Monday, July 25, 2016

Lydia Davis, Varieties of Disturbance Stories

I was walking around Chelsea last week, letting the students run feral around this gallery district, and it was such a lovely day and there were so many hours left until I was set to meet them that I popped into a book store and perused with a commitment to find a good book to read. The last few weeks, as this blog can attest, have been a bit crazed and I was aching for something that would set my brain back into some intelligible alignment.

As my eyes hopped along the spines I stopped and plucked Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance Stories, (2007, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and thought this is just the thing. It is a collection of short stories, aphorisms and at times just a line or so. Davis is a writer’s writer. Many regard her highly and nobly and she is a bit of hard nut to crack even with all her popularity. She is a distinguished translator, notably French authors including Proust, and she is a professor and MacArthur winner as one would expect of someone such as her. All that aside, she is a writer that everyone should read, even if they might not enjoy it all too much.

As I sat on a bench, in a park, with the sun ridiculously dappling me with sunlight I began to read and it was exactly as the bookseller remarked at checkout – the perfect day to read Lydia Davis.

Later that night I kept reading and then continued to do so for the next few days. As I kept reading I would have moments of real enjoyment but then there were times were I would roll by eyes and flip to see how many pages were left in the already very short story. Davis as I said is the most qualified type of writer. This can be to a fault though. Her exactness and complete dominance of the structure of words and sentences is at moments surgically impressive but at others it makes you feel scolded and chained to formality. I think Davis herself must feel this because so much of her writing speaks directly about the topic of writing and its forms. She also obviously wants to release the noose of it by writing such rebellious one-liners.

Another thing that was enjoyable but at times distracting was the amount of voices in these collections of stories. As one knows, when one reads a voice resounds in your head that matches with what is written. Davis employs this with great skill at times, making you transfixed on the narrator but at others it feels as if you are listening to someone mimic someone else. There is a strange performance of caricature that feels disingenuous. But that can’t be faulted too much on the author, as these stories were meant to stand-alone. Together, they have this crowded feeling, of being bumped up on top of one another, but alas, this is necessary, especially if you do not have the desire to hold single pages at a time.

I know that any criticism of this book is probably my fault. I read too fast and am a greedy reader. I swallow things in whole bites versus nibbles and that would better serve this form of writing. In the end though, I have to say I did enjoy spending the last few days reading her work and for those that haven’t this is a good collection to whet your appetite for her oeuvre.

Below are a few (very short) works that I especially liked. Summer is the time to read ravenously. Enjoy and read as much as you are in the sun.

Dog and Me

An ant can look up at you, too, and even threaten you with its arms. Of course, my dog does not know that I am human, he sees me as dog, though I do not leap up at a fence. I am a strong dog. But I do not leave my mouth hanging open when I walk along. Even on a hot day, I do not leave my tongue hanging out. But I bark at him: “No! No!”

Idea for a Short Documentary Film

Representatives of different food products manufacturers try to open their own packaging.

How It Is Done

There is a description in a child’s science book of the act of love that makes it all quite clear and helps when one begins to forget. It starts with affection between a man and a woman. The blood goes to their genitals as they kiss and caress each other, this swelling creates a desire in these parts to be touched further, the man’s penis becomes larger and quite stiff and the woman’s vagina moist and slippery. The penis can now be pushed into the woman’s vagina and the parts move “comfortably and pleasantly” together until the man and woman reach orgasm, “not necessarily at the same time.” The article ends, however, with a cautionary emendation of the opening statement about affection: nowadays many people make love, it says, who do not love each other, or even have any affection for each other, and whether or not this is a good thing we do not yet know.

Suddenly Afraid

because she couldn’t write the name of what she was: a wa wam owm owamn womn