Our Strangers: StoriesWritten by Lydia Davis
The story of Lydia Davis, as we have known it over five decades and seven collections, is a feat of omission. Often no more than a page in length, and sometimes laid out like poetry, it captures some everyday situation while stripping away almost all of the context, so that it becomes charismatically foreign, untethered to any specific place or time. “How long is the shadow/Coming across the table/From this grain of salt,” Davis writes in “Late Afternoon,” which appears in her new collection, Our Strangers. The image, minimal and universal, neatly sums up the entire endeavour.
Yet, despite the quality of dimension that permeates all of Davis’s work, our present anxieties seep in in Our Strangers. The story “Dear Who Gives A***,” which is formatted as a letter to a company that sells recycled toilet paper, mentions “an attitude of brutal indifference that is actually rampant in the times in which we live.” One story is about a delayed phone call with “a woman who in the end did not seem like a real woman, or even a real human being.” Another book, How He Changed Over Time, charts the decline of an intellectual and admired figure – who can be identified as Thomas Jefferson – into a closed-off narcissist. More than one story focuses on clotted societal notions, and it is easy to read them as small indictments of contemporary culture. One has a surprising sense that even Davis may not be completely immune to doom passing.
To be clear, “Our Strangers” is not a controversial book, or even one with a specific thesis, despite Davis’ request that it be sold only through independent booksellers and Bookshop.org, not Amazon. Rather than public debate, Davis’s main concern is careful, almost obsessive observation of other people: train passengers, diners in Salzburg, a woman at the Watertown Price Chopper trying to recycle shampoo bottles. The book feels, at times, like a compendium of irregular folktales.
But as the collection builds, a quiet phrase begins to take shape: Davis seems to offer a vision of how we relate to the people around us, and what the life we live is like. actual It may seem like a community. The title story recounts the narrator’s past and present neighbors, and the neighbors of the narrator’s friends, as well as the tenor of each of those relationships—the resentful, the friendly, the tense, the indifferent. Neighbors, by simple proximity, “become a kind of family together,” Davis writes.
“Infuriatingly humble web fan. Writer. Alcohol geek. Passionate explorer. Evil problem solver. Incurable zombie expert.”