Book Club: Varieties of Disturbance

Like I mentioned, this week and next are really busy for me, so I’m sticking to short story collections. Lydia Davis‘ Varieties of Disturbance has been on my list for over a year now, and I’m just now finishing it. I feel distraught about this, because this means that there was a whole year of my life when I knew about these stories but hadn’t read them. It’s not a new book, but it is new to me, so it feels very exciting and fresh to share it with you.

ImageHey, whoa. This is a really crazy book. 

Davis is best known for her amazing translations of Proust, Foucault, and Flaubert, and in fact, she is the translator of my favorite editions of all three. She was also once married to Paul Auster, which is also kind of interesting to me. BUT OTHER THAN THAT: She writes some awesome avant garde fiction. 

I’m interested particularly in her use of things that you aren’t supposed to use in stories: white space surrounding text, long lists, passive voice. There are stories where the titles are almost as long as the stories themselves, and Davis just lets their meaning come to you from out of the white block (see: My Mother’s Reaction to My Travel Plans, which is seven words long.). A lot of them feel almost like a text from the author. Another story, We Miss You!, is framed as an anthropological study of the letters children wrote to a sick classmate and is written in this detached, scientific way that you don’t often see. My favorite story, Mrs. D and Her Maids, was an extended list of sorts, and it detailed all the dozens of maids a woman had. The real story, there, was in what she did not tell you, leaving the reader to determine what Mrs. D. was really like and how it departed from her own self-perception, and what the family’s financial situation was, and so on. These stories, they trick you. You think they’re really simple, but you find yourself wondering a lot about what she doesn’t say, which is probably the mark of real genius.

The great thing about Varieties is that it’s not one way. You don’t get bogged down in a bunch of stories about the suburbs or about the South or whatever the way some short story collections can get, like, “okay, I get it, people in the suburbs can sometimes be pretttty desperate. I got it, John Cheever.” She jumps around to stories in the past, the present, the city, the suburbs, inside someone’s head, autobiography, totally invented, and so on. Pick this up– there’s a short story for every attention span and interest held within.

Next week, I’ll be reading this. Please join me!

What did you think of Varieties of Disturbance? Read other stuff by her? What should I pick up?

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