Almost No Memory


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.


  • Amazing. I will have to see about getting my hands on this one. I just read Raymond Carver for the first time (I know, I know, how is it possible to have waited this long?) and predictably remarked on his compact style. Davis is taking the idea to someplace new. Whereas Carver spoke to me more when I paused for only a brief moment before plunging into the next - it seems they built momentum when taken together - Davis' pieces seem to be more powerful when taken singly - like a fine chocolate that must be savored on the tongue.

    I also find it interesting that the last passage you quote is about walking. She does here what it seems Thoreau is incapable of, don't you think?

  • I haven't read any of Davis' work, but now I'm intrigued. Those short pieces could arguably be called prose poems.

  • This sounds like a marvelous collection. I have one of her other ones, can't remember the title, that I hope to get to one of these days. It's interesting I think how spare she is in her language and stories and yet she did such a beautiful translation of Proust who is anything but spare!

  • Wonderful! I need to get me some.

  • Sara: Oh, you have no idea how much self-control I exercised in order to avoid making a crack about Thoreau at the end of this post! But I thought Davis deserved better. In any case, YES, I spotted that connection as well, and vastly prefer the Davis. As for singly versus cumulatively, I think each one definitely stands on its own, and yet reading one made me crave more right away (again, your chocolate metaphor holds).

    Amy: Yes, I thought about whether to call them's tempting to, because they're so condensed, and so focused on rhythm. Something about them seems anti-poetic to me as well, though. Brings up questions of how to define "poetry," I suppose. A former professor of mine used the definition "language under pressure," and Davis's work certainly fits that description.

  • Stefanie: I about died when I realized she's the same Lydia Davis who did the Proust translation. Although actually, I thought about him a lot while reading her. Her stuff is super-short and his is super-long, but she shares a lot of the same interests in the weird, perverse way peoples' minds work, and the same kind of exhaustive observational skill. I bet you will love that collection when you get around to it.

    Isabella: Yes! Yes, you do. :-)

  • "Language under pressure"--I like that! I just finished taking a poetry class from a poet who professed to not really like prose poems, because they are, after all, awfully prose-like. But she conceded that maybe such a form should have its own category, not really prose, not really poetry.

  • I'm entirely convinced that both of the top two stories are about me. I can't read them without thinking 'That's me!' The second one REALLY reminds me of my job. Those are wonderful, by the way.

  • Amy: Yes, I agree - that in-between form should have a name/category of its own. One of the things that really amazes me about Lydia Davis is how much success she's had with such an un-categorizable form. It seems like one would have to fight doubly hard to be published, since the publishers wouldn't know how to market one's work.

    Marieke: Wow, I don't know what to say that the second story reminds you of your job: I'm sorry? Have you attained the level of unshakable calm that the man in the story has? :-) Glad you enjoyed them, anyway.

  • "In the Garment District" and the last piece remind me a little of Italo Calvino. Quotidian and strange (though perhaps a little less playful.) For some reason I'd taken against her stories without ever reading any; it is a capital mistake to theorize in advance of the facts. These look wonderful. Thanks for a great review.

  • Jenny: Interesting! I wouldn't have made the connection with Calvino - the only thing of his I've read is The Baron in the Trees, which was way goofier and less economical than Davis, but from what I've heard about On a winter's night a traveler, some of his stuff would share a certain metafictional quality with her. This makes me want to go check him out! Thanks for the comment. :-)

  • I read this collection six years ago, and your post brought all the delights of these stories back. I especially loved the last excerpt you chose. Also loved In the Garment District. I believe Davis' Collected Stories has just come out--at 733 pages. And...she also translates Proust!

  • Cynthia: As I said to Stefanie above, I about died when I realized she's the same Lydia Davis that translated Proust. Translators tend to be intellectually intimidating to me (Anne Carson, Richard Pevear), and she just joined the list! :-) I'm glad my entry recalled some of your joy at reading this collection - it really is fantastic.

  • I like the difference between Thoreau's walks and Davis's walks that other people have already pointed out. It is so easy to be self-congratulatory, and so much harder to realize that some of the things you're doing have no real point.

    In the Garment District is just lovely. It seems like a story that should be depressing - the utter pointlessness of the job, the conflict that will never be resolved, and yet the whole piece feels very lighthearted. For me it is so important to have meaning in all aspects of my much happier I might manage to be if I could let go of that.

  • Wow those are some beautiful prose. You've convinced me a million percent and I will get a hold of a copy very soon! Do you know if these stories are included in the collection Frances posted about some months ago?

  • Wendy: I'm glad people are cottoning on to the David/Thoreau walks contrast, without me running it into the ground! ;-) Needless to say, I agree, and your comments about "Garment District" are intriguing as well...I'm not sure I would have said "light-hearted," but neither did I feel depressed. I more feel like I'm being deposited into a zone of quietness, or something. Anyway, thanks so much for the comment!

    Claire: A million percent! Couldn't ask for more than that. :-D If Frances posted about the Collected Stories, I'm pretty sure that book does include this collection, among others. I want it now, too!

  • Thanks for steering me toward Lydia Davis, Emily. I had never heard of her. For years I've looked for the kind of very, very short stories you've described, as a model for my own writing, since I seem to think or imagine only in short bursts. I'm really glad you included that last excerpt from "St. Martin." That's the kind of thing I like, too; something obviously told in contemporary language and with a modern sensibility, but echoing the solid eternality (I can't think of a better phrase at the moment) of fairy tales, myths and legends.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography