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Almost No Memory: Stories by Lydia Davis

Almost No Memory: Stories (original 1997; edition 2001)

by Lydia Davis

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219487,509 (4.1)5
Philosophical inquiry, examinations of language, and involuted domestic disputes are the focus of Lydia Davis' s inventive collection of short fiction, "Almost No Memory," In each of these stories, Davis reveals an empathic, sometimes shattering understanding of human relationships.
Title:Almost No Memory: Stories
Authors:Lydia Davis
Info:Picador (2001), Paperback, 208 pages
Collections:Read in 2010

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Almost No Memory by Lydia Davis (1997)



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I've broken up reading this book into the four previous books that are collected into the one because reading Davis is not something to be rushed through but to be savored. Most of these are not, strictly speaking, short stories. They are not prose poems either. I don't know what they are. Disarming. They are closer to meditations, but without the stern attention, say of Marcus Aurelius or the . . . no wait . . . I was going to write "bemusement" of Montaigne, but in fact, there is bemusement, there is philosophizing, there is seriousness, there is wicked humor (perhaps more wicked and sustained than Montaigne's). Davis is a treasure. Don't say to yourself, "I don't read short stories." ***** ( )
1 vote sibylline | May 15, 2018 |
delightful shorts - really delightful and deep
  objectplace | Apr 11, 2014 |
Between the considerable avoirdupois of Zola's Germinal and Perec's Life A User's Manual I needed to insert some verbal economy into my reading life. Lydia Davis's Almost No Memory was the perfect choice: subtly unlike anything else I have ever read, Davis takes the short story to new heights of concision, and does so in such a distinctive narrative voice that I walked around for days with a Davis-esque internal narrator commenting on my every move. Then I read a selection of these stories over again, out loud to David, and we had entire conversations in which both sides mimicked her tone. Her stories—she calls them stories; I might have been tempted to use the word "pieces" instead—are sometimes as short as half a page; they are crystal-like in their precision; yet they have a movement and a logic which are intensely compelling. I found myself re-reading many of the pieces in Almost No Memory, each time more slowly, to try to elicit their secrets, to figure out exactly how she was doing that—indeed, to discern what it was she was doing. Here, for example, is the entirety of her story "How He is Often Right":

How He Is Often Right

Often I think that his idea of what we should do is wrong, and my idea is right. Yet I know that he has often been right before, when I was wrong. And so I let him make his wrong decision, telling myself, though I can't believe it, that his wrong decision may actually be right. And then later it turns out, as it often has before, that his decision was the right one, after all. Or rather, his decision was still wrong, but wrong for circumstances different from the circumstances as they actually were, while it was right for circumstances I clearly did not understand.

I love how the last sentence here, like the third line of a haiku, nudges the reader into a different, slightly unsettling perspective on what has gone before. The "reality" of the situation here is so contingent, so shifting, and the speaker's insistence that "his" decision was still wrong, just for circumstances different than the ones that turned out to be true, gives me a bit of vertigo when I think of making any decisions at all—territory intimately familiar to many speakers in this collection.

Davis's stories often have to do with perceptual differences and difficulties, and the distance between people who are attempting to communicate. She also seems preoccupied with movement and stagnation, and how attempts at communication affect that movement—or fail to affect it. Here, for example, is one of my favorite stories, "In the Garment District":

In the Garment District

A man has been making deliveries in the garment district for years now: every morning he takes the same garments on a moving rack through the streets to a shop and every evening takes them back again to the warehouse. This happens because there is a dispute between the shop and the warehouse which cannot be settled: the shop denies it ever ordered the clothes, which are badly made and of cheap material and by now years out of style; while the warehouse will not take responsibility because the clothes cannot be returned to the wholesalers, who have no use for them. To the man all this is nothing. They are not his clothes, he is paid for this work, and he intends to leave the company soon, though the right moment has not yet come.

I think this may be one of the most perfect stories I have ever read, although I still don't totally understand why I feel that way. Despite its brevity, it has such flow and texture; the way the long, bustling sentence about the complex shop/warehouse dynamic is followed by the stillness of "To the man all this is nothing," for example. It's as if the ludicrous tension building between the shop and the warehouse, the speaker's (or reader's) incredulity, even anger, at this bizarre situation in which a man is getting paid to transport the same clothes back and forth day after day, suddenly just...breaks. The building frustration of the first sentences is suddenly dispelled: nothing need change about this daily routine, because of the still waters of the man's indifference. The last portion of the final sentence, that the man "intends to leave the company soon, though the right moment has not yet come," deposits the reader softly into a state of stasis which, though indefinite, may nonetheless break at any time.

There are longer stories in Almost No Memory, including one I particularly loved involving a speaker who was once taken with the idea of marrying a cowboy. In some cases these longer pieces feel more like traditional "stories" to me, although in other cases, like the sad and excellent "Glen Gould," they maintain Davis's unique quality of laconically considering a situation while refusing to reach resolution. Several stories, in particular "The Center of the Story" and "What was Interesting" are metafictions (unsurprising considering that Davis was once married to Paul Auster), but, I thought, very successful in managing to carry emotional weight as well as being clever bits of writing-about-writing-about-writing.

Although I began to form an idea of a "typical" Davis narrator by the end of the collection—a female college professor, prone to drink and quietly unhappy in her marriage—her range of subjects is actually much wider. From the grand tour of an eighteenth-century English lord, to more grotesque, fantastical events like those in "The Cedar Trees" ("When our women had all turned into cedar trees they would group together in a corner of the graveyard..."), Davis spreads her net wide. And yet, I think there's a reason I feel surprised at this realization: her odd magic works independently of her subject matter. Even at her most mundane, all her stories seemed a bit unnerving— and likewise, even at her most fantastical, her tone remains wry and analytical, observing well and following each thought through to its logical conclusion, which often turns out not to seem logical at all. One of my favorite examples of this happens in the longer story "St. Martin," in which Davis's speaker describes going for (and returning from) a walk.

We would walk, and return with burrs in our socks and scratches on our legs and arms where we had pushed through the brambles to get up into the forest, and go out again the next day and walk, and the dogs always trusted that we were setting out in a certain direction for a reason, and then returning home for a reason, but in the forest, which seemed so endless, there was hardly a distinguishing feature that could be taken as a destination for a walk, and we were simply walking, watching the sameness pass on both sides, the thorny, scrubby oaks growing densely together along the dusty track that ran quite straight until it came to a gentle bend and perhaps a slight rise and then ran straight again.

          If we came home by an unfamiliar route, skirting the forest, avoiding a deeply furrowed, overgrown field and then stepping into the edge of a reedy marsh, veering close to a farmyard, where a farmer in blue and his wife in red were doing chores trailed by their dog, we felt so changed ourselves that we were surprised nothing about home had changed: for a moment the placidity of the house and yard nearly persuaded us we had not even left.

I mean, how quotidian is that, and how eerie? What a gorgeous scene. What a gorgeous collection.
1 vote emily_morine | Apr 21, 2010 |
What? You haven't read Lydia Davis? This novel is really original, and is a solid example of Davis's sparse, distant narration. ( )
  amyfaerie | Feb 2, 2007 |
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