Varieties of Disturbance

Lydia Davis has built a reputation for explicating the inner territory of daily life with the stylistic approaches of minimalism and postmodernism. Irony, dispassionate observation, interior monologue, and elliptical analysis are among the tools she brings to the predicaments and concerns of ordinary people. Often nameless, they are characterized largely by their preoccupations and quirks. Davis admits that her stories never paint a fair or a complete picture of a situation; their material comes from life, but she makes it “safely fictional” by turning one mood, or one afternoon’s events, into something strong enough to stand by itself.

Throughout adulthood, Davis has pursued a parallel career as a translator of French literature. Her translating credits include works as disparate as those of social observer Alexis de Tocqueville and scientist Marie Curie, as well as those of more purely literary writers. Her aim in translation appears to be shared by the central character of the present volume’s “The Walk,” who is also a translator: “accuracy and faithfulness to the style of the original.” This granted, a primary virtue of the translator becomes invisibility. This quality carries over into Davis’s original work in a curious way: The line between authorial voice, narrator’s voice, and character voice is either blurred or invisible.

Time and place in most of her stories is left deliberately vague also, yet the characters do seem frozen in a sort of mid-twentieth century time warp. The two long “case study” stories actually establish a partial setting that frames the book. The hospitalized boy of “We Miss You,” sends a reply to his teacher dated “Feb 20 1951.” Helen and Vi of the health study grew up, respectively, in Connecticut and Virginia, and their long lives span most of the twentieth century. However, the prevailing outlook of other stories’ narrators reflect a similar, circumscribed worldview that predates many commonplaces of the era after approximately 1975. Typewriters are common, but computers are unknown; tuberculosis is treated by long stays in a sanitarium; HoJos and gas stations are frequent highway features. It is difficult to tell whether this subliminal “dating” effect stems from the author’s fascination with a recently bygone era or whether it is simply an artifact of the stories having been written at an earlier time (those previous-publication credits that cite a date range from 1989 to 2006). However, this feature lends the collection a certain old-fashioned resonance, which may jar readers drawn by its more avant-garde “flash fiction” formats.

The title story originally appeared in A Little Magazine and was reprinted in the not-so-little Harper’s Magazine of April, 1993. It deals with the implications of a white lie told by the narrator’s mother to discourage her son (the narrator’s brother) from coming to help out while she convalesces from a hospital stay. The lie itself is of little moment, and the real reason for inventing it was to avoid “disturbing”perhaps angeringher husband, but it becomes the source of a whole array of further “disturbances.” These spiral around the family constellation in a dizzy display of hurt feelings and self-justification. Although the specifics are left vague, the narrative uncannily resembles those flaps-over-nothing that flare up in so many families. Critic Thad Ziolkowski has praised its “sestinalike effect,” which he characterizes as “High Analytical Vertigo.” In less rarefied terms, it could as easily be called “The Woman Who Thinks Too Much.” Indeed, the daughter-narrator may be the only one giving more than a passing thought to “the disturbances.” In either case, the story is a unique example of attempted domestic logic.

“How She Could Not Drive” starts out as a catalog of circumstances that prevent a nameless, presumably neurotic woman from being able to drive. The hypnotic effect of the run-on listing segues into a surrealistic scene where the reader realizes that she is indeed driving, possibly vision-impaired, and battered by the onrushing montage that the night casts onto her path. Precise details give way to evocative images: “the massive airship of motel lights floating across the highway.” A rare flash of vicarious experience, of being able to live for a moment in the driver’s skin and mind, results.

Three short pieces are concerned with death. “How Shall I Mourn Them” approaches it sideways, as a numbered list of the eccentricities that survivors adopt. “Burning Family...

(The entire section is 1882 words.)