What to do with all the empty white space that drifts over the 733 pages and nearly 200 fictions of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis? Make origami, maybe. Like Don DeLillo, who drafted Underworld at the pace of one paragraph per sheet of paper—the technique, he once explained, evolved out of “a sensitivity to the actual appearance of words on a page, to letter-shapes and letter-combinations”—Lydia Davis is as much sculptor as writer. “I put that word on the page,/but he added the apostrophe,” reads the entirety of one recent story, “Collaboration With Fly.” Another, “My Mother’s Reaction to My Travel Plans,” doesn’t even stretch onto a second line: “Gainsville! It’s too bad your cousin is dead!”
Of course, Davis doesn’t only write short. Past the flash fiction are gags (see: “The Race of the Patient Motorcyclists”), mild erotica (“This Condition,” a two-page list of aphrodisiacs such as “a plate of pudding” and “the bare arm of a wooden chair”), occasional flights of magical realism, and what she calls “logical argument” stories, which get tangled up in everything from the Bible to shared bank accounts. One 1997 investigation, “A Second Chance,” begins: “If only I had a chance to learn from my mistakes, I would, but there are too many things you don’t do twice; in fact, the most important things are things you don’t do twice, so you can’t do them better the second time.”
Collected Stories has a lot of this type of philosophical churning, much of it revelatory and even more of it, probably, inconclusive. You do not read Lydia Davis in the hopes of finding someone like, say, Mrs. D, the writer-protagonist of Davis’s caustic “Mrs. D and Her Maids,” whose “approach to writing is practical” and in whose stories a change inevitably takes place, usually followed closely by an epiphany. You read Lydia Davis to watch a writer patiently divide the space between epiphany and actual human beings by first halves, then quarters, then eighths, and then sixteenths, into infinity.
Style is character, Joan Didion once observed. And over eight austere books—including the story collections compiled here, Break It Down (1986), Almost No Memory (1997), Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (2001), Varieties of Disturbance (2007), and one novel, The End of the Story (1995)—Davis’s prose has been unmatched in mirroring the workings of the mind. Few are better than this writer at representing thought on the page; she captures not just the peculiar rhythm of internal speech but also its cycling, digressive mechanics. Here’s one character, waiting for a phone call from a lover: “When he calls me either he will then come to me, or he will not and I will be angry, and so I will have either him or my own anger, and this might be all right, since anger is always a great comfort, as I found with my husband.”
Her words are usually plain. Davis also works as a translator (notably of Swann’s Way, in 2004), a vocation that’s a natural complement to what seems to have been an inborn sensitivity to language. (A year after Davis learned to read English, her family moved to Austria, where she picked up German; these days, she translates French.) “Dear Sir,” begins “Letter to a Funeral Parlor,” from Samuel Johnson Is Indignant: “I am writing to you to object to the word cremains, which was used by your representative when he met with my mother and me two days after my father’s death.” The letter goes on for another page or so, and ends: “There is nothing wrong with inventing words, especially in a business. But a grieving family is not prepared for this one. We are not even used to our loved one being gone. You could very well continue to employ the term ashes. We are used to it from the Bible, and are even comforted by it. We would not misunderstand. We would know that these ashes are not like the ashes in the fireplace. Yours sincerely.”
There is humor here. Davis’s reputation is as a cerebral writer—her characters go unnamed and don’t do much, in the conventional plot sense—and some of the most successful stories in this collection are formal experiments. “French Lesson I: Le Meurtre” is a teacher’s monologue into which vocabulary such as la hachette and l’anxiété conspicuously creeps, while “Oral History (With Hiccups)” carves out lacunae on the page—”My sister died last year leaving two dau ghters”—to feint away from a catastrophically warped family dynamic. “We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters From a Class of Fourth-Graders” is what it says it is: a deadpan, sociological/linguistic dissection of 27 student letters to a hospitalized classmate. It’s also a study in self-betrayal: One realizes that the narrator is, in fact, seeking something entirely more personal and complicated amid headings like Sentence Structures and Come Back Soon/Wish You Were Here.
But Davis is more likeable than the forensic technician she’s so often pegged as. Her lapidary prose—like Didion’s—is above all else a monument to her perceptual intelligence; both writers are not just stylists, but intuitionists, too. “Head, Heart,” a poem of a story first published in Varieties of Disturbance, is hardly detached: “Heart weeps. Head tries to help heart. Head tells heart how it is, again: You will lose the ones you love,” Davis writes. “I want them back, says heart . . . Help, head. Help heart.” And “How Shall I Mourn Them?,” a late, understated story, comprises a series of portraits of lost friends fragmented in such a way that the reader must reassemble them: “Shall I know the classics, like K.? Shall I write letters by hand, like B.? Shall I write ‘Dearest Both,’ like C.?” C., as we read on, emerges as impulsive, careless, and charismatic; B., stubborn and self-sufficient. The technique demands some labor on our end. But first and foremost, what Davis requires—and what she solicits—is our empathy. The names are beside the point. She leaves a lot out so that she might keep even more in.