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An Original Talent Displays Her Unique Blend Of The Studied And Spontaneous

By Stacey Richter

Almost No Memory, by Lydia Davis (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Cloth, $21.

AUGUST 25, 1997:  IN 1906, WHEN Willa Cather wrote: "There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before," she had obviously not been subjected to the redundant crop of fiction about failed farms, trailer life and bad childhoods the 1980s and '90s have brought us. It takes a unique and talented writer to tell our human stories so that they seem fresh; Lydia Davis, the author of the short-story collection Almost No Memory, goes so far as to make them astonishing. Her careful, dream-like prose touches on themes of self-knowledge, domesticity and romance: Imagine Kafka reborn as a 20th-century housewife typing at the kitchen table while a baby crawls up her legs, and you begin to approach the mood of a story by Davis.

She creates odd but compelling vignettes that mix the haziness of obsession with a sharp, self-critical intellect. It's impossible to read her stories without being reminded of women's magazines like Cosmopolitan. She writes about the confusion of romantic longing, the boredom of raising children, the difficulty of getting along with one's husband; she exhaustively dissects the structure of arguments between loved ones--and yet, she couches these typically feminine concerns in the dry, brittle language of academe. Stylistically, Davis' work seems to have more in common with the dryness of a textbook than a novel.

As unlikely as it sounds, this combination of the spontaneous and the studied blends beautifully into an agile, exotic hybrid. Davis is a well-known translator of French literature and her work bears the influence of French Nouveau Roman writers like Alain Robbe-Grillet and their apologist Roland Barthes--writers who believed in challenging traditional literary conventions through self-reflexivity. Though Davis' style owes something to this movement, her work has a sense of longing and emotion at its core, something the French writers often lacked. The story "The Professor," for example, is a dissection of a professor's fantasy that she could shed the more annoying aspects of her intellect by marrying a cowboy. The story combines persistent descriptions of the professor's state of mind with a rosy vision of how cowboy love would improve her. The story is remarkably haunting--perhaps because the absurdity of analyzing the simple life on the range simultaneously raises the veil book-learning can place between the heart and the world while attempting to rip it down:

More important than the clothes a cowboy wore, and the way he wore them, was the fact that a cowboy probably wouldn't know much more than he had to. He would think about his work, and about his family, if he had one, and about having a good time, and not much else. I was tired of so much thinking, which was what I did most in those days. I did other things, but I went on thinking while I did them. I might feel something, but I would think about what I was feeling at the same time...When I had the idea of marrying a cowboy I imagined that maybe a cowboy would help me stop thinking so much.

This story, like many of the best in this collection--"Our Kindness," "Glenn Gould" and "Pastor Elaine's Newsletter"--expresses a craving for a kind of emotional wholeness and capacity for generosity while quietly protesting the inadequacy of the intellect to point the way there.

Davis is by no means an easy writer. Her work is stubbornly intellectual, and many of the stories in this collection avoid the hallmarks of conventional fiction: There are often no characters, no setting, and no events. All this has been pared away in favor of ideas and a spare, urgent prose style. A few of the more than 50 stories in Almost No Memory are only a paragraph long; at least one is a single sentence. They deal less with the orthodox territory of fiction--conflict between characters, the progression of events--and are instead intent on describing (and often, containing) the tensions between loving and thinking, the gulf between knowing oneself and knowing others.

It's been almost 10 years since the publication of Break It Down, Davis' last collection of short stories (though her wonderful novel The End of the Story came out last year). Dedicated Davis fans may be disappointed to find that several stories in this collection have been previously published in earlier, small press editions; though sadly, there don't seem to be all that many dedicated Davis fans yet. Like Cormac McCarthy before he became well known, Davis is the kind of writer other writers love, but who remains relatively obscure. This is too bad; the more than 50 stories in Almost No Memory do vary somewhat in quality, but when Davis is in stride, she's one of the most original, talented writers working in English today.

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