Grammar of Discontent

Though often noted for her grammatical prowess, Lydia Davis is an inventive fiction writer, one who uses a meticulous style to experiment with what her stories can or can't do. Her prose, even when it works against the grain of standard American English (e.g., "Double Negative"), strives for precision and verbal command. Grammatical accuracy alone doesn't make for compelling fiction. What's interesting about Davis is the way her measured sentences collide with overwhelming emotions and conundrums, producing sinuous monologues that are quirky and obsessive without ever spinning out of control. Her novel The End of the Story, a woman's recollection of a particularly painful breakup, is in part a lucid meditation on the untrustworthiness of memory and the infinite complexities of storytelling (she wonders a good deal about what's worth revealing, where to begin). It also contains some of the most clearheaded descriptions of stalking I've ever read.

In her latest collection of stories, Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, Davis continues to match her gift for clarity with an unruly inquisitiveness that transforms mundane topics into hilariously meticulous philosophical moments. A few of the stories explore surreal, almost mythical terrain, where women turn into trees and bloodless creatures raid a narrator's garden. But the best stories here, most of them in the first person, present odd intricacies of small-town domestic lives, isolating everyday moments and relentlessly teasing out the implications: A word-playing crank rails against over-groomed lawns; a woman makes a Zen-influenced New Year's resolution to "see myself as nothing," but then wonders, in great detail, if she has set her goals too high.

Many of Samuel's stories hover somewhere between familiarity and irresolution—the ruminations are easy enough to follow, but the gnarled logic leads to uncertain territory. In "Thyroid Diary," a translator's thyroid disorder becomes an opportunity to call the truthfulness of the entire story into question. A typical side effect of her medical condition, she tells us, is mental torpor. But if her mind is sluggish, she wonders, is it capable of recognizing its sluggishness? The question unfolds into an array of other puzzles for narrator and reader, about the quality of her work, about her health. These questions produce strange results: The more she doubts herself, the more lucid she becomes. Davis begins by decidedly putting her narrator's unreliability on the table; she follows through by helping us experience what that unreliability is like.

Lydia Davis matches clarity with an unruly inquisitiveness.
photo: Daniel Auster
Lydia Davis matches clarity with an unruly inquisitiveness.

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Samuel Johnson Is Indignant
By Lydia Davis
McSweeney's Press, 201 pp., $16.95
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Davis has long been interested in narrative's limitations. Aware that a story has a number of possibilities, she likes to play up a narrator's decisions—what to leave in, what to leave out. Samuel continues to explore the boundaries of her fiction with odd lacunae and elliptical thoughts. In "Letter to a Funeral Home," a droll rant against the triviality of the word cremains, a narrator says of her deceased father, "The ways in which we loved him were complicated," but never explains how. "Jury Duty," a Q&A about a trip to the courthouse, eliminates the questions altogether, à la David Foster Wallace's "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men." You can only guess what the absent interrogator asks by the answers given.

These absences and underexplained emotions can create welcome mysteries that urge the reader to think outside the story and confront what narrators are and aren't willing to divulge. But sometimes Davis pushes the tendency too far. Take the entire text of the title piece: "that Scotland has so few trees." One suspects that it's a Hallmark-ish exhortation to read Boswell's Life of Johnson if you haven't already. Nothing wrong with that. Yet it's hard to ignore the story's flimsiness. True, Johnson did complain about Boswell's native Scotland, in part because it lacked foliage—it's the type of small, irresolvable difference between two people that Davis usually writes about so well. Whatever pleasurable bemusement it creates, the piece also begs the question: Doesn't a story writer have an obligation to do more work for the reader? Perhaps this is a question Davis wants us to ask, but making a one-liner the centerpiece of an entire book still seems glib.

For the most part, though, Samuel's stories present a dizzying amount of information in a relatively short space. Her characters tend to question everything, including themselves, so it shouldn't be a surprise that a lot of her best pieces evoke a sense of hyperanalytical isolation. She's rarely met a functional relationship she's found interesting enough to bring into her fictional world: Steady boyfriends and husbands tend to hover in the background, while stories like "My Husband and I" play up the absurd ways in which two people attempt to agree on how much they have to offer each other ("If I give all I have and you give all you have, isn't that a kind of equality?" the narrator asks. "No," the husband says).

But Davis is usually too hilarious to turn pointlessly grim, and she even offers glimmers of human connection. "The Furnace" documents a woman's attempts to be affectionate with an aging father who fills his free time reading the crime beat section of his local newspaper and writing editorials on circumcision. In "The Dictionary," a scholar measures her questionable child-rearing against how well she cares for a rare, antique book, and achieves a realization about how she could better treat her young son.

In these stories, Davis's characters not only offer us new ways to look at the world, but also careful ways to think about other people. Her creations might be selfish, impolite. At first glance, they might not seem like ideal romance material. But they rarely slip entirely into the cheap solipsism found so often in current self-aware fiction. Even as Davis's stories emphasize that interactions between people are—surprise—hard to predict, they keep an eye on how a character's choices might affect someone else. In this sense, Davis's attempts to be accurate go beyond the sentence. Her characters are as concerned with the complications of being good as they are with being verbally correct.

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