What is a short story? The more one reads of Varieties of Disturbance, the seventh collection of fiction by genre iconoclast and award-winning French translator Lydia Davis, the less apparent the answer may be.
Largely devoid of setting, definitive narrative structure, character development, and other familiar conventions, these 57 stories defy easy categorization. Ironic in tone and sparse in detail, they vary in length from six words (“Index Entry,” inclusive of title) to 41 pages (“Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality”). They are often voiced by remote yet oddly distinctive narrators, combining economical and inventive language with formal experiments that flash virtuoso brilliance, as with the Gertrude-Stein like repetitions dotting brief philosophical discourses such as “Enlightenment” and “Jane and the Cane”. Yet in Disturbance a postmodern identity emerges overall: that of an intellectual both absorbed and disturbed by language and the play of signifiers.
Language has obsessed Davis for most of her 60 years. Daughter of a literary critic/professor and a creative writer, she began writing at around age 12. An acclaimed translator of Marcel Proust and Michel Foucault (among others) and recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, she currently teaches fiction writing at SUNY Albany. Her personal history and professional life have provided obvious material for Disturbance. “The Walk” (the volume’s only story with a recognizable narrative arc) borrows standard tropes from the “academic novel,” foreshadowing a rivalrous face-off in its opening sentence: “A [female] translator and a [male] critic happen to be together in the great university town of Oxford, having been invited to take part in a conference on translation.” Despite respecting the translator’s talent, the critic prefers flashy rhetoric to her translation method, which adheres accurately and faithfully “to the style of the original.” Actual translations excerpted from two English versions of Proust’s Swann’s Way (one Davis’s own) appear in the story, leaving the verdict of the “fictional” debate up to the reader.
Davis also parodies the scholarly article in the longish, wholly plausible, and richly satisfying rhetorical analysis “We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders,” which may contain the collection’s most sophisticated and sustained writing. Davis’s mock-sociological study “Helen and Vi” is less convincing. Other pieces might be mistaken (deliberately?) for undergraduate writing-class exercises (“Cape Cod Diary”).
Elsewhere, Davis touches upon familial ambivalence, as in “The Good Taste Contest,” in which a husband and wife compete in matters concerning household ambiance and backyard horticulture, “judged by a jury of their peers.” Domestic matters return in the mock self-help guide “What You Learn About the Baby,” as well as in the fictional case history of a wife, mother and short-story writer, “Mrs. D and Her Maids,” which features a revolving door of domestics, the title character’s anxiety comparable to the eponymous protagonist’s in “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” Another narrator investigates her feelings toward her dying father in “Grammar Questions,” a monologue concerned with how language shapes relationships and loss. Revisiting this theme in the form of 61 interrogatives, the litany “How Shall I Mourn Them?” deploys anaphora at the beginning and ending of every line (“Shall I keep a tidy house, like L.?” / Shall I develop an unsanitary habit, like K.?”).
Among the most intriguing—and vexing—selections in Disturbance are its epigrams, composed of terse blank-verse lines. These bare-bones encapsulations at times suggest the throwaway wisdom of fortune cookies and poetry magnets (as in “Collaboration with Fly,” which reads, “I put that word on the page, / but he added the apostrophe”) and at times the eloquence of haiku crossed with the knowingness of a Zen koan, exemplified by “The Busy Road” (“I am so used to it by now/that when the traffic falls silent, / I think a storm is coming”).
Readers may be tempted to dismiss these minimalist fictions at first glance, but might be reminded of Varieties of Disturbance when they least expect it, as when the “Maintenance Required” light suddenly flashes on a car’s dashboard, prompting the question of how Lydia Davis might turn the annoyance into something that gleams.