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Varieties of Disturbance: Stories by Lydia…
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Varieties of Disturbance: Stories (2007)

by Lydia Davis

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Of the 57 varieties of disturbance to be found in Lydia Davis’ collection of the same name, the variety itself may not be so various, but the execution of each exemplar is exquisite. These “stories” range from a single line to many pages, though length is no marker of how closely any individual example will resemble whatever you currently consider a story to be. You might wish to think of them as exercises, though the fact that each seems perfectly formed and complete rather belies the unfinished aspect one typically associates with exercises. Some work better than others for some people (I’m guessing) on some days. I have a suspicion that on other days others would work better for me (or other people). So this is really just a blanket recommendation—you’ll simply have to see for yourself which of these excursions work for you.

I like many of the very, very short entries. But this type of aphoristic exclamation can seem contrived (at least on some days for some people). If brevity is the soul of wit, it does not follow that wit is always achieved through brevity. At the next level, there a great many entries of about one page in length. In these, Davis seems almost expansive, luxuriously so, where so many writers might have found a one page story to be the limit of their skill with concision. There are a few entries that are much longer and which have the form and technique of psychological studies or treatises in computational linguistics: “We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders”, “Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality”. Remarkable achievements, though I don’t entirely know what to do with such perfect simulacra other than to treat them as the very objects they mirror.

For me, the stories that worked best, at least today, were the Kafkaesque “Kafka Cooks Dinner” and the remarkable account of two academics taking a walk around Oxford after having participated in a conference there, “The Walk”. But I’m sure your favourites will vary. Recommended. ( )
  RandyMetcalfe | Mar 31, 2013 |

Remember one of those moments when a friend utters a single word or phrase and it makes you both burst into side-splitting laughter, leaving others around you perplexed. That is kind of how some of Davis's very short stories work, except there is not so much laughter.

Many of her stories are about quirks and absurdities of our daily lives, little moments, our common experiences and absent-minded musings. These may be some little experiences which we vaguely recognize, but can't quite put our finger on. Or those experiences which we consider too trivial to give a thought to. She does not need any words to describe the setting. She does not need any words to describe the characters. Her stories can be so relatable that we can often draw the setting from what is around us, and we can substitute ourselves as the characters. Using only a few words, Davis puts a mirror in front of us and brings out an "I know, right?" kind of response.
“[her stories are] moving . . . and somehow inevitable, as if she has written what we were all on the verge of thinking.” - Time Magazine
There is good deal of variety in the stories, both stylistically and content-wise. Some stories are written like academic reports, some play around with language, some deal with imperfect familial ties, some are absurd and funny. There is an undercurrent of loneliness in many of the stories, while some others speak of an unbearable sadness:

"...Soon everything returned to normal: the incident had been no more than a moment of madness during which the people could not bear the frustration of their lives and had given way to a strange impulse."

"I would like to disappear into the earth like that mole. I would like to stuff myself into the drawer of the laundry chest, and open the drawer from time to time to see if I have suffocated yet. It's so much more surprising that one gets up every morning at all."

Despite, the range of emotions Davis's writing deals with, it is never overly-sentimental. She uses a calm, detached voice. She manages to condense the essence to a few innocuous sentences which hit you in just the right place.

_______

The Good Times

“What was happening to them was that every bad time produced a bad feeling that in turn produced several more bad times and several more bad feelings, so that their life together became crowded with bad times and bad feelings, so crowded that almost nothing else could grow in that dark field. But then she had a feeling of peace one morning that lingered from the evening before spent sewing while he sat reading in the next room. And a day or two later, she had a feeling of contentment that lingered in the morning from the evening before when he kept her company in the kitchen while she washed the dinner dishes. If the good times increased, she thought, each good time might produce a good feeling that would in turn produce several more good times that would produce several more good feelings. What she meant was that the good times might multiply perhaps as rapidly as the square of the square, or perhaps more rapidly, like mice, or like mushrooms springing up overnight from the scattered spore of a parent mushroom which in turn had sprung up overnight with a crowd of others from the scattered spore of a parent, until her life with him with be so crowded with good times that the good times might crowd out the bad as the bad times had by now almost crowded out the good.”



( )
  HearTheWindSing | Mar 31, 2013 |
Mostly short-shorts with some longer pieces thrown in. Most of this was good--funny, entertaining, thought-provoking--and a couple of pieces dragged a bit.

I took a break from this in the middle, but I'm glad I went back and finished it up, if only for the "What We Learn From the Baby" piece. ( )
  librarybrandy | Mar 31, 2013 |
I really liked Break It Down because of Lydia Davis for the impeccable writing and the mostly odd and invariable disorienting stories. Varieties of Disturbance was very similar, in fact disappointingly similar given the 19 year gap in their publication dates (1986 vs. 2007). At its best, Varieties of Disturbance is outstanding. But at times it feels banal, tedious and pointless--especially some of the longer stories.

But to list a few that were memorably good:

"Collaboration with a Fly" ("I put that word on the page, but he added the apostrophe." -- yes that's the entire story)

"Kafka Cooks Dinner" (one of the longer stories, in the first person by Kafka as he worries about cooking dinner for Milena)

"Grammar Questions" (musings on grammatical challenges in talking about someone who is dying)

"We Miss You: A Study of Get-well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders" (another longer one, with a detailed taxonomy of letters written by a fourth-grade class to a sick classmate, that somehow sustains its interest from beginning to end)

"20 Sculptures in One Hour" (a series of precisely articulated thoughts on whether an hour is a long or short time to observe 20 paintings, with the observation that an hour seems short but three minutes works out to be quite long--yes it makes sense if you read it.)

"A Strange Impulse" (almost a fragment that leaves you to imagine the interesting story that might lie behind it) ( )
  jasonlf | Feb 7, 2012 |
Short stories? You call these short stories?Well, it doesn't really matter what you label them....They are fun,they are innovative, they zing your mind. ( )
  debnance | Jan 29, 2010 |
Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
It’s inspiring to watch Davis map out knotty ruminations without devolving into tongue-tied panic. Her stories are also deeply funny, though not in a willful way. Eschewing one-liners, Davis creates humor by making distressing topics collide with matter-of-fact, vaguely fascinated tones. It’s as if her characters were rubbernecking while cruising past the pileups of their own obsessions.
 
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for my brother SHD
and for RHD, HHD, and CF,

in loving memory
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I think Mother is flirting with a man from her past who is not Father.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374281734, Paperback)

Lydia Davis has been called “one of the quiet giants in the world of American fiction” (Los Angeles Times), “an American virtuoso of the short story form” (Salon), an innovator who attempts “to remake the model of the modern short story” (The New York Times Book Review). Her admirers include Grace Paley, Jonathan Franzen, and Zadie Smith; as Time magazine observed, her stories are “moving . . . and somehow inevitable, as if she has written what we were all on the verge of thinking.”

In Varieties of Disturbance, her fourth collection, Davis extends her reach as never before in stories that take every form from sociological studies to concise poems. Her subjects include the five senses, fourth-graders, good taste, and tropical storms. She offers a reinterpretation of insomnia and re-creates the ordeals of Kafka in the kitchen. She questions the lengths to which one should go to save the life of a caterpillar, proposes a clear account of the sexual act, rides the bus, probes the limits of marital fidelity, and unlocks the secret to a long and happy life.

No two of these fictions are alike. And yet in each, Davis rearranges our view of the world by looking beyond our preconceptions to a bizarre truth, a source of delight and surprise.
 
Varieties of Disturbance is a 2007 National Book Award Finalist for Fiction.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:44:37 -0400)

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