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by Lydia Davis

Pub Date: May 1st, 2007
ISBN: 0-374-28173-4
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

More dauntingly opaque but often brilliant snippets and meditations from MacArthur recipient Davis (Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, 2001, etc.).

Davis, an esteemed translator from French, writes in the tradition of the French postmodernists and surrealists. (She’s translated Blanchot and Leiris.) The 56 stories in this volume include short prose poems (“The Fly,” “Head, Heart”) and chilling one-liners (“Suddenly Afraid,” “Mother’s Reaction to My Travel Plans”). Two of the longer pieces adopt the dispassionate protocols of case studies. “We Miss You” exhaustively deconstructs get-well letters written by ’50s-era fourth graders to a classmate hospitalized after being hit by a car. “Helen and Vi, a Study in Health and Vitality” analyzes how the workaday routines and altruism of two elderly women have contributed to their healthy longevity. (Contrast the intermittent, italicized foibles of narcissist Hope, age 100.) Many of the stories not overtly labeled studies are structured as such, with topical captions, such as “Mrs. D. and Her Maids,” possibly about Davis’s writer-mother. Parents, particularly aged parents, are a preoccupation: Davis has clearly done her time in the halls of eldercare. Her narrators are cynical and reluctant but “good-enough” caregivers. In “What You Learn About the Baby,” a mother catalogs in excruciating detail just how her infant dominates and disrupts her life. The laconic “Burning Family Members” bears hard-eyed, shell-shocked witness to a father’s death. Unabashedly autobiographical, like many of the stories, is “The Walk,” a defense of Davis’s translation of Proust’s Swann’s Way (2003) vs. the Moncrieff/Kilmartin translation, and “Cape Cod Diary,” in which a writer vicariously travels America with a nameless French historian (presumably de Tocqueville, also translated by Davis). Her impersonal, bloodless tone, plain prose style and tendency to summarize rather than dramatize can have a distancing effect; but Davis’ ability to parse hopelessly snarled human interactions (as in the title story) astounds.

An initially off-putting collection that gradually becomes habit-forming.