I had never heard of Lydia Davis, to my shame, before she was announced as one of the finalists of the Man Booker International prize this year. Her eventual win, in retrospection, does not seem to be shocking – even if it does little to lend the award brownie international points. Out of the two choices offered by the nearest bookshop I decided upon a 2008 paperback of Break it Down, originally published in 1986 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It is Davis’ first ‘tangible’ collection though she has published, technically, three chapbooks-of-sorts previously, all of which now seem out of print, fetching ridiculously high prices on Amazon – no doubt a byproduct of her latest celebrity. Though Break it Down is her break-through debut into the literary scene, it does include many pieces from her earlier books: The Thirteenth Woman (1976), Sketches for a Life of Wassily (1981) and Story and Other Stories (1983).
The thirty-four ‘stories’ are one of a kind, epitomising what Davis does best, even if defining her ‘best’ poses another challenge altogether. Her trademark brevity and linguistic control is showcased through a range of forms in this collection. We jump from a paragraph-long vignette to an interior monologue to a lesson in French without pause, without restraint. There is something powerfully evocative in her short writing – and their length, or lack thereof, only strengthens that tight dexterity of words of which Davis is a master. At first her stories may be perplexing to the unprepared reader but they are strangely addictive, like a literary canapé.
One of the strengths of Davis’ writing is that she is not afraid to be funny. Her stories are often tinged, in equal measure, with comedy and tragedy, where the former provides a stark mask for the harsh reality underneath. A prime example of this surreal comedy lies in, ‘The Fish’. Only a paragraph long, it offers a tableaux of a woman who ‘stands over a fish, thinking about certain irrevocable mistakes she has made today.’ The story ends on the viewpoint of the ‘violated’ fish being ‘regarded with a weary eye by this woman who has made the latest mistake of her day and done this to it’. (You can read the whole story quoted here.) It is in that last moment of reflection where the woman, with her mistakes, and the fish, come full circle. There is a cold sadness present in this story which reminds the reader chillingly of the loneliness throughout the collection, one that captures perfectly the ennui of the modern world.
Safe Love, Break it Down (1986)
She was in love with her son’s pediatrician. Alone out in the country–could anyone blame her.
There was an element of grand passion in this love. It was also a safe thing. The man was on the other side of a barrier. Between him and her: the child on the examining table, the office itself, the staff, his wife, her husband, his stethoscope, his beard, her breasts, his glasses, her glasses, etc.
‘Perfection’ is a strong and generous word to use, but it definitely feels apt in many ways when applied to some of Davis’ stories. They are wonderfully made things, down to every word, syllable and punctuation mark. They fit as to work in no other conceivable way: the words as precise as a blade, almost clinical even, but somehow managing to blend together vivid feelings and forms, as seen in ‘The Mother’:
The girl wrote a story. “But how much better it would be if you wrote a novel,” said her mother. The girl built a dollhouse. “But how much better if it were a real house,” her mother said. The girl made a small pillow for her father. “But wouldn’t a quilt be more practical,” said her mother. The girl dug a small hole in the garden. “But how much better if you dug a large hole,” said her mother. The girl dug a large hole and went to sleep in it. “But how much better if you slept forever,” said her mother.
With ease she recreates the nebulous undertones of a maternal relationship, one that makes for powerful feeling when the end is reached. Though I said her stories are ‘made’, they also feel as if they were ‘found’ in some ways; so compact and self-conscious, they contain a frozen life of their own. Stories like ‘Sketches for a Life of Wassily’, ‘Mr Burdoff’s Visit to Germany’ and ‘Extracts from a Life’ all reflect the author’s profound understanding for narrative and philosophy.
Grownups from Extracts from a Life, Break it Down (1986)
I cannot live without children. But I love grownups too, because I feel a great sympathy for them–“After all, these people too must die.”
They border the line between parable and poetry, with each section further breaking down the form, offering Davis’ understanding of humanity as reflected through her characters. Her stories empathise around domestic disorder; homes and families become metaphors for problems in language and connecting. She snapshots the complexities of relationships and their pitfalls, such as in ‘Break it Down’, but thoroughly entrenches them into a 21st century viewpoint. Everything about Break it Down, and Lydia Davis, feels so modern – almost hauntingly so.
As a reader, her writing is new for me, like breaking into a genre that she alone has monopolised. Of course flash fiction does exist and one could argue her stories are reminiscent of Hemingway’s vignettes, like In Our Time, or even Augusto Monterroso’s quips, but even ‘flash fiction’ misses the mark I feel. As such, it is hard to critique something this new because to what benchmark do I hold it against? I worry that lazier readers may misplace Davis as someone superficial and gimmicky. To hark back to my ‘canapé’ analogy, though sumptuous the collection does take a while to digest. The effects of each individual story may be little, but it is only their combined feast that lingers in the mind. Sceptics may wonder what definitive impressions Davis may give to the reader after they have long stopped reading, and there is a feeling that her work cannot, by way of her own style, stand-out like a novel or more conventional stories.
Nevertheless overall her collection offer brilliant examples in genre subversion; much like the title, her stories reconsider the norms and conventions of writing, whilst also forming something indisputably novel and avant-garde, something irrevocably Davis – again, whatever that quality may be. Paradoxically her own reinvention of the ‘short story’ seems to be one she has largely created subconsciously; her writing never reads forced yet still manages to test, push even, the boundaries that she, without fully knowingly it seems, must be breaking. It is not until you reach the last page that you realise Davis is refreshing, and you wonder how you could never have read such a writer before, someone who you have no doubt will take up the mantel as a literary giant.
Dates of first published are listed, regardless of reprint or cover-edition