Lydia Davis: Varieties of Disturbance

Books Reviews Lydia Davis
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Lydia Davis: Varieties of Disturbance

MacArthur Award-winning Davis challenges our fiction

In her fourth story collection, Varieties of Disturbance, fiction innovator and award-winning French translator Lydia Davis continues her investigation of what a story is and what it’s for. In Disturbance, Davis’ hallmark shorts provide addictively powerful, rapid encounters with tragedy, humor and existential confusion in the span of a page or a line. These tales reside in fiction’s grand thematic territory: sex, family, love and betrayal. But they also touch on less hallowed topics, including pet flatulence and eyeballs.

Precious few of these stories signal “story” through the use of dialogue, scenes or plot, but they thrill with their depth and dynamism. “Grammar Questions”—which begins as an emotionally detached interior monologue about how we speak of the dead—culminates in a heartbreaking examination of how language shapes the narrator’s relationship with her deceased father. “People may say ‘his body,’ but that does not seem right,” muses the narrator. “It is not ‘his body’ because he does not own it, if he is no longer active or capable of owning anything.” “Dog and Me” moves in a fluid, tender circuit between the thoughts of a dog owner and the imagined consciousness of her canine.

Though unconventional, the shorter pieces in Disturbance are formally conservative compared to the longer stories. With a few exceptions, these longer pieces challenge reader expectations and attention spans in lengthy narratives presented as case studies, pseudo-scientific journals and instructional manuals.

“We All Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth Graders” is a close reading of invented children’s letters to an ailing classmate, complete with exhaustively detailed quantitative and qualitative observations about the children’s preoccupations and grammatical tendencies. It’s a curious mix of wistful, profound and downright cute, and “We All Miss You” points out the surprising possibility of emotional resonance in a source as unlikely as scientific narrative. “Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality” details the lives of two healthy, elderly, working-class women (and a shadowy third whose wealth and narcissism negatively affect her health) in the form of an extremely thorough interview-based report.

These oddly shaped longer stories can be intriguing and funny, but also tedious—perhaps intentionally so. Like the novels of Samuel Beckett, one of Davis’ early influences, the stories in Disturbance strain the boundaries of what constitutes entertainment in literature. And, as with Beckett’s absurdist monotony, even Davis’ dull moments seem audacious. Taken along with the immediate gratification provided by her short shorts in the same volume, her longer stories succeed more quietly, with their restless evocations of what Davis insists are the infinite possibilities of fiction.

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