Our Strangers: Stories by Lydia Davis 2023

Davis is a modern writing phenomenon—the author of two thick books of essays, poetry good enough to be included in The Best series in 2001 and 2008, the award winning translator of Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’ and Proust’s ‘Swann’s Way’, and the author of short stories good enough to be included in that Best American series in 1997.  Honored with a MacArthur award, the PEN/Malamud award, and the Man Booker International Prize, her writing is blurbed in this book as ‘sharp, deft, ironic, understated, and consistently surprising’ by Joyce Carol Oates.

I loved this volume of what she describes in the final sentence of her Acknowledgments as “very short and, sometimes, boldly absurd stories.” And very short many of them are!  In the 353 pages of this chunky, little volume, there are many stories of only 2-3 lines. The longest stories are less than 20 pages long, and there are only a handful of those.

There are several themes that run through the book though the references to them by number are random and without pattern.  For example, she has 10 numbered stories headed Claim to Fame, with #2 on page 21 (I never did  find #1) through #10 on page 101 followed by numbers 4, 5, and 6.  All of them are ‘boldly absurd’ with distant and random connections of obscure friends or family members connected to not so famous people, the claim to fame being firmly tongue in cheek. Another series scattered through the volume is labelled Marriage Moment of Annoyance—followed by the issue at hand, e.g. in one labelled ‘Mumble’ the story goes like this:  “{Mumble, mumble}”. “I can’t hear you.” “Do you want to hear me?” “No.”  That’s a pretty good example of a short, boldly absurd story, and Davis’s brief marriage to the author Paul Auster has evidently provided her with many of these ‘moments of annoyance.’

Trains, hotels, conversations over a meal, and other every day situations predominate.  The reader is dropped into a setting with no explanation of the history or the characters involved, and Davis creates a vivid world, often filled with angst and anxiety, in just a few lines and then moves on to the next story.  In reading this book, I was reminded of two other artists.  Felix Feneon, who was the subject of a recent exhibit at MOMA, wrote more than twelve hundred of what he called “Novels in Three Lines” in the Paris newspaper Le Matin in 1906.  Like Davis, there was no background, no ending, no complex plotting, but simply the compression of individual narratives of “crime, politics, ceremony and catastrophes” to quote Luc Sante who collected these into a 2007 book.  The other artist who came to mind in reading Davis was Edward Hopper whose starkly beautiful paintings of individuals or couples in hotel rooms, rural porches, diners, and restaurants were described by the poet Mark Strand in his ‘Hopper’ as “saturated with suggestion”.  Hopper, like Davis, simply presents a person or a couple (see Marriage Moments above), and allows/forces the viewer or reader in Davis’s case to provide the background and the resolution of the action.

These offbeat stories won’t appeal to everyone, but I loved them.  I laughed; I nodded; I scribbled a note; in short, I was thoroughly engaged.  I think you will be as well if you read these stories by a 76 year old woman described by Rick Moody as ‘The best prose stylist in America.”