“My stories are sometimes closer to poems or meditations,” Davis admits, “but often there is at least a little narrative in them.” This narrative element, however, seems to recede further into the background with each new collection. In Varieties of Disturbance, her most recent book of fiction since winning a MacArthur fellowship in 2003 and the publication of her new translation of Proust’s Swann’s Way, Davis seems to be moving deeper into an avant-garde terrain occupied only by herself.
Still, for those who are patient and willing, Davis’ new stories provide sudden slantwise pleasures: a marvelously odd turn of phrase (“I jumped up, like a stranger pulling another stranger out of bed”), a wicked insight, a melancholy sense of people submerged beneath the fabric of the text.
“I do think sometimes there are people buried or drowned in the paragraphs,” Davis tells me, “but they’re still there. I am quite interested, these days, in texts that seem dry and neutral and yet as they unfold provide a context (in a dry, neutral way) for a character to appear suddenly or gradually in a fully human and emotional way.”
There are not many flesh-and-blood people in her stories, but there are traces of people everywhere. Her stories have the quality of fingerprints, transcripts and other evidence — unarticulated emotions linger in the air above them. Appropriately, Davis admires Ad Reinhardt’s series of black paintings: “I was fascinated by the idea of what was going on within and behind those apparently simple surfaces.” When you finish a Davis story, similar to the hour or so after leaving an art museum, you find yourself looking at things longer, listening to things closer, noticing more.
Baffling yet wonderful, Davis’ story “Southward Bound, Reads Worstward Ho” may have one of the more bizarre short-story premises of all time. An unnamed woman sits on an airport-shuttle van and reads Samuel Beckett’s enigmatic story Worstward Ho. However, due to the bright morning sunlight, she cannot read the book when the van is heading north, because she is sitting on the right side. The story consists of detailed descriptions of the woman’s van ride and exactly what she is reading, accompanied by copious footnotes concerning the trajectory of the van, the quality of the light and the woman’s opinions of each sentence: “The van turns briefly north, so that the sun is at her right shoulder, the light is no longer in her eyes but flickering on the page of the book illuminating but further confusing such already confusing words as ‘What when words gone? None for what then.’”
Reading a difficult story about a person having difficulty reading a difficult story is exasperating, even outraging. Of course, this kind of frustration is exactly what Beckett’s story is about. Worstward Ho is an existential lament over the unending frustrations of life, a Sisyphean howl. The woman in the van, with her constant attempts and failures to read and understand Beckett’s text, embodies Beckett’s basic dilemma, but in a hilariously mundane fashion. This story, so annoying at first, kept clinging to my mind. The gall of it. The ridiculousness of it. The trouble of it. I found myself laughing and shaking my head. I would recommend it to anyone. I don’t think you will enjoy it, but you will eventually enjoy having read it.
VARIETIES OF DISTURBANCE | By LYDIA DAVIS | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 219 pages | $13 paperback