Consumed by Lydia Davis’s short stories

An early highlight of my reading year has been Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories. Many of her stories put a slight and strange and startling twist on consensus reality (or a fresh insight that amounts to the same), sometimes combined with a self-conscious linguistic flourish:

Book titled "The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis" with text in white all caps on a bright orange background, with a double border of two thin white lines. Smaller text at the bottom reads: "Winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2013". In the bottom right corner is the Penguin publisher's logo.I am reading a sentence by a certain poet as I eat my carrot. Then, although I know I have read it, although I know my eyes have passed along it and I have heard the words in my ears, I am sure I haven’t really read it. I may mean understood it. But I may mean consumed it: I haven’t consumed it because I was already eating the carrot. The carrot was a line, too.

This synaesthesia-adjacent report is one of fifteen self-contained entries in a story titled ‘Examples of Confusion’.

Another entry from that story:

Driving in the rain, I see a crumpled brown thing ahead in the middle of the road. I think it is an animal. I feel sadness for it and for all the animals I have been seeing in the road and by the edge of the road. When I come closer, I find that it is not an animal but a paper bag. Then there is a moment when my sadness from before is still there along with the paper bag, so that I appear to feel sadness for the paper bag.

Her stories can be extremely short, occasionally a paragraph or even just a phrase in length. Here’s one titled ‘They Take Turns Using a Word They Like’:

‘It’s extraordinary,’ says one woman.

‘It is extraordinary,’ says the other.

This Twitter thread features a few more excerpts from the book:

Finally, though I’m generally leery of ‘writing tips’, finding them obvious and hackneyed more often than not, Davis’s recommendations for good writing habits are refreshingly detailed and interesting.

4 Responses to Consumed by Lydia Davis’s short stories

  1. I wonder if the animal/paper bag confusion pays homage to a Max Jacob prose-poem. It came to mind right away:

    The Beggar Woman of Naples (trans. John Ashbery)

    When I lived in Naples there was always a beggar woman at the gate of my palace, to whom I would toss some coins before climbing into my carriage. One day, surprised at never being thanked, I looked at the beggar woman. Now, as I looked at her, I saw that what I had taken for a beggar woman was a wooden case painted green which contained some red earth and a few half-rotten bananas….

    Davis is a great translator too — Swann’s Way, among other things.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It could be a homage, or it could just be another report of a similar phenomenon. I’ve experienced the same thing myself – momentarily mistaking an inanimate object or cluster of objects for an animal or a person, typically in my peripheral vision – and I imagine it’s not an uncommon experience, though perhaps not often made the focus of a piece of writing.

      I have heard that Davis’s translations are great, and I appreciate the recommendation. Her short stories were my first experience of her work.

  2. I’ve been asking myself, What was I thinking? I’ve had the same thing happen when spotting things at a distance. Is that a child in a raincoat? No, a fire hydrant. Max Jacob was not involved.

    I must have thought “homage” for two reasons. One, because the Jacob poem immediately flashed into my head. Two, because like everyone these days, I’m not always thinking clearly. So I saw this passage and mistook it for homage. Another example of confusion, I guess. :)

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