If Lydia Davis's characters were atoms, they'd have no valence. They'd live in closed shells, occasionally bumping into each other but rarely exchanging any meaningful amount of energy.
The relationships in her stories, such as they are (between mothers and daughters, friends, lovers, roommates, neighbors, strangers who meet on the street, people and things), all seem to have equal weight, an equal degree of intimacy. An ex-husband and the neighbor of a dead aunt and a chair wield the same emotional power.
Davis writes the most painful and fraught scenes in a clinical, sometimes almost Aspergian way, as if describing human relations to aliens whose evolutionary adaptation left out emotions. For example, the first and final paragraphs of her four-paragraph story "Visit to Her Husband":
She and her husband are so nervous that throughout their conversation they keep going into the bathroom, closing the door, and using the toilet. Then they come out and light a cigarette. He goes in and urinates and leaves the toilet seat up and she goes in and lowers it and urinates. Toward the end of the afternoon, they stop talking about the divorce and start drinking. He drinks whiskey and she drinks beer. When it is time for her to leave to catch her train, he has drunk a lot and goes into the bathroom one last time to urinate and doesn't bother to close the door.
In her parents' kitchen later, she tries to explain something difficult about the divorce to her father and is angry when he doesn't understand, and then finds at the end of the explanation that she is eating an orange, though she can't remember peeling it or even having decided to eat it.
It's not that people don't feel things in Davis stories. They get "nervous" or "angry," but the writing doesn't care whether you feel their nervousness or anger. This radical emotional egalitarianism—this aggressive flatness—gives her stories a coded feel, like parables. You get the sense Davis is trying to communicate something esoteric behind the exoteric action. That something, I think, is a profound poetry of loneliness.
The brevity of her stories amplifies this esoteric feeling. Some are only a paragraph or a sentence long, like the small, wry joke of "Collaboration with a Fly":
I put that word on the page,
but he added the apostrophe.
Or the evocative "Away from Home":
It has been so long since she used a metaphor!
They work like koans, these micro-fictions. "Away from Home" packs the immediacy of travel, the blanketing flood of sense-impressions, the declarative directness of communicating in a language you haven't mastered, and a hint of delight about all these things into one sentence: 10 words and an exclamation point.
Davis is also a maestro of unease. Her characters spend a lot of time watching themselves think—she inverts the flatness of their interpersonal relations by describing the labyrinthine, folded-in relationships they have with their own interiors, the echo chambers of their skulls. The result is a talk-therapy gothic, an existential hum. One character "is sick to death of knowing what she is feeling, but she can't stop, as though if she stops watching for longer than a moment, she will disappear (wander off)." Another character realizes, "If I were not me and overheard me from below, as a neighbor, talking to him, I would say to myself how glad I was not to be her, not to be sounding the way she is sounding, with a voice like her voice and an opinion like her opinion."
Living in that mental hall of mirrors could drive a person mad. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote about a friend who described taking heroin and immediately understanding the seductiveness of the drug—it shuts down the existential hum and allows us to feel, for the first time, entirely at ease.
In an e-mail, Davis wrote that she once had "a very talented student who decided to give up writing because she couldn't stand that existential hum. I was sorry for the loss, but I understood. I don't actually suffer from it all the time." She added that the hum is increasingly absent in her stories: "Most recently, I have written a piece about the cows across the road, and it is mostly pure observation of the cows, with very little about me."
Playing the what's-in-a-writer's-mind game can be misleading and belittling—but it can also be fun. If I had to guess why Davis is moving away from the existential hum, I'd say her second marriage, second child, and improving career have brought her more peace of mind. (The unnamed ex-husband, who used to lurk ominously throughout her work, appears less frequently in her recent stories.) You can find the peak of her talk-therapy gothic in the 1997 collection Almost No Memory. As long as we're playing the what's-in-a-writer's-mind game, I'm guessing that the middle 1990s were not Davis's happiest years.
Davis's stories share some moods with David Lynch's films. They provoke a similar disquiet by presenting banal, everyday scenes that go briefly off the rails, hinting at an ominous demireality beneath the surface of the world we think we know. In "A Strange Impulse," the narrator sits at her window on an average sunny day:
But why were the shopkeepers covering their ears? And why were the people in the street running as if pursued by a terrible specter? Soon everything returned to normal: The incident had been no more than a moment of madness during which the people could no longer bear the frustration of their lives and had given way to a strange impulse.
Awkward to note but worth noting anyway: Her literary ancestors are mostly men. Her stories carry the DNA of Samuel Beckett (interiority), Franz Kafka (unease), Ernest Hemingway (directness, concision), Jorge Luis Borges (parables), and Lynch (doom in the banal), but no traces (that I can detect) of Virginia Woolf or Gertrude Stein or Flannery O'Connor. Dorothy Parker, in her wryer and colder moods, might be a distant aunt. But that's a stretch.
Davis's stories' esoteric, parable-like quality gives them a uniting atmosphere, whether she's writing about flies or failed marriages. The new, 688-page Collected Stories of Lydia Davis is like a 21st-century Bible or I Ching or Thousand and One Nights. It's for dipping into. I confess I haven't finished the whole of Davis's Collected Stories yet. In a way, I hope I never do. As Borges said in a lecture about the Thousand and One Nights: As long as some of its stories remain unread, the world retains some of its mystery.
I ended my correspondence with Davis by asking if she was sitting near a window. "I'm near a window," she wrote. "But the windows here are set fairly high up in the wall. So from where I sit, I see the top of a beech hedge, the tops of some trees, the top of a hill, the upper part of an old white house, and the roof of an old red barn (where the cows live)."
She sees the tops of things. That's as good a description of Lydia Davis as any.