'The Collected Stories' contains all the stories from the separate volumes 'Break It Down' (1986), 'Almost No Memory' (1997), 'Samuel Johnson Is Indignant' (2001) and 'Varieties of Disturbance' (2007) - nearly two hundred stories in all. Almost all of them are rather short, and some take the form of a single sentence or short paragraph: a form that more closely resembles the aphorism than the short story as traditionally conceived.
Lydia Davis has become known in some spheres mainly for these extreme condensations, but to suggest that they are typical of the texts collected here would be a serious distortion. Davis can work perfectly well at much greater length - she is the author of a highly regarded novel - and the ultra-short pieces here are in the end as typical or atypical as the handful of conventionally longer pieces ('Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality' runs to nearly 50 pages, but is by far the longest story here: only a small number exceed a dozen pages). More genuinely characteristic are texts of two to three pages: still very short, but for a writer concerned with economy of means and concision of expression, surprisingly ample spaces in which to delineate character or explore an idea.
Davis is sometimes cited as a leading American postmodernist writer, but in her case the term 'postmodernist' seems more than usually inadequate. Certainly one can see the influence of Beckett, Kafka, and Proust (whom Davis has translated); and there are stylistic similarities to Donald Barthelme and Walter Abish. But Davis, whose parents were both writers and who has a parallel career as an academic, editor and translator, is a more domestic and autobiographical writer than this literariness might suggest, though she shares the characteristic postmodernist preoccupation with textuality and suspicion of traditional means of narration. There is less of the conscious brilliance of her male counterparts - though her intelligence is everywhere apparent - and more thoughtful exploration of emotional states, more detailed examination of the way in which existential unease and complication emerge from the circumstances of mundane life - the ageing of parents, the raising of children, the negotiation of adult relationships, the struggle with work tasks.
This might seem to imply that Davis is a 'writer's writer' - a masterly technician admired by her peers but unappealing to a larger readership ('The Collected Stories' predictably features cover quotes from flavours-of-the-month Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and Rick Moody, perhaps to counteract this impression). In fact, I found that the main danger in reading 'The Collected Stories' was that they are almost too readable. Their modest length and absence of conspicuous surface difficulty are deceiving. It is all too easy to gobble these stories up like sweets only to find odd details returning to trouble the mind, along with the impulse to go back and look again. The stylistic and emotional range of the stories is wider than might at first appear, though inevitably certain characteristic themes do emerge. Like Beckett and Kafka, Davis also possesses a dry sense of humour that may go unnoticed by the unwary. Her work rewards a slower reading, and is perfect for digesting in small bites.
Lydia Davis was once married to Paul Auster, an American postmodernist who currently enjoys a much higher writerly profile. To my mind, Davis is his superior. I would urge anyone interested in contemporary American literary writing to make her acquaintance.