Book Beat February 13 2002 (2)

Lydia Davis is a peculiar bird. She has chiseled out a niche in fiction, but she is by no means a niche writer. In two previous story collections (Break It Down and Almost No Memory) and a novel (The End of the Story), her prose has a slippery quality that at first appears spare and minimalist. But it’s really just very tightly focused.

In her newest story collection, Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, many of Davis’ pieces are quite short — some just a page long, some just a sentence. These tend to be the most funny and pithy. For example, the entirety of the title story “Samuel Johnson Is Indignant:” is “that Scotland has so few trees.” These fragmentary micro-vignettes are cute without being too precious (mostly). Others are brief explorations of wordplay or small meditations on smaller ideas. Some read like introspection from a mind idling between more weighty thoughts. And yet they don’t feel inconsequential ... just concentrated.

All that may sound dismissive, but it’s not. Davis is quite capable of longer works, and several are found here. “Jury Duty” is a long narrative describing the unspoken society of jurors waiting to be chosen to serve. Davis’ attention to minutiae usually serves her very well, as in “Marie Curie, So Honorable Woman,” where concrete details are packed into moving, episodic scenes from Curie’s life. Sometimes, though, this same approach stumbles, as in “Old Mother and the Grouch.” That story narrates the tangled inner and outer lives of an elderly married couple, and yet the episodes are disjointed enough that they could really occur in most any order (and, therefore, give no particular sense of story).

Davis’ strongest stories are those that examine a character with such penetrating insight that it’s almost unsettling. “Thyroid Diary” is a mental picture of what it’s like to always question not only your perceptions but your perceptions of your perceptions.

The author’s personal style is front and center in Davis’ writing, so you’ll know very quickly if it’s to your liking. Samuel Johnson Is Indignant will reward a tolerant reader, and by the end you’ll see that the skillful Davis is a master of her particular methods.??