve a large number of words. I think of Robert Hayden's masterful poem "Those Winter Sundays," which manages to send chills down my spine in just a handful of stanzas. But the general rule is that the more time I take getting to know a set of characters, the more I will care and the more likely I'll ultimately connect to the piece.

A couple of my favorite pieces come right at the start of this collection. Perhaps, that is also a sign of my energy at the start of a book like this, before stories begin to run together, when a voice is fresh and exciting. In "Story," Davis writes about a woman who is uncertain of her lover's devotion, about a woman who is simultaneously writing a story on the subject, about a woman who cannot possibly ever know the truth about the situation, just as we as readers cannot. "The Fears of Mrs. Orlando" is a tale of paranoia that ends just as it seems to be getting going.

Other stories--as many of them do here--work well as experiments in form. I particularly liked "Jury Duty" (a series of answers to questions, the questions not provided) and "Mrs. D and Her Maids" (a collection of tidbits about the coming and going maids of Mrs. D, whose judgments ultimately seem to say more about Mrs. D than about the maids themselves).

I also like some of the "studies" that Davis engages in. Whether these are stories, I suppose, would depend on how well one can graph out the beginning, middle, and end, but as fictional pseudoreports on subcultures they are fascinating. "Helen and Vi" compares the lives of two elderly women, how they lived so long and what they do to remain so healthy. "We Miss You" is "A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders" that manages to become an incredibly interesting character study of multiple personalities.

Davis is an exciting author to read, and this book certainly hands one a abundance of papers to experience. I suspect that she's best taken, like her work, in small doses, and that had I read the collection in short sittings over years I'd have been more enamored of it than by reading it straight through.

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