Essential Lydia Davis tales

Our ten favourites from the 2013 Man Booker International prize winner ahead of the release of Can't and Won't

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Few people interested in books don’t know (or love) Lydia Davis. Her experiments in form and genre – often not super narrative; is it poetry? – draw on post-modernists like Donald Barthelme and have exerted an obvious influence on the declarative-yet-evocative voices of alt lit, but she has managed to weave her very particular prose style – super-short stories that often seem more like ‘reflections’ – into the mainstream. It’s rare that an author so admittedly ‘strange’ casts a net that catches praise from both the avant-garde and the academy. Last year she won the first Man Booker International Prize for ‘achievement in fiction’ and nods from alt lit gossip.

Although her popularity has much more to do with her ability to juggle clarity, poignancy, humour, relatability and narrative, that you can read an entire Lydia Davis short story – or several – between stops on the subway and exit feeling full of a multi-faceted understanding of the complexity of human relationships makes her feel particularly suited to the Internet-addled attention span. Her newest short story collection, Can’t and Won’t, is out today from Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and we’re celebrating by picking ten of our fave stories from her previous, The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.

"MOTHER'S REACTION TO MY TRAVEL PLANS", VARIETIES OF DISTURBANCE (2007)

Writers trying to copy Davis – and there are many – often try to evoke meaning by using pained, strained over-seriousness. This tiny story shows that all you really need are a good title and some unexpected italics; the entire thing reads: ‘Gainesville! It’s too bad yourcousin is dead!’ How? Why? Instead of whom?

lydia davis varieties of distrubance

"KAFKA COOKS DINNER", VARIETIES OF DISTURBANCE (2007)

The patron saint of self-contained anxiety, Davis has drawn out a huge oeuvre out of sweating the small stuff in hundreds of scenarios, mostly domestic, often barely different from one another. What makes "Kafka Cooks Dinner" so yes is that it is so similar to the stories where Davis plays on the potential for universality in nameless protagonists, except that she uses Kafka.

"FOR SIXTY CENTS", VARIETIES OF DISTURBANCE (2007)

In which the mundane of the everyday (coffee-buying costs, options, decisions) comes up against the titillating of the everyday (strangers involved in some kind of antagonism) by way of a second-person pronoun and non-specific specificities: sixty cents, one cup and saucer, water with ice cubes, a perfectly cool temperature, no shadows, a little balding red-headed woman.

"HOW SHALL I MOURN THEM?"

Offering information through omission is a technique Davis has perfected. This one is a series of questions that both allude a lot and make you feel like there’s infinitely more to know about the characters, whom she doesn’t so much create as simply suggest. Again the title does an impressive amount of work, almost as much as the reader is supposed to.

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"HOW HE IS OFTEN RIGHT", ALMOST NO MEMORY (1997)

Davis’ stories often deal with being an individual that is part of a couple, driving home the gaps that still exist what you know about a person even as you yoke your lives together. Read with ‘Agreement’ and ‘Disagreement’, both also in Almost No Memory, where the titles again serve as signposts guiding you both to and away from what the stories are really ‘about’.

lydia davis almost no memory

"VISIT TO HER HUSBAND", BREAK IT DOWN (1986)

Awkward but potent encounters with former or soon-to-be-former spouses are one of Davis’ specialties, and here she again succeeds in drawing out the striking sense of feeling like such an individual that comes with seeing someone you used to love. The details – "he has drunk a lot and goes into the bathroom one last time to urinate and doesn’t bother to close the door" – are complex and killer. 

lydia davis break it down

"A FEW THINGS WRONG WITH ME", BREAK IT DOWN (1986)

‘Be yourself!’ is advice much easier said than done, particularly after you’ve been dumped and the implication is ‘It’s not me; it’s you.’ One of Davis’ most loved stories, "A Few Things Wrong with Me" is a fraught, pitiable reflection in which every line breaks your heart; that everyone has been there doesn’t make it any easier.

"THE BONE", BREAK IT DOWN (1986)

Davis’ stories often don’t feel like ‘stories’ of the type a writing teacher might demand of you: Even when they do have rising tension and climax, there’s usually something more lurking : a sub-plot artfully evoked, a relationship only referred to in the past tense. Most of "The Bone" operates under, but it’s the door cracked open at the end that makes you feel like something bigger than ‘what happens when a man gets a fish bone stuck in his throat’ is taking place, though that, too, is exciting.

"ALMOST OVER", VARIETIES OF DISTURBANCE (2007)

It’s interesting how stating the obvious can be surprising, or even subversive. A four-line story/poem called "Almost Over" that shows up one page before the end of the book is self-referential in an unapologetic way. Particularly when it adds another dimension of self-awareness by acknowledging how ‘strange’ it is that stating the obvious is ‘strange’.

"SELFISH", SAMUEL JOHNSON IS INDIGNANT (2001)

"The useful thing about being a selfish person is that when your children get hurt you don’t mind so much because you yourself are all right." Hyper-subjectivity plus dark psychology plus about a page of investigation on a single subject (here, selfish parenting) that ends up at a discomfiting conclusion that will have you imagining hypothetical dimensions of the story long after you emerge from the depths of your city’s public transportation system – it’s ‘strange’ but so, so good.

lydia davis samuel johnson is indignant
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