Review of Lydia Davis’ “Our Strangers” – brief tales in miniature form.
Around the middle point of Lydia Davis’s most recent compilation – specifically, in the 74th story out of a total of 144 stories compacted into only 368 pages – a woman shares her writing with her husband. Unfortunately, he is not a fan, criticizing it for lacking a clear beginning, end, or plot. Hopefully, he does not read the remaining 143 stories.
Assuming that the author of the story within the story is Lydia Davis and not just the subject of the story, her writing style and personal touch make it easy to mistake her work for a memoir. However, certain elements, like a character falling asleep while reading a book by Michael Crichton on a plane, give away that it is most likely fiction. On the other hand, a character reading a book by Swiss author Peter Bichsel, whom Davis has translated, on a train is more difficult to differentiate from the author herself.
Davis’s stories often resemble poems, lists, or isolated sentences on the page. They are described as intergeneric, meaning they do not fit into a specific genre, and are shaped by formal elements as much as their themes. However, readers familiar with her work over the past five decades will notice that it has settled into a comfortable rhythm, no longer experimental. The themes include letters of complaint, a recurring feature since her 2001 collection Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, as well as dreams, mundane conflicts in daily life, and spam emails transformed into poetry through line breaks. There are also beautiful descriptions, such as comparing the layers of a hornets’ nest to delicate pastry, and dry humor, such as the careful destruction of the town’s oldest house. The overheard conversations fall somewhere between whimsical and profound, leaning more towards the former.
Davis’s writing often contains overarching narratives that tie together individual stories. In “Our Strangers,” for example, the story “Interesting Personal Vegetables” is followed by “Commentary on Interesting Personal Vegetables” a few pages later. Similarly, “Conversation at Noisy Party on Snowy Winter Afternoon” can be found in both its original form and an edited version. However, some of these connections may be more difficult to discern. For instance, “An Explanation Concerning the Rug Story” prompted me to search through the book for the actual rug story, which I had apparently forgotten reading. As it turns out, the story was actually included in Davis’s previous collection, “Can’t and Won’t,” published nine years prior. This inside joke rewards readers with either a good memory or an obsessive streak.
Having a good time with strangers may seem simple, but there is a growing sense of disappointment when returning to a favorite destination and finding that its charm has faded. The letters of complaint provide a useful point of comparison. Previous examples, such as the unparalleled “Letter to a Funeral Parlour” which critiques the use of the word “cremains,” or the Beckett-esque persistence in describing disappointment with the number of peppermints in a tin in “Letter to a Peppermint Candy Company,” transformed a mundane form into something strange. As Davis explains, the cremains letter began as a genuine piece of correspondence but became so wrapped up in its own language that it turned into something too literary to actually send. However, in the two new letters, this transformation does not occur. Having been trained by her previous work, we anxiously await for the language to take hold and transport us, but it never does.
However, there are certain stories in this collection that I believe stand out among Davis’s best. They primarily revolve around the themes of growing old and death. One character reflects, “I can’t seem to come to terms with the passing of my mother or father.” Another, whose father has passed away, ponders, “Do I still have a father, or did I lose him completely?” With poignant simplicity, “Father Enters the Water” captures the lingering presence of a deceased parent. Similarly, “Old Men Around Town” poignantly depicts the narrator’s community grappling with sickness and death, as well as recounting deaths from two centuries ago. One specific death, that of George Weekes who was buried in the snow, brought to mind Robert Walser, a beloved writer of very short stories, and the image of his lifeless body in a wintry landscape.
The dominant season in the book is Winter, which plays a crucial role in the most exquisite tale within. The scene of a Winter Afternoon depicts a snug living room with a man, a woman, and two cats. The first cat dozes off, followed by the man, then the other cat, and finally the woman, who has placed her writing materials on the sofa beside her, left her magazine open on her chest, and bowed her head forward. The only sound is the hum of the heater in the kitchen, providing a hint of warmth to the otherwise quiet house. This tranquil moment can be likened to a brief slumber, a perfect representation with no beginning or end, no plot necessary, and no need for any of them.